The Death of the Conventional Politician

“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”- Rodrigo Duterte, Incumbent Philippian President.

“When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” -Donald Trump, US Presidential Nominee of the Republican Party (2016).

With conservative sentiments and political turmoil gripping significant regions of the world this year—Europe’s far right gaining electoral successes amid a worsening migrant crisis and sluggish economic growth, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and its expansion through ‘lone-wolf attacks’ to various parts of the globe, economic decline and rising voter apathy in Japan—two leaders have taken center-stage in the international sphere, sparking criticism and widespread concern.

Trump’s policy statements about halting Muslim immigration to the US under his presidency prompted half a million British nationals to sign a petition that called for a ban on his travel to Britain; similarly, Duterte’s blatant dismissal of the rape of an Australian foreign national in the Philippines drew strong censure from both the US and Australian ambassadors. Duterte and Trump both embody an insidious trend in politics: disillusionment with the conventional politician. They have made widely controversial statements that one would not expect from seasoned, diplomatic and capable politicians. However, their supporters have seldom been deterred. These two emerging leaders belong to widely disparate polities and backgrounds; labeling Duterte as the “Trump of the East” is not only blatantly misleading, but also fails to reason with the disenchantment that is gripping significant amounts of the voting populations in both countries.

Although both men have run populist and unconventional campaigns, denigrated world leaders and prominent religious heads such as the Pope and made controversial misogynistic remarks at public events, they are dissimilar in many noteworthy ways. Their similarities end at their ceaseless ability to invite international concern.

Unlike Donald Trump, Duterte has spent over 3 decades in public service, first as a prosecutor and eventually rising up to the rank of a Congressman. The accomplishment that Duterte himself boasts of excessively is his position as the Mayor of Davao, the country’s third most populous city, which he held for 22 years; a time period during which he was credited with the title ‘The Punisher’ by The Times due to his death squads that are responsible for 700 extrajudicial killings. On the other hand, Trump, the presidential nominee of a major political party, has never held public office. It is concerning that a man with no political experience has advanced so far in the presidential election in a country that has never even considered electing a man with no history of public service to the most powerful office in the nation.

Another way in which the two leaders are dissimilar is the international and national clout they possess. Duterte is unshakably supportive of minorities, such as the Moro Muslims, whereas Donald Trump has run on a platform of appealing to the white middle-aged section of the voter population by denigrating immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, blacks, women and Mexicans. Whereas Duterte is relatively progressive for a Southeast Asian nation, fiercely backing gay marriage, Donald Trump has earned the adulation of conservatives by opposing marriage equality and embracing the nation’s most odious anti-LGBTQ law, North Carolina’s HB2. It is clear that they appeal to widely different political bases and represent disparate policies.

Lastly, Duterte’s rise to the position of the President cannot be dismissed as a result of voter apathy—he won a landslide victory with over 80% voter turnout. On the other hand, political apathy in America is evident, with prominent social activists, Hollywood actors, the President and the First Lady all joining forces to urge greater turnout at the polls.

The negative sentiments of the population regarding the conventional politician and established politics is evident through the concerns voiced by Duterte and Trump supporters; both leaders have been credited with the ability to ‘shake up’ longstanding and conventional political norms in their respective countries. Voters have expressed similar sentiments when asked why they prefer leaders such as Trump and Duterte: anti-establishment platforms that are commanded by ‘strong’ and ‘unafraid’ men who have the ability to make scathing remarks against international bodies, financial institutions and foreign countries. It is the fact that they are unabashedly politically incorrect that makes them politically favorable. While a majority of seasoned politicians, prominent writers, social activists, lawyers and businessmen might recognize that the turbulent, uncensored and undiplomatic behavior of these leaders will spell disaster for both the national and international sphere, their respective voting bases are not deterred because of their strong desire for change in the way politics is conducted.

For example, Duterte’s brazen dismissal of his country’s post war foreign policy stance did not cause a decline in his approval ratings of 91% since his election. Duterte drastically damaged his country’s longstanding relations with the US by expressing his willingness to reach an amicable compromise with China over the South China Sea dispute despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s judgement that China does not have valid historical grounds for claiming islands in the South China Sea. Instead of continuing the Philippines’ traditional collaboration with the US and furthering President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, Duterte has suggested that China could be more beneficial partner for his country. This radical reversal of long-standing policy, one of his most significant anti-establishment policies, did not hurt Duterte’s national image whereas it irreparably damaged his standing in the international sphere, at least in the eyes of the West and its allies.

Similarly, Donald Trump’s statements about reversing the leadership role that the US has taken in the post-war order in Europe through NATO, ‘cancelling’ the Paris agreement due to his belief that climate change is a hoax, and creating a strongly isolationist America has not reduced his popularity. These are radical changes to traditional American policy since the conclusion of World War II. Moreover, his lack of knowledge about significant world events (such as the Russian incursion in Crimea) has not hurt him either. Politicians were traditionally chosen for prominent positions based on their composure, political experience, knowledge and clear policy proposals. Donald Trump possesses none of the above: he has often lost his cool and used expletives during public speeches and debates, he has no political experience or knowledge about critical events, and has failed to succinctly outline the foreign and domestic policies that he would implement as President. The conventional politician seems to have lost its appeal to large parts of the population.

While comparing Duterte to Trump can make for flashy headlines, the inaccurate claim masks the gaping flaws in the political and social systems of the two countries that allowed these leaders to rise to the forefront. In both countries the media must share the blame for allowing these demagogues to come into prominence. In the Philippines, the media is heavily censored and journalists live under heavy repression in which they are strong-armed into focusing on certain aspects of political campaigns and elections while negating others. Even under Duterte’s leadership, journalists must be careful with their words. Duterte justified the history of journalist deaths by stating that all those that were assassinated were corrupt and deserved the fate they were meted out. In the US, President Obama and Bernie Sanders have been vocal about their disappointment with the media for capitalizing on Trump’s bombastic remarks and for failing to report objectively on Trump’s lack of experience and policies.

Additionally, the US constitution requires that a person be a natural born citizen of the US, at least 35 years of age, and a resident of the US for 14 years in order to run for the position of President. This allows for an open race in which any person, even one with no political experience, can compete in the presidential race. Although it was an accepted norm of the country that the President must have experience in public service, this unsaid rule of American society seems to have eroded in recent times because of an increasing desire to ‘shake-up’ politics.

Therefore, instead of accepting the sensationalized Trump-Duterte similarities and comparisons, one must look at the underlying voter behavior that embodies disenchantment and a growing apathy. It spells disaster for international and national systems when disillusioned voters of highly stratified societies fail to recognize the necessity of a conventional politician. A conventional politician’s rhetoric would not incite violence at all levels of society, dismiss critical world issues such as climate change, or make global power politics even more tumultuous and concerning in an age of nuclear weapons.

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