Losing Badly

Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte and a Tale of Two Drug Wars

“Who taught you how to this stuff?” “You, alright! I learned it by watching you!”

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

President Trump’s “very friendly conversation” with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte included an invitation for a White House visit, though the latter says he may be too busy to accept. The invitation reportedly shocked Trump’s own top officials, who weren’t consulted before it was extended, and was met with horror by human rights groups.

According to the White House readout, the two leaders “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs,” and Duterte has previously said that Trump has commended him for how he’s dealt with drug dealers.

But Duterte’s drug war is not just a war with cartels, or SWATs teams kicking in doors, as might might be familiar to people in North America but extrajudicial death squads responding to the president’s declaration of open season. And it’s not just talk. Some 8,000 people have been killed already—not counting many more “suicides” by those in police custody—and Duterte was elected only last year.

Trump, believe it or not, used to know better. “We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” he said in 1990. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.”

We didn’t, he said, because of politicians who “don’t have any guts” to face that truth.

But even as drug policies in America have improved since the tough-on-crime 1990s, with even most Republicans nodding to “federalism,” Trump —like a real-life Biff Tannen—has traveled back in time. Now he’s warning of “American carnage,” that only he can save us from, and only by building walls, banning and locking people up.

America is by no means the Phillipines, but the talk now is an unsettling throw-back to when everybody thought we could fix our drug problem and the world’s if we were only vicious enough. More than a trillion dollars since 1971 suggests otherwise, along with the lives needlessly taken or wasted in prison.

Whatever Trump knew in 1990, he’s given up on since. Now, the most powerful man in the world tells the Major Cities Chefs Police Association that “we’re going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We’re going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We’re going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice.”

Some Trump supports have gone further. In 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested executing convicted drug dealers who came from outside the United States. Gingrich didn’t get his wish, and like many on the right in the last five years, he now pays lip service to the idea that the US needs criminal-justice reform. Duterte today, however, sounds like Gingrich in 1995. Not to mention, they both suggest it’s all for the children.

The more Filipinos who die under Duterte’s drug war, the lower his approval rating dips. However, it remains at a staggering 78 percent—a fact Trump used to justify his White House invitation (“You know he’s very popular in the Philippines”). Take it as a reminder that the politics of murder are not, in fact, beyond the pale. There are high rates of meth use there, but not record breaking. Australia’s rates are higher. There is not the kind of instability in the Philippines that should have lead to a Duterte. Yet there he is, mocking his own daughter’s rape claim, and bragging he would kill his kids if they used drugs. And two thirds of the nation approves of him.

America’s war on drugs was a purposeful distraction, a way for the Nixon administration to tell Middle America that the misfits would be taken care of without explicitly targeting young people, radicals, and minorities directly. It worked beautifully. With Trump, we’re headed back down the road. His likely pick for the head of the Office of Drug Control Policy, Rep. Tom Marino, is ready to forcibly hospitalize peaceful drug users to help them whether they like it not. Again, that suggestion was made for the sake of the children.

Perhaps Duterte, who’s taken this logic to its murderous extreme, has, to paraphrase an old anti-drug article in the U.S., “learned it by watching you.”