Birds of a Feather
What Lies Beneath Trump’s Fixation With Strongmen Like Duterte
From Erdogan to Putin to even Kim, President Trump has plenty of kind words for authoritarians—and their shared narcissism has a lot to do with it.
The younger Donald Trump and his father had considerable dealings with organized-crime figures who loomed large in New York’s construction industry.
So we should not be greatly surprised that our new president so readily connects with such gangsters as Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Kim Jong Un of North Korea and even Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has been called “the Trump of the East.”
But this bonding seems to run deeper than some Art of the HUGE Deal notion that befriending such figures is part of doing business, just as it was back when The Donald needed to keep deliveries coming to the Trump Tower site during a citywide concrete strike.
Trump appears to delight in authoritarian strongmen who operate on the principle that might makes right. The allure for a guy such as him may be partly explained by a group of German psychologists who published a study last year concluding that “narcissists of a feather flock together.” Psychology Today summarized their research, saying, “The theory driving the study was that friends of narcissists are themselves narcissists. In other words, the only people who can stand being friends with narcissists are other narcissists. Narcissists are not only tolerant of narcissism in their friends, they also are not turned off by the selfishness, arrogance, and bossiness that would drive non-narcissists away.”
The Psychology Today article quotes the study as finding, “Similar narcissistic friends might help each other to achieve such a rapport by respecting the same life strategy, avoiding conflicts, sharing the same mating behavior and preferences for competition, and displaying the same non-caring attitudes.”
In Duterte, whose father was a provincial governor, our president also has a fellow son of privilege. And both scions nonetheless have proven to possess a particular knack for rousing the disaffected and making struggling working people think they are just like them. They also share a contempt for the media, as Duterte demonstrated when a reporter inquired about the condition of his health.
“What is the condition of your wife’s vagina?” Duterte asked.
Maybe all this helps further explain why Trump is not repulsed by his fellow narcissist Duterte’s extreme non-caring.
At a rally during his 2016 campaign for president, Duterte recalled aloud a day in 1989 when, as mayor of Davao City, he had viewed the body of an Australian missionary named Jacqueline Hamill. He said she had been taken hostage by a group of convicts, then gang raped before being murdered.
“She was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first,” Duterte told the crowd.
He refused to apologize afterward for the remark, shrugging, “That’s how I speak.” But this own daughter, Sara, was so offended that she revealed to the public she had once been raped. Duterte outdid himself with his response.
“Drama queen,” he said.
As mayor, Duterte was also alleged to have assembled and directed death squads that targeted drug dealers and users. More than 1,400 people were killed, including a journalist named Jun Pala, who had been highly critical of Duterte.
During his presidential campaign, Duterte pledged to go national with his notion of a war on drugs. He made good on his promise, and by one recent tally, more than 7,000 had been killed since July. That included a 14-year-girl who had been old enough to be riding on the back of a suspected drug user’s motorbike but still young enough to be carrying a Barbie. A photo of the blood-spattered doll went viral.
Duterte again met outrage with a shrug.
One time Duterte did admit he had gone too far was after Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015. Duterte was ostensibly incensed by the accompanying traffic jams in Manila, and called the pontiff a “son of a whore.” Duterte used the same words to describe President Obama, but the insult of the pope became the bigger issue during the campaign. Duterte said through a spokesman that he intended to personally apologize.
“The mayor repeatedly said he wants to visit the Vatican, win or lose, not only to pay homage to the pope but he really needs to explain to the pope and ask for forgiveness,” the spokesman reported.
Duterte subsequently made it known that he had changed his mind and would not be going to the Vatican. He did send a letter of apology, kinda, sorta:
“Your Holiness, With profound respect, I have the honor to extend my own and my people’s warmest greetings to Your Holiness.
“Our countrymen remember Your Holiness’ apostolic visit in 2015 with deep appreciation, knowing that it was made with the most sincere regard for the welfare of the church’s flock.
“The Philippines values its special relations with the Holy See and regards with gratitude Your Holiness’ gracious stewardship of the Catholic faith.
“Please accept, Your Holiness, the assurances of my highest esteem and respect.”
The Duterte adviser who delivered the letter subsequently told the press, “When I had the opportunity of kissing the hand of the pope, I said, ‘Bless the Philippines, Your Holiness,’ and his answer was, ‘Yes, I will also bless your president.’”
But of course the killings continued. Duterte went into a renewed fury last month after local church officials yet again spoke out against what they termed “extrajudicial killings.” Duterte noted in a 30-minute speech that Christ was crucified on a wooden cross, not a gold one, such as some clergy wore.
“Priests do nothing else but rant,” Duterte said in his native Cebuano. “They live in palaces. You should sell those and use the money to buy rice for the poor. And stop collecting money. If you don’t, I will have you arrested for extortion.”
He went on, “Fathers, monsignors, bishops, this means to say: There will be more killings…”
He suggested that the drug dealers were to blame for the violence because they tried to fight back.
“It won’t end tomorrow for as long as there is a drug pusher and drug lord,” he added. “I will kill you if you destroy the youth of my land. They are our assets.”
He spoke with a familiar outsized fury that at other times his own brother, Emmanuel Duterte, suggested to the press that it had much to do with his boyhood experiences with the church and at home. These were traumas that set Rodrigo apart from other sons of privilege such as Donald Trump.
As Duterte’s brother tells it, their mother periodically lashed him with a horsewhip. The brother says Rodrigo was also beaten with a cane by Jesuit priests at the Catholic high school they attended, Ateneo de Davao. Rodrigo struck back at other teens in the street.
“Violence in the house, violence in the school, and violence in the neighborhood,” the brother told The New York Times. “That is why he is always angry. Because if you have pain when you are young, you are angry all the time.”
And then there was the sexual abuse Rodrigo Duterte says he suffered at the hands of one of the priests at the school, Father Mark Falvey.
“It was a case of fondling—you know what—he did during confession, that’s how we lost our innocence early,” Rodrigo Duterte told the press.
He added that he and the other victims at his school had remained silent.
“Such is life,” he said. “How could we complain? We were scared.”
He later said in one of his tirades against the church: “If you cannot even give justice to the small boys that you have molested in the past, you do not have that moral ascendancy to lecture on what to do. Sanctity of life? You’re enjoying your worth... When we were making confessions to you, we were being molested.”
Falvey had been ordained in 1928 and was one of a group of Jesuits who had been in China until they were forced to flee by Mao and the communist revolution. Falvey then apparently spent several years in the Philippines, but the Jesuits have not confirmed that he was assigned to Duterte’s high school at the time of the alleged abuse. The Jesuits have also not publicly disputed Duterte’s claim that he was abused by Falvey. The Jesuits did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
In 1959, when Duterte was 14, Falvey was sent home to the United States and installed at Blessed Sacrament parish in Hollywood in Los Angeles. He remained there until he died in 1975. We can only hope that he had not been sent there in the first place after getting in trouble in the Philippines.
More than three decades later, in 2007, the Jesuits agreed to pay a total of $16 million to nine former parishioners—five males and four females—who were molested by Falvey during his years at Blessed Sacrament. One of the girls, then 8 years old, had attempted suicide afterward. Another priest is said to have happened upon Falvey assaulting a child and supposedly said only, “Why don’t you close the door?”
Falvey’s brother, Arthur, was also a priest and is also now deceased. The Archdiocese of Sacramento paid $100,000 to a former parishioner who claimed to have been raped and molested by Arthur as a child.
In the meantime, Duterte had embarked on a political career as a son of privilege turned populist death-squad leader. He made a name for himself as the Trump of the East as he vented his anger and played on people’s fears and promised to make right with might. He surely was seeking to connect with the Trump of the West when he appointed the Filipino developer of Trump Tower in Manila as his special trade envoy to the United Sates.
But Duterte probably would have gotten an invitation to come to the White House even without making Trump’s Manila business partner the guy who would be brokering business deals with the U.S. government.
Duterte would have won Trump’s heart just by being an authoritarian strongman like Vladimir Putin of Russia or, for that matter, the late Carlo Gambino of the Gambino family, who kept those trucks rumbling up to Trump Tower when every other construction site in the city was shut down by a strike.
After all, narcissists of a feather flock together.