During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump boasted that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” On the 100th day of his presidency, Trump invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has said that he used to roam the streets on a motorcycle looking for criminals to kill, to the White House.
A Duterte state visit to Washington or Mar-a-Lago would be a ghastly spectacle, given the way the Philippines have pursued a war on drugs even more literal than the one in the United States, leaving thousands dead. While Trump bloviates about “American carnage,” the Duterte regime produces its own bloodbath.
Trump’s courtship of a man who shares his taste in crude, violent political rhetoric might have been marginally motivated by the American administration’s concerns about North Korea, as White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has claimed. But the substance of the leaders’ conversation is a reminder of the dark — and now international — glamour of the war on drugs, and the dreadful consequences of that fascination.
Trump and Duterte are hardly the first two people to have discovered the macho power of harsh talk about crime, specifically drug-related crime. Bill Bennett, who ran President George H.W. Bush’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, imagined taking a page from Saudi Arabia and beheading drug dealers publicly, though I’m willing to grant Bennett the courtesy of imagining he intended for those executions to take place after trials, rather than on an ad-hoc basis like the killings taking place under Duterte.
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Bennett’s fantasies about executing drug dealers echoed widespread sentiments in popular culture. As I wrote last year, the entertainment industry, despite its supposed liberalism, was quick to embrace drug traffickers as the industry’s villains of choice during the rise of the blockbuster era.
These fictional bad guys were convenient for an industry eager to ratchet up splashy, cinematically exciting violence: They had access to serious weaponry and were perfectly willing to inflict extreme damage, from crashing trains to torturing cops’ families, to move their product. Their determination and utter amorality in turn meant that fictional cops were justified in shooting, and sometimes killing, these fearsome adversaries. If drug criminals wouldn’t be taken alive, what could pop culture ask decent people who wanted to protect their communities to do?
Trump’s declarations that Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” and his repeated invocations of “bad hombres” and “American carnage” in cities across the country, are the references of a man who for decades has taken inflammatory and irresponsible positions on crime to his own political benefit. Now, he has the ability to actually implement some of his tough talk.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, intends to reinvigorate the American war on drugs. And for all major Hollywood figures did to oppose Trump’s election, this is essentially a line the movie and television industries have also advanced for decades: that drug criminals are supervillainous threats to American cities who can be clearly identified and need to be executed without trial.
Of course, neither the American war on drugs initiated by President Richard Nixon, nor the massacres set off by Duterte in the Philippines, look much like Hollywood extravaganzas.
In the United States, it more often looks like people frightened, injured or even killed in no-knock raids, people arrested on possession charges who languish in jail because they can’t afford bail or lose access to the financial aid that makes higher education possible, and voter disenfranchisement.
In the Philippines, the drug war means people lying shot dead in the street as the rain beats down on their bodies or struggling to rest in heinously overcrowded jails, depicted in shattering photos taken by the New York Times’ Daniel Berehulak.
Trump’s defense of his invitation to Duterte was similar to the rationale that’s kept Hollywood fighting the drug war decade after decade: They’re both popular. Of course, Trump has never had to live with any of the consequences of his demagoguery, whether he’s demonizing the Central Park Five long after their exoneration or talking recklessly about jailing his opponents. Trump may have been touched by the gassing of Syrian children, but the ongoing slaughter of Filipinos seems like an abstraction to him, easily disguised with talk of toughness.
This is the thing about living in an era defined by a president who treats the world like a show he’s producing, rather than a fragile thing for which he bears a fearsome responsibility. You can’t stage the fictions of your imagination in the real world without exacting terrible costs, even if other people end up paying them. Rodrigo Duterte isn’t an action hero; he’s a monster. And whether Trump understands it or not, his actions could make him one, too.