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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Would-Be Strongmen Worldwide

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To either sate or subdue an increasingly restive population, he soon resorted to escalating raw violence. His security squads conducted what were referred to as "salvagings," more than 2,500 of them (or 77% of the 3,257 extrajudicial killings during his 14-year dictatorship). Bodies scarred by torture were regularly abandoned in public plazas or at busy intersections so passers-by could read the transcript of terror in their stigmata. In the capital, Manila, with only 4,000 police for six million residents, the Marcos regime also deputized hundreds of "secret marshals" responsible for more than 30 shoot-on-sight fatalities during May 1985, the program's first month, alone.

Yet the impact of Marcos's version of populist violence proved mutable -- effective at the start of martial law when people yearned for order and counterproductive at its close when Filipinos again longed for freedom. That shift in sentiment soon led to his downfall in the first of the dramatic "people power" revolutions that would challenge autocratic regimes from Beijing to Berlin.

Populism in the Philippines: Duterte's Violence

Rodrigo Duterte, the son of a provincial governor, initially pursued a career as the mayor of Davao City, a site of endemic violence that left a lasting imprint on his political persona.

In 1984, after the communist New People's Army made Davao its testing ground for urban guerilla warfare, the city's murders soared, doubling to 800, including the assassination of 150 policemen. To check the communists, who took over part of the city, the military mobilized criminals and ex-communists as death squad vigilantes in a lethal counterterror campaign. When I visited Davao in 1987 to investigate death squad killings, that remote southern city already had an unforgettable air of desolation and hopelessness.

It was in this context of rising national and local extrajudicial slaughter that the 33-year old Rodrigo Duterte launched his political career as the elected mayor of Davao City. That was in 1988, the first of seven terms that would keep him in office, on and off, for another 21 years until he won the country's presidency in 2016. His first campaign was hotly contested and he barely beat his rivals, taking only 26% of the vote.

Around 1996, he reportedly mobilized his own vigilante group, the Davao Death Squad. It would be responsible for many of the city's 814 extrajudicial killings over the next decade, as victims were dumped on city streets with faces wrapped bizarrely in packing tape. Duterte himself may have killed one or more of the squad's victims. Apart from liquidating criminals, the Davao Death Squad also conveniently eliminated the mayor's political rivals.

Campaigning for president in 2016, Duterte would proudly point to the killings in Davao City and promise a drug war that would murder 100,000 Filipinos if necessary. In doing so, he was also drawing on historical resonances from the Marcos era that lent some political depth to his violent rhetoric. By specifically praising Marcos, promising to finally bury his body in the National Heroes Cemetery in Manila, and supporting Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for vice president, Duterte identified himself with a political lineage of populist strongmen epitomized by the old dictator at a time when desperate Filipinos were looking for new hope of a decent life.

On taking office, President Duterte promptly started his promised anti-drug campaign and dead bodies became commonplace sights on city streets nationwide, sometimes accompanied by a crude cardboard sign reading "I am a pusher," or simply with their faces wrapped in the by-now trademark packing tape used by the Davao Death Squad. Although Human Rights Watch would declare his drug war a "calamity," a resounding 85% of Filipinos surveyed were "satisfied," apparently seeing each body sprawled on a city street as another testament to the president's promise of order.

At the same time, like Marcos, Duterte deployed a new style of diplomacy as part of his populist reach for unrestrained power. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing and Washington, he improved his country's bargaining position by distancing himself from the Philippines' classic alliance with the United States. At the 2016 ASEAN conference, reacting to Barack Obama&rsrsquo;s criticism of his drug war, he said bluntly of the American president, "Your mother's a prostitute."

A month later during a state visit to Beijing, Duterte publicly proclaimed "separation from the United States.'' By setting aside his country's recent slam-dunk win over China at the Court of Arbitration in the Hague in a legal dispute over rival claims in the South China Sea, Duterte came home with $24 billion in Chinese trade deals and a sense that he was helping establish a new world order.

In January, after his police tortured and killed a South Korean businessman on the pretext of a drug bust, he was forced to call a sudden halt to the nationwide killing spree. Like his role model Marcos, however, Duterte's populism seems to contain an insatiable appetite for violence and so it was not long before bodies were once again being dumped on the streets of Manila, pushing the death toll past 8,000.

Success and the Strongman

The histories of these Filipino strongmen, past and present, reveal two overlooked aspects of the ill-defined phenomenon of global populism: the role of what might be termed performative violence in projecting domestic strength and a complementary need for diplomatic success to show international influence. How skillfully these critical poles of power are balanced may offer one gauge for speculating about the fate of populist strongmen in disparate parts of the globe.

In Russia's case, Putin's projection of strength through the murder of selected domestic opponents has been matched by unchecked aggression in Georgia and Ukraine -- a successful balancing act that has made his country, with its rickety economy the size of Italy's, seem like a great power again and is likely to extend his autocratic rule into the foreseeable future.

In Turkey, Erdogan's harsh repression of ethnic and political enemies has essentially sunk his bid for entry into the European Union, plunged him into an unwinnable war with Kurdish rebels, and complicated his alliance with the United States against Islamic fundamentalism -- all potential barriers to his successful bid for unchecked power.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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