Why Trump and Duterte hit it off. Hint: Both presidents are brash

Thomas Maresca
Special for USA TODAY
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President Trump, left, shakes hands with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

MANILA – They both shocked observers by winning the presidency with campaigns filled with populist fury against political elites, a tough-on-crime message and a stream of controversial remarks and insults that would sink most politicians.

Perhaps that's why President Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seemed to hit it off when they met several times during Trump's trip to Asia.  

Trump boasted during his 2016 campaign that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and wouldn’t lose voters. In a speech Friday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, Duterte said he killed someone as a teenager. 

One other thing they have in common: Both are popular in the Philippines. Trump enjoys his highest popularity rating in the world here, with 69% of Filipinos telling Pew Research Center they “have confidence in Trump to do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

Duterte enjoys an 80% approval rating at home despite condemnation from around the world over his crackdown on drug dealers that have included thousands killed by vigilantes and police executions. 

For many Filipinos, the tough-guy approach is an appealing trait of both presidents. “They are both strong,” said Ramal Cabili, 37, a security guard. “They are good leaders of their countries. I am glad Trump is here.”

While both leaders ran as outsiders, Duterte had decades-long experience in politics as mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, Philippine political scientist Richard Javad Heydarian said. Trump, by contrast, never ran for political office before. 

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More:Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pulls out of brutal drugs war

Still, they share a common message. “They may have different backgrounds, but their style is extremely similar and both of them see the same enemies,” said Heydarian, author of the book The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt.

“Whoever criticizes them they portray as enemies of the republic. So Trump attacks the media as the opposition party, calls them fake news," he said. "In the case of Duterte, he claims bias in media, he talks about sabotage, he talks about conspiracy. The liberal oligarchy, the cosmopolitan elite — these are the people that they’re identifying as their enemies.”

Unlike Trump, Duterte doesn’t use Twitter, but aides for both leaders frequently have to backtrack on off-the-cuff statements. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters in October 2016 that they should learn to “understand” Duterte, instead of “taking him literally.”

Some statements are hard to grasp, except literally.

“At the age of 16, I already killed someone,” Duterte said at the APEC summit. “A real person, a rumble, a stabbing."

His current spokesman, Harry Roque, said afterward, “I think it was in jest.”

One key difference between the two presidents is that Trump is suffering record-low approval ratings in the 30s, according to several polls, while Duterte remains popular at home.

“Duterte enjoys popularity here because he isn’t one of the elite and is easier to relate to by the majority,” said Manila-based IT professional Ace Hain, who lived in Los Angeles for six years. “The general public here doesn't follow Trump nearly as much. Duterte enjoys a high popularity vote from all levels. ... It's everyone from the farmers and blue-collar workers all the way up to the educated.”

In their first face-to-face meeting Monday, Trump praised his “great relationship” with Duterte. The issue of human rights abuses because of the drug crackdown didn’t come up, according to Duterte spokesman Roque — or came up only “briefly,” according to White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

Perhaps they bonded most over their mutual dislike of Trump’s predecessor. The current president has made a point of trying to undo many policies adopted by Barack Obama. And Duterte called then-president Obama “a son of a whore” last year for criticizing him on human rights. 

“It’s very apparent that both of them have a person who they consider as not their best friend,” Roque said after Trump and Duterte met. “They have similar feelings toward former U.S. president Barack Obama.”



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