Return of the Strongmen: The rise of leaders like Rodrigo Duterte reveals that autocratic populism can thrive in a wide range of environments, posing a global threat to democratic government.

AuthorKurlantzick, Joshua
PositionRodrigo Duterte: Fire and Fury in the Philippines - Book review

Rodrigo Duterte: Fire and Fury in the Philippines

by Jonathan Miller

Scribe, 352 pp.

In the months before Brazil's elections in October, many experts both within and outside the country dismissed the possibility that Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and previously obscure far-right congressman, could win the presidency. Bolsonaro did not belong to one of the major political parties, and had a history of pro-dictatorship, racist, and misogynist rhetoric that seemed beyond the pale for the fourth-largest democracy in the world.

Yet in late October, Bolsonaro notched a resounding victory, winning the Brazilian presidency with 55 percent of the vote. In some ways, the result echoed the failure of American elites to accept the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency. But Bolsonaro's rise more closely parallels that of another autocratic populist, one who operates in a system with weak democratic guardrails and who has, in office, carried out abuses far outstripping any of Trump's efforts: Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines.

The rise of extreme, antiestablishment heads of state is not confined to places where immigration or opposition to free trade are driving populists' rise. In fact, as I have written for the Council on Foreign Relations, the ascension of leaders like Duterte and Bolsonaro reveals that autocratic populism is highly flexible, thriving in many different scenarios and driven by different core grievances. It is thus even more dangerous to international stability than it would be if it only could grow in the soil of Europe and North America. Duterte's brand of brutal leadership can thrive in a wide range of environments, posing a global threat to democratic government.

In two and a half years as president of the Philippines--less than half of his allotted six-year term--Duterte has already wreaked havoc on the country, according to the first major biography of the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, by Jonathan Miller. Duterte has destroyed the independence of the top court, jailed senators, tried to rehabilitate the memory of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and, most notoriously, overseen a "war" on drugs that has claimed some 12,000 lives, according to an analysis by Human Rights Watch. The bloody drug war has destroyed families, given the police and vigilante groups enormous power, and traumatized much of the population.

Miller, a correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 news, bases his...

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