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The Moderator in Manila


What the Trumps are building in the Philippines

Photo credit: JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images

There is a Philippine legend of Lakambakod, also called Lakanbakod, a commander-in-chief, whose name means “great or noble fence.” Lakambakod is a protector of crops and a healer of diseases, but he is also known for watching over houses and, according to the historian William Henry Scott, possessing “gilded genitals as long as a rice stalk.” It is this deity, perhaps, who has been watching over the rising Trump Tower Manila, a $150 million project in a country where around 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. Over the weekend, an image went viral of a billboard advertising the building; it was actually an old photograph from around the time that the Trumps broke ground, in 2012.

Trump Tower, which will reach fifty-seven stories, “really symbolizes everything that a Trump project means,” Eric Trump, Donald’s son, said a couple years ago. The Trump organization has since reported that 94 percent of the units have been presold, with one-bedroom apartments going for $750,000. (The average salary in Manila is less than $10 a day.) Construction was meant to be complete by the end of 2016; it wasn’t. Instead, while the forty-ninth floor was going up and the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, was in the midst of slaughtering as many as 8,000 of his citizens, Trump was elected to the Oval Office. The two men quickly found that they had a good rapport. As infamous instigators, they have plenty in common, including a history of vitriol against former president Barack Obama, whom Duterte called “the son of a whore” and Trump, even more damningly, declared a non-citizen.

Over the weekend, President Trump reached out to President Duterte on the phone, requesting a visit. This was not the first time he had extended the invitation. When Trump was preparing his move to the White House, Duterte told the press, “He said if I am around he wants to be notified of my presence.” This time, Trump had a specific item to discuss: North Korea’s nuclear program, and the likely possibility of imminent diplomatic crisis in Asia. Duterte politely declined. “I’m tied up,” he replied. “I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia and go to Israel.

There is always some awkwardness when an overture is rejected. Emily Post suggests that if you’re otherwise occupied, you should “accentuate the positive” and “be straight about the future.” This is tough for Duterte, however. Besides being an extrajudicial-killing enthusiast, he has lately been snubbing the United States in favor of talking to China. He also said, “Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not.” Nevertheless, he has claimed, “I can always be a friend to anybody.”

If feelings were hurt, Ivanka Trump may have been sent in to smooth things over. On the billboard, she is pictured wearing a modest black dress, appearing business-ready with her hair pulled back. Her fingers are resting in her palm as if she were a stewardess on an exotic airline. She is a professed “daddy’s girl,” after all, and says that she serves as a moderating influence in her new official role as her father’s adviser. In Ivanka’s capacity as a woman who works—her new book, Women Who Work, went on sale today—her role is tempering a man who doesn’t. When the image of her, watching like T.J. Eckleburg over the Manila skyline, was said to have been taken down some time ago, an observer might have wished, history-making corruption aside, that it wasn’t. Duterte could use some moderating, too.

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