A disastrous Trump visit
The backlash from Enrique Peña Nieto’s invitation to Donald Trump serves as a lesson for all of North America.
Journalist and PEN Canada-George Brown Writer in Residence.
Desperate times require desperate measures. This is the most — or perhaps the only — logical and compelling explanation to understand the meeting between Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and the United States’ presidential Republican candidate, Donald Trump, last week.
It was the first time in history that a U.S. presidential candidate went to Mexico by direct invitation of the Mexican government, met with its president and held a joint press conference at the official residence.
The encounter occurred around significant events for each of the politicians. Right after visiting Mexico City, Trump flew to Arizona to present his political platform on immigration. Meanwhile, Peña Nieto hosted the Republican nominee just 24 hours after the presentation of his fourth Informe de Gobierno, the equivalent of the State of the Union address.
Thus, for their own reasons, momentarily leaving behind Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric and Mexico’s soft institutional responses to it, the presidente and the candidate joined forces last Wednesday, perhaps hoping to recover from their own respective crises of credibility. Both men required a boost, a big one, among public opinion.
It was a calculated reunion with uncalculated consequences.
August was a terrible month for Donald Trump, from the resignation of his campaign chairman after allegations of undisclosed lobbying on behalf of Ukraine to social media outrage after his apparent suggestion that pro-gun sympathizers should stop Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — presumably using force. Polls conducted in August showed that at the beginning of the month, Clinton was 3.9 points over Trump; however, as the month went by the gap increased to 7.9 points. This was the second highest differential between both candidates in a year.
Dark clouds were also over Peña Nieto before last week’s controversial meeting. Earlier in August, The Guardian revealed that Angelica Rivera, Mexico’s first lady, used a luxury apartment in Florida bought by a company that bids for important government contracts. The exposure of what it seems to be an unethical relationship between the first lady and a private contractor came almost two years after the exposure of the Casa Blanca (or White House), a US$7 million property bought by Rivera directly from a major contractor also tied to the federal government. Then, just days after the reports of Rivera’s apartment, a respected journalist reported that almost a third of Peña Nieto’s law school thesis was plagiarized. Both scandals reinforced already declining disapproval rates, which last month reached a historical 74 percent among citizens and 82 percent among private sector and opinion leaders.
So, was anything won by the meeting?
A group of researchers from the Netherlands and Sweden once argued that the aftermath of a crisis turns into a “morality play” in which “leaders must defend themselves against seemingly incontrovertible evidence of their incompetence, ignorance or insensitivity.” If the defence is weak or inexistent, the crisis will continue.
By meeting in Mexico as a defence of their own crises, both Trump and Peña Nieto failed the “morality play.” Looking to build momentum, the Republican candidate utilized his trip to Mexico to complement his speech on immigration in Arizona. However, Trump ended that day as an incongruent politician who went from an offensive discourse against Mexican immigrants (“They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”), to a friendly visitor who, once back on American soil, reported that he “discussed [with Peña Nieto] the great contributions of Mexican American citizens to our two countries” and expressed his “love for the people of Mexico, and the leadership and friendship between Mexico and the United States.” Trump’s speech may bring him some voters, but it only further confirmed his erratic behaviour and inconsistent policies.
Meanwhile, after Peña Nieto hosted Trump, the public outcry in Mexico magnified the voices who continue to ask for his resignation due to an already existent catalogue of failures that includes less-than-successful energy reforms, escalation of violence associated with transnational organized crime, rampant corruption and an extended conflict with the teachers union. Historically, Mexicans despise those co-nationals who sympathize with the United States so the reaction may come as no surprise. (Wednesday, a government spokesperson announced that Treasury Minister Luis Videgaray had resigned after Trump’s visit.)
Expressing the deep sense of anger and nationalism that Mexicans felt last week, film director Alejandro González Iñárritu wrote in Spanish newspaper El Pais: “Enrique Peña Nieto’s invitation of Donald Trump is a betrayal. It gives validity to a man who has insulted us, spat in our faces, and threatened us for over a year in front of the entire world. It shows a lack of dignity and in turn strengthens a political campaign of hatred toward us, toward half of the world, and toward the most vulnerable minorities on the planet. It puts our future and the lives of 16 million Mexicans at risk. 168 years ago, Antonio López de Santa Ana gave away almost half of our territory. Yesterday, Peña Nieto gave away the little dignity we had left.”
Does this episode carry a lesson to be learned by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Yes, it does. Stay away from the U.S. election and its candidates. Don’t bring the American crisis home. Further, the wall Trump proposes and the divisions he inspires hurts all of North America — it would be in Canada’s interest to not only stay far away from those ideas, but small acts of solidarity with Mexicans could also help. Just an idea.