After not leaving Mexico for the first 18 months of his presidency, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has decided this summer—backdropped by a deadly pandemic with rapidly rising case and death counts on both sides of the border—is a good time to fly to Washington to sit down with Donald Trump. AMLO has talked about wanting to thank his U.S. counterpart for American support in the fight against Covid-19, and both governments are eager to mark the coming into effect of the new USMCA trade deal on July 1. In addition, there has been speculation (at least some tongue-in-cheek speculation) that AMLO will offer Trump asylum, given his waning political fortunes and unresolved feelings for the Confederacy that sought to break away from the United States to preserve slavery.
It’s easy to question, if not denounce, AMLO’s decision to provide Trump with a diplomatic triumph and photo op in a political season, when much of the civilized world views the U.S. president as a pariah best avoided. Worse, AMLO will be cozying up to a president who’s built his political project, such as it is, on stoking anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican sentiment, insulting Mexico and Mexicans at every turn, and linking the restoration of American greatness to the building of his fantasy wall on the southern border.
Another intriguing theme to this Covid-19 summit (AMLO will presumably have to be tested if he wants to get anywhere near the U.S. president) is the possible reinforcement of the personal bond developing between the two leaders.It would be absurd to call them close – they hardly know each other, and they might as well come from different planets. But as I have been pointing out since before AMLO was elected (much to the annoyance of some Mexican friends), both presidents share a certain worldview and approach to politics. Their worldview is nostalgic nationalism; both men yearn for a return to some idyllic past for their countries that was hijacked by globalist business leaders and technocratic conspirators working in cahoots with equally unpatriotic elements in media and a corrupt Deep State. Trump and AMLO share a narcissistic sense that they have come to restore and empower their countries’ silent majorities, and that to do so they have to rely on their own instincts to govern, often skirting the edge of what has previously been deemed proper custom and process (since whatever was the norm before them was suspect and corrupt). The Trump-AMLO affinity thus amounts to a mutual non-aggression pact: Don’t criticize whatever I need to do to make my country great again, and I won’t criticize whatever you do. See nothing, say nothing. Trump can be grateful AMLO has turned the other cheek on immigration, and AMLO can be grateful Trump has turned the other cheek on investor protections and energy policy.
So denouncing the visit is easy and justifiable enough, particularly among Mexicans tired of groveling in the face of Donald Trump’s repeated insults. The fact that it’s coming during the summer before the presidential election also echoes AMLO predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto’s ill-fated and universally decried decision to invite Trump, then merely a Mexico-bashing candidate, to Mexico City in the summer of 2016.
But in fairness, we probably should empathize more with the conundrum AMLO faces (and EPN faced) in the persona of Trump. Regardless of whether the two men may see eye-to-eye on a range of issues, the sad reality is that Mexico and the United States are too asymmetrical in their wealth and power to be anywhere near an eye-to-eye level.
So Mexican administrations – from the Third and Fourth transformations, if you will – have calculated that they have no choice but to appease the US president, regardless of how humiliating and unpopular it may prove.
Appeasement is not a term with an enviable history; no one organizes conferences to analyze and debate the most masterful instances of appeasement. But in the case of Mexico’s approach to Trump, spanning these two administrations, you could argue that the country has managed this existential threat rather adroitly. Given Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric, especially as a candidate in 2016, and his supporters’ views on Mexico, the updated North American free trade deal going into effect this week is quite an accomplishment. It’s been painful to appease, as opposed to confront, the bully in Washington—but in this respect Mexican leaders are in a similar position to other world leaders, powerful U.S. business interests, and some Republican luminaries, all of whom have mostly wanted to duck for four years.
The asymmetry of power between the two countries isn’t the only factor pushing for appeasement from Mexico City – there is also the alarming polarization of American views on Mexico that predates Trump. As noted in a Wilson Center Mexico Institute study on public opinion in the bilateral relationship, in 2000 Gallup polls showed that Republicans were likely to hold more positive views of Mexico than Democrats. But since about 2006, Republicans (and those who self-identify as conservative) have had more negative views of Mexico than Democrats (and liberals), and that gap between partisan perceptions of Mexico continues to widen.
It’s not healthy for any relationship between two countries to become a partisan domestic issue, and it certainly is not in Mexico’s interest for only one of the two major political parties to favor closer ties between our two countries. And so it is rational realpolitik for Mexican diplomats and leaders to spend the bulk of their efforts courting hostile Republicans, as tempting as it might be to give up on them.
It’s hard to know how much of this strategic thinking went into AMLO’s decision to come to Washington, and critically, how much credit he might get for the gesture from Trump’s Republican congressional allies (whose views on Mexico are the real long-term issue here). On balance, and under the circumstances, it seems a friendly phone call would have sufficed, and an official visit could have been delayed until after the U.S. elections, using the pandemic as a reason for delay.
But again, I do empathize with the Mexican government’s conundrum here. As AMLO idiomatically expressed during today’s morning press conference, he’s basically damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t when it comes to sitting down with Trump.
But let’s at least hope he’s doing it for the right reasons.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz