Some families I know created bubbles with other families to ride out the pandemic together, agreeing to spend time together while foregoing contact with others.
Watching Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Washington last week, I couldn’t help but think our two retro populist North American leaders were doing the same – creating their own cozy bubble. Given their isolationist proclivities and poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump and “AMLO” aren’t exactly being asked to be part of anyone else’s bubble these days. And much like families “bubble” together because they feel they complement and need each other, AMLO and Trump both need something priceless from the other: political cover.
It’s been widely acknowledged that it was bad form for AMLO to take his first foreign trip in the middle of a pandemic to the American capital to provide Trump with the optics of a diplomatic triumph just as the US presidential campaign season is heating up, without even paying a courtesy visit to any Democratic leaders. Democrats will get over it, though, and as I argued before the visit, there is a case to be made for Mexican appeasement of Trump, given the asymmetry of the relationship, and Trump’s own immaturity (which requires ego-stroking).
AMLO certainly leaned into the appeasement strategy with gusto. Instead of politely going through the motions to get the bully off his nation’s back, Mexico’s president shocked his countrymen and US Latino leaders by thanking Trump for being “increasingly respectful” towards Mexicans, for acting with “kindness,” and for not treating Mexico “as a colony.” In return, Trump is reported to have called AMLO the best president Mexico has ever had at a private White House dinner attended by business leaders.
The exchange of preposterous flattery between the two leaders must have been good for their souls – they aren’t getting much flattery elsewhere these days. But the exchange of political cover was their true motivation. In addition to Mexico’s obvious desire for close economic ties to the US, AMLO might be hoping that by spending political capital to befriend Trump, the US president won’t stand up for US investors adversely affected by AMLO’s “Fourth Transformation” and its inconsistent adherence to due process and the rule of law.
Trump, meanwhile, sought cover from accusations that he is a racist who doesn’t like Mexicans. Axios has reported that the Trump campaign is already rushing to make general election ads featuring AMLO’s gracias to Trump for being so respectful of Mexicans. I don’t blame them for doing so, and I wish AMLO had been more guarded with his pleasantries, but the concern about all this among Democrats and some Mexican critics of AMLO is a bit overwrought. Latino voters in the US aren’t going to reassess Trump because a Mexican president says he is respectful of Mexicans. If anything, that might make them reassess AMLO’s judgment.
For all the obsessive analysis of the first encounter of the two presidents on social media and across all Mexican media, AMLO’s visit to Washington was another humbling reminder of how little US elites and public care about the important US-Mexico relationship. On the day, AMLO’s visit wasn’t even featured on the broadcast networks’ evening newscasts. One quick image of the two presidents did appear on the NBC newscast, but only because Trump had been asked at the press conference about the reopening of US schools.
This asymmetry in the relationship suggests the policy of Mexican appeasement of Trump, started by AMLO’s predecessor, is a sensible one, beyond AMLO’s own personal motives. Fomenting anti-Mexican sentiment has been one of the few consistent pillars of Trump’s political project. It is highly unlikely the new USMCA trade deal that went into effect this month would be a reality if Mexican leaders had confronted Trump and his insults directly, instead of repeatedly turning the other cheek and doing a fair amount of unseemly groveling (especially on immigration policy).
Trump may be on his way out, but he could still wreak great havoc if he opted to vilify Mexico throughout his re-election campaign, taking measures to hurt Mexico’s economy in this delicate moment, and further poisoning his base and right-wing media for years to come against their country’s southern neighbor and top trading partner. The Republicans will be running against China this November, that much is clear, and it is in Mexico’s national interest not to be lumped with China in that xenophobic discourse. Democrats will have to choose between agreeing with Republicans on the substance of their China attacks, or defensively pushing back, further making relations with that country a partisan issue. Mexico desperately needs to avoid being stuck in that lose-lose conundrum.
Mexico should instead strive to advance the notion of belonging to a North American bubble, alongside the United States, in good times and bad, even in a period of retrenched globalization. Trump will never be an ideal champion of that vision, to put it mildly, but the goal is to prevent him from entirely derailing or destroying this prospect while in office. And for now, the personal AMLO-Trump bubble is advancing that goal.
* 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