If voting fraudulently by mail were as easy as Donald Trump would have us believe, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) should consider posting a ballot for Trump. Mexico’s president is one of a handful of leaders around the world who might benefit from a renewal of the Trump show.
The amicable Trump-AMLO Axis of Nostalgic Populism is no longer a surprising novelty. Despite their different backgrounds, the two leaders have much in common. Both AMLO and Trump see themselves as the saviors of their true nation, one threatened by cosmopolitan elites, technocrats within their own governments, scientists, and the media. Their presidencies are essentially TV reality shows aimed at manipulating and mobilizing the less educated in our societies, on behalf of their strongman redeemer. In both cases, the political thrust is inward and backward, and the fact that both AMLO and Trump find themselves increasingly isolated in the world only binds them closer together, like two alienated kids in a school cafeteria who share a contempt for the well-adjusted kids.
AMLO and Trump also see eye-to-eye because they both consider all politics personal and transactional. The “national interest” is an alien concept for them, other than as a synonym of their personal interests. AMLO, recognizing a kindred spirit in the White House, has managed Trump, and appeased him, masterfully. And so the US president who ran in 2016 against Mexico and NAFTA now claims a new trade deal with Mexico as one of his triumphs, and Trump can also boast of how the Mexican president is working to enforce US immigration policies.
The question for the rest of us is whether the positive relationship between the two presidents is a positive for us too. A majority of Mexican business leaders seem to think so, according to a recent poll conducted by Vestiga Consultores in which 51% of respondents said a Trump win would favor Mexico, against 33% for Biden. The new trade deal and the two presidents’ good rapport were cited among the reasons, in addition to a more favorable outlook for investors (despite the historical record, which shows Democrats in White House far outperform Republicans in terms of stock market returns).
This is shortsighted thinking. AMLO, like Trump, has shown a disdain for the rule of law, for the notion that his power and agenda might ever be constrained by customary norms, constitutional law, other branches of government, or civil society. And having forged his personal, transactional bond with Trump, AMLO can rest assured that the US president will not criticize, or interfere with, any future moves, however questionable, to expand his power, or curtail the rights of critics, political opponents, or even foreign investors. Mexicans have long resented the self-righteousness of US presidents preaching democracy and human rights, but we may soon find out that a US president embracing a Mexican reticence to pass judgment on other governments’ actions is worse. Trump’s admiration (and envy?) of authoritarian leaders around the world provides further evidence that he is unlikely to ever raise questions about any anti-democratic moves by AMLO, especially an AMLO who has appeased and flattered him.
Joe Biden would not have the same rogue-to-rogue rapport with AMLO, and the relationship would no longer be managed by a complicit son-in-law. Things would once again be handled by proper channels and procedures, and that creates more of an opening for critics of AMLO’s actions, including US investors, to gain traction in Washington. Biden knows Mexico well, having overseen the bilateral portfolio in the Obama administration, and he knows the congressional politics of the security and trade relationship exceedingly well.
That said, it is admittedly hard to say that a Biden presidency would be an automatic return to some version of the Bill Clinton or Barack Obama years. The Democratic Party has also changed in recent years, and not in ways that should reassure Mexicans.
The good news is that Biden is the nominee. Party centrists, with a more internationalist and forward-looking mindset, did prevail in the primaries. The Democratic nominee is not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, both of whom espouse nostalgic and isolationist worldviews that, viewed from Mexico City, look suspiciously like Donald Trump’s, minus the kleptocratic tendencies and nastiness.
The bad news is that the isolationist impulse is strong in both parties. To gain credibility with a Democratic left wing that was suspicious of her, Kamala Harris voted against approval of the USMCA in the Senate early this year. If Biden wins the White House and a “blue wave” gives Democrats a majority in both chambers of Congress, Mexican business leaders would have reason to worry about protectionist proposals that could hurt cross-border trade and investment.
But it amounts to a fool’s errand, for two reasons, to try coming up with a bilateral-relationship-issue-by-issue scorecard for the two possible administrations. First, Mexico hardly registers on the list of either administration’s priorities. Second, weighing how the election affects details of the relationship misses the forest for the trees.
Mexico’s future – like it or not, for better or worse – is inextricably tied to the United States. And so the answer to the question of whether Biden or Trump is better for Mexico in the long run – as opposed to for AMLO in the short term – has to be the same as the answer of which candidate is better for the United States itself.
The answer to that question is clear. Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to American democracy. He has commandeered the US government to serve his own personal interests in a way we have never seen, and every day in office he has eroded the world’s faith in the US as a model democracy to be emulated and respected. He is a thoroughly corrupt, petty, small-minded man, who lacks empathy for anyone but himself, and he has brought to the White House the same incompetence and muddled thinking that made him such a failure in business. He is incapable of a fundamental understanding of economics, or of pursuing a coherent strategy. He views the presidency as a reality TV show, whose ratings can be bolstered by peddling juvenile insults and outlandish conspiracy theories. He is dismissive of science and any expertise that stands in the way of his pretending to know best. As a result, his responses to national security challenges from the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, the economic competition posed by China, the long-term threat of climate change, and the emergency of a global pandemic, have all been predictably disastrous.
President Trump has no appreciation for the historical role of the United States in the world, or of his office’s responsibilities. He sought the office for it to serve him, after all, not the other way around. Trump has abdicated the bipartisan, confident postwar US leadership over the interlocking system of alliances and multilateral institutions powered by a free-trading, pro-democracy creed. American leadership bequeathed this system to the world, and it has served the world well, but Trump has all but disowned it. It isn’t clear how much of this Pax Americana of the past three-quarters-of-a-century can survive another Trump term.
The United States and the other democracies of the world would be in a far better place to respond to shared challenges like the pandemic and climate change if this postwar international system were being renewed and strengthened, instead of neglected. The US continues to suffer from Trump’s abandonment of President Barack Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which sought to forge a more integrated Pacific community better able to contain China, along the lines of what the US and Western Europe had accomplished with their transatlantic response to the Soviet threat. The TPP, a version of which Mexico has continued to pursue with some trading partners, remains the next logical step for positive, continued US global leadership.
Democrats today would probably not support Obama on TPP, and it isn’t clear how enthusiastic the next generation of their leaders will be to heed the call of global leadership. But it is in Mexico’s interest that they do so, and that the Republican Party can renew itself after shedding Trump. This is not a case in which sticking to the devil we know makes a lot of sense.
It is in Mexico’s interest for America to become great again. For real.
* 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