Driving near our university campus in Tempe, Arizona, this past weekend, I saw a huge “Trump 2024” flag draped on an apartment balcony. It was the same red, white, and blue design from past Trump campaigns, but the old “Make America Great Again” slogan was replaced by “Make Votes Count Again.”
For Mexicans, Trump’s long post-electoral berrinche, or tantrum, so long and impassioned it may seamlessly propel his next campaign, represents a remake of the classic 2006 Mexican telenovela El Presidente Legítimo, starring Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO refused to concede his loss in that year’s presidential election, and much of what is happening in Mexico these days flows directly from the numerous and deep grudges he holds at having lost then, and at the fact that most of the country moved on, pretty much ignoring his berrinche.
When an impressive majority of Mexicans voted him into the presidency 12 years later, in 2018, voters assumed AMLO had himself moved on by then, and that he was temperamentally ready to govern the country as a magnanimous historical figure shepherding a long-overdue momentous transformation of the country. Instead, Mexicans now find themselves mired in AMLO’s petty 2006-related vendettas and insecurities. These are undermining Mexico’s fragile democracy because they are not only aimed at the political opposition, but at the web of autonomous practices and institutions that give any pluralistic democracy its texture and true depth: the judiciary, academia, civil society’s non-profit groups, the state’s participation in the nation’s economy, non-partisan administrative agencies, electoral and other supposedly autonomous public regulating bodies, and independent media.
AMLO, who wields more power than any Mexican president in a generation, devotes much of his time and energy to lashing out at imagined enemies and conspiracies, in a manner that brings to mind another Republican U.S. president: Richard Nixon. As with Nixon, who was re-elected in 1972 by a resounding 520-17 electoral college vote, what makes AMLO’s anti-democratic antics all the more frustrating and tragic is how unnecessary they are. He won; he’s in charge. And yet…
The media has been a constant boogeyman of AMLO’s. At a recent press conference, the president stooped to comparing his salary to the reported income of a prominent journalist who had published investigative reports on the president son’s luxurious life in Houston (weaponizing a journalist’s private financial information submitted to the government is not something even Nixon or Trump could have fathomed getting away with). This and other frequent harangues against Mexico’s independent media, which AMLO absurdly accuses of having been a docile government cheerleader before he entered office, take place at a time when too many journalists across Mexico are being murdered for carrying out their vital work.
In its latest Democracy Index, The Economist Intelligence Unit now categorizes Mexico as having a “hybrid regime,” alongside Paraguay and Pakistan (the United States is a “flawed democracy,” Canada a “full democracy”), but few people on this side of the border have cared enough about the rule of law in Mexico to prioritize it as an issue of concern. Often that is because there are more seemingly urgent crises (Ukraine!) or more dire instances of democratic backsliding in Latin America (Venezuela!) or a lack of appreciation for the fact that Mexico is far more important to American vital interests than the other places that soak up DC’s bandwith.
Also, as former Mexican ambassador to Washington Arturo Sarukhan reminds us in a prescient Foreign Affairs article, for several years now Washington has fallen into an “Erdogan trap” with Mexico, paying little attention to (often alarming) developments within our neighboring country so long as AMLO did what was asked of him on the immigration front (the trap’s name refers to a similar tacit understanding the European Union reached with Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan amidst the surge of Syrian Civil War refugees a few years back).
Remarkably, despite the longstanding benign neglect, some members of the US Congress have spoken out recently on non-migration issues in Mexico. Earlier this month, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken requesting that the State Department ensure that there is “accountability for the recent murder of journalists, and to better address the crisis of freedom of expression in Mexico.”
The senators also said they were “dismayed that President López Obrador continues his bellicose rhetoric against the press,” and that the “years-long violence against journalists in Mexico cannot begin to lessen as long as the country’s leader continues to normalize hostility towards freedom of expression.”
Then last week, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz said during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing that he is worried about the breakdown of civil society and the rule of law in Mexico. AMLO has spent years courting Washington’s right-wingers, to the point of being one of the last world leaders to recognize Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. But this was an opportunity too good to give up: in one of his daily press conferences, AMLO bragged that he must be on the right track, if he is opposed by the likes of Ted Cruz.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s current ambassador in Washington, Esteban Moctezuma, wrote a masterful letter to Senator Cruz, which included the usual diplomatic language about ongoing binational collaboration on security issues, but also this gem in response to Cruz’s talk of a breakdown of the rule of law in Mexico: “I invite you to study what happened in our federal elections last June. All political parties, with no exception, accepted the results and kept moving forward to strengthen our democracy and freedom of expression.”
Mexico 1 – Ted Cruz 0. It turns out you cannot undermine the rule of law in your own country, cheer on baseless accusations of electoral fraud, downplay and justify your own partisans’ violent attack on the US Congress, and then expect to be able to go into a solemn Senate hearing on global affairs and reclaim the moral high ground to preach to other nations about the rule of law.
I suspect Cruz and some Republican leaders, pressed by worried constituents to focus on troubling developments in Mexico, are engaging in a cognitive dissonance that is more bizarre than mere hypocrisy. I suspect they consider their pro-Trump theatrics on Fox News, their bellicose rhetoric against the press, and their attacks against President Biden’s legitimacy, a form of performative politics that is good for animating the base (check out those banners in Arizona!) and fundraising, and that is essentially harmless because, well, you know, our democracy and rule of law are firmly entrenched and so they’re just messing around.
But in whatever limited space they still devote to serious governing, apart from the silly politicking they do most of the time, Cruz and friends can appreciate that the same type of behavior is dangerous and unacceptable elsewhere because, well, their democracies and rule or law aren’t firmly entrenched, and they’re not just messing around.
All of which leaves us in a frustrating spot. Close neighbors, friends, and allies should be able to critique each other’s behavior and hold each other accountable to shared principles and commitments, and that should always be a candid two-way dialogue. But in our current state of affairs, neither Mexicans nor Americans can rely on each other’s political leaders to assume collective responsibility for democracy’s future in the region.