Trump hosts Mexican president as populism meets pragmatism

Why We Wrote This

If, as a recent poll shows, Mexicans dislike Donald Trump, how can they support President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s trip to Washington? Essentially, they like what AMLO can bring home.

Mexico's Presidency/Reuters
Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stands at the Lincoln Memorial during a wreath-laying ceremony before his meeting with President Donald Trump, in Washington, July 8, 2020.

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Almost uniformly over the past week, Mexico’s intellectuals and media elite have lamented the spectacle of a Mexican president ingratiating himself with an American president that 7 of 10 Mexicans strongly dislike. But what many Mexicans say with a shrug is that they also know their country is better off when relations with the U.S. are good.

Which explains why a majority of Mexicans said in a poll they supported President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s plans to meet Wednesday with President Donald Trump at the White House.

“If López Obrador tells them Mexico is better off because we now have better relations with the United States and his trip will be a sign of respect for Mexico, people say, ‘OK, López Obrador knows what he’s doing,’” says Jorge Chabat, a professor at the University of Guadalajara.

Indeed, a new pragmatism has started to take hold of a lopsided binational relationship, some analysts say.

“Over the last three years, not only have the U.S. and Mexico been de-escalating things, but they’ve actually on many levels been improving the relationship,” says Ana Quintana, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “That has happened because it’s in both countries’ interests.”

In a late June poll in the Mexico City newspaper El Financiero, 70% of Mexicans said they disapproved of U.S. President Donald Trump.

No surprise there. Mr. Trump came into office denigrating Mexicans as criminals and rapists and has undertaken the building of a border wall to divide the two neighboring countries. The project injures Mexicans’ image of themselves, and for millions of Mexican families, makes connections between members living on both sides more difficult.

More surprising was another finding: Almost as many Mexicans, about 60%, supported President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s plans to travel to the White House to meet with Mr. Trump.

After taking a commercial flight to Washington to reduce costs, Mr. López Obrador was scheduled to have his meeting in the Oval Office today, followed by a “working dinner.”

What might seem like a head-scratching discrepancy among Mexican citizens is actually a reflection of a realism about their powerful northern neighbor that has only grown as Mexico’s economic well-being has become increasingly interlinked with that of the United States.

Mexico’s intellectuals and media elite may lament – as they have almost uniformly over the past week ­– the spectacle of a Mexican president ingratiating himself with an American president that 7 of 10 Mexicans strongly dislike. But what many Mexicans say with a shrug is that they also know their country is better off, especially economically, when relations with the U.S. are good, no matter who is in the White House.

“I think the answer to what might seem like a glaring contradiction has to do more than anything with López Obrador himself and the fact that many people still like him despite the very bad situations of the economy and security, and the pandemic,” says Jorge Chabat, a professor of Pacific studies at the University of Guadalajara.

“For sure Mexicans don’t like Donald Trump,” he adds, “but if López Obrador tells them Mexico is better off because we now have better relations with the United States and his trip will be a sign of respect for Mexico, people say, ‘OK, López Obrador knows what he’s doing.’”

Indeed, a new pragmatism has started to take hold of a lopsided binational relationship that has never been easy but which has faced new challenges under Mr. Trump, some analysts say.

“Over the last three years, not only have the U.S. and Mexico been de-escalating things, but they’ve actually on many levels been improving the relationship,” says Ana Quintana, senior Latin America and Western Hemisphere policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “That has happened because it’s in both countries’ interests.”

It is with that same pragmatism that Mr. López Obrador braved harsh domestic criticism to sit down in Washington with a U.S. president who had bad-mouthed Mexico like no other. Mexico’s economy, already hurting, has been laid out flat by the pandemic. The leftist-populist leader may not like it, but he knows that the only way to an economic recovery is on the coattails of U.S. economic growth.

Campaign rally of one

Mr. López Obrador came into office in December 2018 vowing to scuttle the neoliberal economic model that had given Mexico the North American Free Trade Agreement. But there he was Wednesday joining Mr. Trump in marking the July 1 entry into force of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The USMCA, as it is known, is an updated NAFTA that promises to strengthen the links among the three North American economies.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also invited to the celebration but declined, claiming previous commitments and citing the coronavirus pandemic. (Unlike the U.S., Canada has done a good job of controlling the outbreak.)

From the White House perspective, the visit by Mr. López Obrador – better known by his initials, AMLO – is an opportunity for a Trump reelection campaign rally of one. Indeed, the visit allows Mr. Trump to highlight the fact that with Mr. López Obrador, the president has got pretty much what he wanted from Mexico – especially on immigration – and at very little cost.

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump greets Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House in Washington, July 8, 2020. In some respects, the meeting of the two populist presidents was a triumph of pragmatism.

Mexico under AMLO has sent its National Guard to the southern border with Guatemala to impede Central Americans headed to the U.S. (Mexicans no longer make up the bulk of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.) And it has accepted to become a kind of holding pen for would-be U.S. asylum seekers.

Indeed, many Mexican migration experts say that, in effect, AMLO has given President Trump a version of the wall that candidate Trump insisted Mexico would pay for.

“Basically, Donald Trump has declared what he wants, and López Obrador has given it to him,” Professor Chabat says. “López Obrador is very afraid of Trump because he knows he can do things to really hurt Mexico.”

But in taking immigration measures that pleased Mr. Trump, note some experts in North American affairs, Mr. López Obrador is also keeping happy the growing number of Mexicans who see the Central Americans crossing their territory as a burden.

“At first when the Central American caravans were crossing into Mexico, AMLO sounded very much like most Mexicans, saying these are poor people and we must help them,” says Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. “But then when they kept coming, the welcome started wearing thin.”

It was at that point that Mr. López Obrador started taking steps that pleased Mr. Trump, Professor Feinberg adds. “Suddenly there was a commonality between U.S. policy and Mexican national interests,” he says. (It’s also true that the White House threatened to impose stiff tariffs on Mexican goods if the waves of humanity from Central America weren’t stopped.)

Points in common

Mr. López Obrador’s “Mexico First” immigration policies are just one of the ways that the two odd amigos resemble each other, Professor Feinberg says.

Both leaders are inward-focused and appear to have little interest in the outside world, he says. “Trump gets out of international meetings every chance he can,” he notes, and for López Obrador, “this trip [to Washington] is his first out of the country.”

Moreover, Professor Feinberg says an “anti-elitist populism” runs deep in both men. Whereas Mr. López Obrador speaks frequently of “the mafias of corrupt power” – by which he means the opposition political parties – and his “adversaries” in the media, Mr. Trump rails against the “deep state” and the “enemy of the people” press, he says.

Professor Feinberg says another reason Mr. López Obrador was even able to consider visiting the White House is that Mr. Trump appears to have redirected his demonization of Mexico elsewhere. “Donald Trump always needs an enemy, but this time around it looks like China will be that enemy, not Mexico,” he says.

Yet while the two leaders may have decided they actually kind of like each other, Ms. Quintana of Heritage says she hopes for more from the U.S.-Mexico summit than just a celebratory launch of the USMCA.

She is calling for development of a North American “economic and health recovery plan” that would focus the three economies on stimulating growth to meet regional needs. In particular, she wants to see a focus on developing and strengthening health-materials supply chains so that North America is never again left at the mercy of Chinese and other producers.

“We need to sit down together and come up with a plan for how the three North American trade partners can work together to prevent the kinds of trade and supply-chain shutdowns we saw” in the early months of the outbreak, she says. “That kind of coordination should be part of a modernized trade agreement.”

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