In March, Mexico’s embattled president, Enrique Peña Nieto, compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “Unfortunately, there have been moments in the history of humanity,” Peña Nieto said in a newspaper interview of Trump’s anti-Mexican slurs, “when these expressions, this strident rhetoric, has led to ominous outcomes…. That’s how Mussolini and Hitler” took power.
Now, in late August, with Trump not even having yet achieved the equivalent of seizing his Sudentenland, Peña Nieto has gone all Neville Chamberlain, inviting the would-be Hitler to lunch.
Trump arrived one day before Peña Nieto was to send his traditional “State of the Government” report to Congress. The state of things is bad, so no doubt Trump’s visit will be a distraction. Four years into his term, Peña Nieto has the lowest polls of any past Mexican president since 1995—23 percent approval, according to one survey. Homicides are up, the economy is down, and it seems to a majority of Mexicans that Peña Nieto has lost control over the country’s repressive security forces, which kill protesters and criminals alike with impunity. He’s been rocked by corruption scandals, and it has just been reported that the president plagiarized 197 of 682 paragraphs of his law-school thesis. In addition to providing ongoing funding to the Mexican military, Barack Obama has done what he can to prop up his counterpart, including recently hosting him in the White House and, with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, visiting him in Mexico. To no avail; seven in 10 Mexicans say their country is going in the wrong direction.
It was a safe bet that Peña Nieto would try to stand up to Trump, on behalf of Mexico and Mexican immigrants. Yet it’s a risky gambit to treat a presidential candidate, never mind one like Trump, as if he or she were already president. A backfire would add to Peña Nieto’s general spiral downward.
Peña Nieto has foolishly thrown Trump a lifeline, an opportunity to make it seem as if xenophobia is a legitimate topic of diplomatic discussion. The visit was condemned by many in Mexico, especially Peña Nieto’s political opposition. But Peña Nieto himself, to whatever degree he hoped to turn Trump’s visit into a self-serving spectacle, was constrained by presidential protocol. All Trump had to do is point out the obvious: NAFTA has been a disaster for many Mexicans; undocumented immigration is inhumane, a death march. He could even have pointed out that both of those policies—“free trade” and the über-militarization of the border—were implemented by Hillary Clinton’s husband. If the conversation were to come off as “respectful” and “presidential,” Trump might thread the needle—“I love Mexican people. I have a tremendous relationship. I also respect Mexico” but “somebody’s doing the raping”—bumping up his moderate numbers and appeasing his white nationalist base.
Author’s update: Reviews of Trump in Mexico were mixed, leaving some to wonder if his soporific performance was due to having forgotten to take his amphetamines. But at least one section of the punditry, including Trump’s constant critic, Bill Kristol, thought he did indeed looked “presidential.” Kristol: “Hard when you’re a challenger to seem presidential. Trump standing there—for all the awkwardness—looks presidential. Good day for Trump.” See this note at TPM. Rich Lowry, at the anti-Trump (kinda, sorta, not really) National Review, pronounced the visit a “success.” “His best political moment,” Lowry wrote; Trump looked “presidential on the international stage.”
For their part, Mexicans, in the papers, on the streets, and on Twitter, were damning, both of Trump and of Peña Nieto for having invited him. The historian Enrique Krauze drew the same analogy I did above, likening the Mexican president to Neville Chamberlain. “It’s a historic error,” Krauze said in The New York Times: “You confront tyrants. You don’t appease them.… It isn’t brave to meet in private with somebody who has insulted and denigrated” Mexicans, Krauze said. “It isn’t dignified to simply have a dialogue.”
Editor’s note: The original text of this post was slightly modified to account for the passage of time.