I am returning from spending a day in Mexico City speaking with business and government leaders. Relative to my last visit to Mexico, in March, leaders have moved from being appalled and alarmed by the Trump administration to being appalled and bemused.
I suppose this is a kind of progress for the United States, if not for President Trump. It’s not that they find his rhetoric any more rational than they did a few months ago. But they have come to understand that because of the strength of American institutions and the ineptitude of the president, there is likely to be less connection between presidential rhetoric and action than they had previously supposed.
Thus, they commented on the fact that the peso and the Mexican stock market had been unaffected by presidential bluster in Phoenix about building walls and terminating the North American Free Trade Agreement, noting that this kind of rhetoric six months ago would have had major market effects. Similarly, relative to a few months ago, I was asked much less about excessive presidential power or risks to democracy and much more about impeachment scenarios.
I didn’t know what to say when asked whether the president and his team believed what they said about bilateral trade deficits as a way of judging trade relationships. I responded by saying that using bilateral trade deficits to diagnose trade barriers was to economics what creationism was to biology, or the idea that the sun revolves around Earth was to astronomy. Increasingly, I think the president and Wilbur Ross believe what they say, which is an embarrassment to their alma maters.
I left my Mexican friends with a line often attributed to Winston Churchill in which I have increasing confidence after seeing the response of the business community, cultural leaders and many congressional Republicans to this administration. “The United States does the right thing, but only after exhausting the alternatives.” The exhaustion-of-alternatives stage in our national life will end, and, in my view, its end cannot come soon enough.