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Trump tweets and Mexico’s presidential hopefuls fire back

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The targets of President Trump's tweeted wrath are legion. They include online retail giant Amazon, the Democratic Party, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the mainstream media and undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers." But even among them, Mexico holds a special place of honor.

Trump, of course, launched his presidential campaign with an infamous slur against Mexicans and a promise to fortify the border using Mexican money. There have been endless complaints about Mexican trade, attacks on a "Mexican" judge (a native-born American, in fact) and any number of other broadsides.

So it's hardly a surprise that on Sunday and Monday mornings — possibly provoked by Fox News coverage as well as ultranationalist White House aide Stephen Miller — Trump again focused his rage on the nation to the south. What followed was a blizzard of misinformation.

Trump attacked Mexico for supposedly allowing drug smugglers and hordes of migrants to rush over the border. (There's no evidence of increased flows, and Mexico in many ways is doing Washington's dirty work on its own southern border.) He then tethered his skepticism over DACA — an Obama-era policy that exempts hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children — to the imagined threat that new undocumented arrivals would seek to claim the same status. (That's just not how it works.)

Trump then referred to "caravans" of migrants marching through Mexico to the U.S. border. (There is, in fact, only one such "caravan," an annual activist stunt aimed at generating media attention for asylum seekers and migrants from Central America.) And, for good measure, he threatened to stop the "cash cow" that is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he is bent on either renegotiating or jettisoning as part of his "America First" agenda.

In the face of this onslaught, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray tweeted a polite response. "Every day Mexico and the U.S. work together on migration throughout the region. Facts clearly reflect this," he wrote, referring to Trump's frenzy over "caravans." "An inaccurate news report should not serve to question this strong cooperation. Upholding human dignity and rights is not at odds with the rule of law."

A caravan of Central American migrants is expected to end its journey in Mexico City rather than pushing north to the U.S. border, organizers said on April 4. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Rusvel Rasgado/The Washington Post)

But it's not clear how much longer Mexico's leadership will be as measured as Videgaray. As Trump fumed in his Florida mansion on Sunday, the Mexican presidential campaign formally got underway, and all the leading candidates took the opportunity to bash the tweeter in chief next door.

Conservative challenger Ricardo Anaya said he would confront Trump with "a strong and dignified stance." He struck back at Trump's complaints over the border, linking U.S. gun laws to cartel violence that afflicts parts of Mexico. "Eighty percent of the guns used to kill people in our country come from the United States,” he said.

Last month, while campaigning among Mexicans in California, Anaya decried the apparent timidity of Videgaray's boss, President Enrique Peña Nieto, in the face of Trump's bullying. He also offered solidarity with Mexican migrants living in the United States.

"I want to ask you, with my heart in my hand, that every time you hear an aggressive or denigrating expression, remember that there, in Mexico, you are the heroes of the country; the brave, the enterprising, the generous, those who dared to cross the border to give their family a better future," Anaya said.

Indeed, Trump's seeming hostility to Mexico has led to a nationalist turn in the Mexican presidential race. The biggest beneficiary is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist who is polling a whopping 18 points ahead of Anaya and 22 points in front of ruling-party candidate José Antonio Meade. With the exception of former president Vicente Fox, who has practically made mocking Trump his full-time job, no leading Mexican politician has been as vociferous in his condemnation of the U.S. president as the former Mexico City mayor and veteran campaigner.

In the port city of Veracruz, which U.S. troops occupied in 1914, López Obrador promised during a January speech that "we're going to put [Trump] in his place." On Sunday, at the border city of Ciudad Juarez, he told a cheering crowd that “neither Mexico nor its people will be the piñata of any foreign government.”

López Obrador, 64, blends that defiant nationalism with populist resentment over the systemic graft that still shapes Mexican society and politics — what he calls "the mafia of power." It's a stigma that Peña Nieto and his ruling party have been unable to shake. "Neither security issues nor social problems can be resolved with walls,” López Obrador said in Juarez, attacking Trump’s “mistaken foreign policy” and “contemptuous attitude toward Mexicans.”

"Mexico is now a democracy, but there is profound discontent with its results. Most Mexicans resent, and rightfully, the meager economic growth of the past few decades and the persistence of poverty and inequality," historian Enrique Krauze wrote in the New York Times last month. "And four terrible problems complicate this situation: violence, insecurity, impunity and corruption. In the face of this desolating balance sheet, the natural reaction in any democracy is to punish the government in power."

Some American and Mexican critics to the right of López Obrador style him as a Hugo Chávez-in-waiting and a danger to the U.S.-Mexican relationship. His disciplined campaign, after narrow defeats in the past, suggest those fears are possibly overblown. And in the age of Trump, his populism hardly seems any more a threat to the North American status quo than the politics that have taken root in the White House. The two may prove one another's best enemies.

"If Lopez Obrador wins and meets his vow to respond harshly to Trump’s tirades against Mexico, Trump would be able to tell his base: 'You see, I told you so. Mexico is not a friendly nation,' " Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer wrote. "The two nationalist-populist presidents would feed one another — and help each other with their respective political bases — with an escalating war of words."

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