The shape-shifting act was a duet, and they really worked together. But first some context. Trump’s poll numbers are weak in some key states, including a traditionally red state with a growing percentage of Hispanic voters like Texas. Among Mexican voters, López Obrador is still quite popular, but he is trying to turn the page on a disastrous response to the novel coronavirus.
In remarks at the White House that will certainly haunt him for many years, López Obrador thanked Trump for being “increasingly respectful with our Mexican paisanos.” He described the man who has said Mexican migrants are rapists and criminals as “understanding" and “respectful” and thanked him for his “kindness.”
The Trump campaign wasted no time: A video highlighting the compliments was quickly circulated by surrogates on Twitter (just as Joe Biden posted that Trump has “spread racism against our Latino community ever since” he launched his 2016 run).
Trump needs every vote he can get — even getting a small slice of Mexican American voters will be a victory. Shamelessly, the Mexican president decided to help him, in times when the Latino population in the United States is suffering greatly, getting infected with the coronavirus at alarmingly disparate rates.
A visit and performance at the White House will not change the reality for Mexico’s president, either. López Obrador is failing to contain the economic impact of the pandemic. He is one of the icons of leftist populism in Latin America but has inexplicably decided not to deploy an aggressive plan of direct financial assistance for families and businesses. Instead of offering his own fiscal stimulus, López Obrador is betting that he can ride the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and U.S. recovery programs and buy some Trump-time (that is, make it through the presidential campaign without being the incumbent’s piñata, as in 2016).
But López Obrador’s biggest problem is that he generates very little trust. Just a few days before the White House meeting, the American ambassador in Mexico, Christopher Landau, publicly expressed his concerns about the investment climate in Mexico. Unilateral cancellations of private contracts and new policies in strategic sectors such as energy have spread a mood of uncertainty. The Mexican economy was in a downward spiral even before covid-19 was detected.
So to revitalize his image, López Obrador chose to visit Trump, his first foreign trip as president. The two share defining traits — they’re nationalist populists who like to insult and denigrate their opponents, trash the media, overrule and weaken institutions, and see themselves as infallible leaders.
But there are many differences, and their relationship with the private sector is a major one. While Trump considers himself an ally of the business community, López Obrador makes a point of repudiating it. Perhaps a dinner at the White House with important business leaders helped build some trust. I hope that he at least tried, because if he can’t get Mexico out of the economic crisis the pandemic has brought, López Obrador can start considering his administration essentially over.
But all we witnessed in the Rose Garden was the Mexican president putting on an act while turning his back on the 36 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the United States. And for what, exactly? We know the true nature of these leaders. No one can believe in their empty words and gestures.
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