From the start of his campaign, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been promising that he will build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and that Mexico will pay for it. Not if these men have anything to say about it. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Two former Mexican presidents said in separate interviews with The Washington Post that the xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump and the other Republicans running for president has damaged U.S.-Mexico relations and changed the way many Mexicans view Americans.

Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, who led Mexico from 2000 to 2012, said that insults from the Republicans — along with the rapturous reception such comments receive at huge rallies — show a new, alarming strain of anti-Mexican racism.

“Trump is saying stupid things, but the problem is that 40 percent of Republicans say, ‘Yes, you’re right,’ ” said Fox, 73, a former Coca-Cola executive who has long identified with the Republican Party. “They are hearing the prophet telling them that he is going to take them to the promised land. But he is going to lead everybody into the desert to die of hunger and thirst. He is a false prophet.”

In a recent interview on his ranch in central Mexico, Fox said he can scarcely believe what he’s hearing from his northern neighbor: threats of mass deportations of Mexicans and other undocumented workers, ­revoking birthright citizenship, building a multibillion-dollar wall to keep Mexicans out — and sticking Mexico with the bill.

Asked about Trump’s assertion that he was going to get Mexico to pay for his proposed border wall, Fox said bluntly: “Fuck it.”

Vicente Fox, president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, early this month in San Cristobal, Mexico. (Brett Gundlock/Boreal Collective for The Washington Post)

Trump’s troubles with Mexico boiled over Thursday when Fox was quoted on Fusion TV telling interviewer Jorge Ramos, “I’m not going to pay for that f---ing wall!”

Trump quickly tweeted that Fox “horribly used the F word when discussing the wall. He must apologize! If I did that there would be an uproar!”

Reached by telephone Thursday evening, Fox said: “No way. No way. I will never apologize. He has offended Mexicans, and he’s the one who should apologize.”

Noting Trump’s recent disagreement with Pope Francis over the proposed border wall, Fox said, “I think the Republican Party should demand from him respect, not only for the Mexicans but for the pope and for Muslims. The Republican Party has let this go too far. It’s ridiculous.”

Fox said he had been speaking with Republicans in the United States.

“They are telling me, ‘That is not us, it is him. We are ashamed,’ ” he said. “I tell them, ‘Open your eyes, please. Listen to what he is saying.’ This is a very shameful situation for the United States as a nation and for the Republican Party.”

Poll: The Hispanic electorate in 2016

Fox also mentioned Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, who immigrated to the United States from her native Slovenia.

“He has a wife that is imported,” Fox said. “How can he offend every immigrant? How can he offend every Mexican?”

Trump has made a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border a central promise of his campaign. At rallies, Trump’s mentions of it draw enormous applause, especially the billionaire’s pledge that he will make Mexico pay for it. It has become such a familiar routine that Trump now often asks the crowd, “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?” And the crowd shouts, “Mexico!”

Fox’s comments are particularly noteworthy because he hosted President George W. Bush on his ranch at a high point in U.S.-Mexico relations. In February 2001, Bush went to Mexico on his first foreign trip as president and stood shoulder to shoulder with Fox, promising closer ties and friendlier immigration policies.

The “Cowboy Summit” brought together two new presidents who called themselves “amigos” and said they felt “like family.”

Calderón, whose administration worked closely with Washington, called Trump’s proposed wall “useless” because it would not stop illegal immigration, U.S. taxpayers would foot the bill, and it would fuel anti-American feelings and undermine relations with Mexico.

“Good collaboration between governments is a safer way to protect the United States than any stupid wall,” he said Thursday in an interview in his office in Mexico City. “We won’t pay a single cent for that stupid wall. It’s pathetic. . . . Trump is completely demagogical.”

Calderón also pointed out that in recent years more Mexicans are returning home than are entering the United States. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, between 2009 and 2014 about 870,000 Mexicans tried to enter the United States, while about 1 million Mexicans living in the United States returned to Mexico.

“Trump ignores that,” Calderón said. “Anyone who ignores such an important thing is, of course, an ignorant man.”

No country has felt more offended and attacked by the harsh campaign rhetoric than Mexico, which does more than $500 billion a year in trade with the United States, buying more U.S. goods than China and Japan combined.

While Mexicans are used to anti-immigration sentiment in the United States on economic grounds — immigrants blamed for taking jobs and driving down wages — many here now hear from the United States what they consider overt racism.

“Donald Trump, if I understand correctly, himself descends from immigrants,” Calderón said. “So the question is not immigrants or not, the question is white or nonwhite immigrants. He has tried to play hardball with Mexican people in a very ignorant way.”

Mexicans were startled last summer when Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals.” Almost immediately, pink-faced, blond Trump pinatas started showing up in stores in this country of 122 million people.

Street-level disgust with Trump has been grown since.

A Mexican band posted a “corrido,” or traditional folk song, on YouTube saying, “Nobody wants [expletive] Donald Trump.”

Mexican developers created a video game in which players can use a cannon, mounted outside the White House, to shoot tomatoes, cakes or shoes at a scowling image of Trump. Winning players keep Trump out of the White House.

But Fox, Calderón and other Mexican officials said the Mexican response to Trump could be far more serious than popular anger.

Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013, said Mexico would likely retaliate against Trump’s “openly racist” positions if he were elected president.

“On the economic front, if you want to build walls and slap tariffs, you’re going to trigger a trade war with your second-largest buyer of goods,” Sarukhan said, noting that Trump has suggested import tariffs on Mexican-manufactured goods, including cars.

“If you slap tariffs on Mexico, Mexico will slap reprisal tariffs on U.S. products,” he said.

He said that the two nations do $1.4 billion a day in bilateral trade and that 26 U.S. states have Mexico as their No. 1 trading partner. He said 8 million jobs in the United States depend directly on trade with Mexico.

Calderón said Trump’s anti-Mexican trade proposals could result in job losses in the United States, so he is “more dangerous for American workers than for Mexicans.”

Calderón added that Trump would also undermine close collaboration between the two nations on protecting the southern U.S. border from potential terrorist infiltrations. He cited the 2011 case of a man arrested by Mexican authorities, working on information gathered by both governments, and accused of plotting to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.

A million Mexicans and Americans cross the border legally each day, in both directions. Calderón said border security is a product of close cooperation between authorities in both countries.

“We have been collaborating a lot,” he said. “If Donald Trump intends to have a neighbor who is insulted on a daily basis, it would be naive to think that such collaboration would prevail. Actually, there would be no collaboration at all.”

Mexican officials also noted that about 35 million people of Mexican heritage live in the United States. More than 1 million U.S. citizens live in Mexico, the largest U.S. expatriate community in the world.

Fox and Calderón said the 2016 campaign has undone years of goodwill.

Vice President Biden, in Mexico on Thursday, told President Enrique Peña Nieto that there has been “a lot of damaging and incredibly inaccurate rhetoric” in the U.S. election, adding, “I feel almost obliged to apologize for some of what my political colleagues have said about Mexico, about the Mexican people.”

“It’s a heated campaign season, and I just want you to know, Mr. President, that the most heated of the rhetoric you’ve heard from some of the competitors for the nomination for president is not who we are as the American people.

“This, too, shall pass. . . . We have gone through these episodes of xenophobia, but they have always been overcome,” Biden said.

Without naming Trump, Peña Nieto said, “There are those who have the vision to close themselves off . . . build walls, but this only means isolating oneself and ending up alone.”

Fox said much of the appeal of the Mexico-bashing seems to be based on fears about security, which he traces to the 9/11 attacks — which also diverted Bush’s attention from Mexico to the rising war on terror.

Fox has always been an eager promoter of the United States. As a teenager, he drove truckloads of broccoli and other produce from his family’s ranch to sell along the U.S. border, 500 miles to the north. During his presidency, he called for the existing border walls to be demolished, saying, “No country that is proud of itself should build walls.”

“Fear makes you build walls, which is stupid,” Fox said. “Fear made the Chinese build a wall. Fear made Communist Russia build a wall in Berlin. . . . Trump is very wise in understanding the people standing in front of him. He has the ability to tell that crowd what they want to hear. So when you tell them: ‘Mexicans, we have to stop them, they are invading the United States, we must keep them out of this nation,’ those people are willing to listen to that. The reason is fear.”

Fox said he sees the rise of Trump — and, on the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — as part of a global trend toward dwindling confidence in government and angry outsiders upending politics, from Britain to Spain to Brazil.

“This is what explains to me a guy like Trump and a guy like Bernie,” Fox said. “They come in and break the system and provoke a revolution. We’re going to see more surprises, because democracy is not delivering what people expect.”

Calderón said the problem is not that “one crazy guy with a lot of money” is making anti-
Mexican comments but that he has such a huge following. “He is awakening a lot of bad feelings and bad values which are completely contrary to the values I admire among the American society,” Calderón said.

He said Trump has undermined efforts by successive U.S. governments to build allies and bolster the image of the United States abroad.

“All the hate that he is seeding everywhere right now among the Muslims or Mexicans or Latin Americans or Asians could provoke an incredible reaction against the United States,” he said.

Fox also said he thought Trump had damaged the U.S. image around the world.

“What is happening will not affect military power of the United States,” Fox said. “What is being affected severely is soft power, image, credibility, having friends around the world. Crazy guys like this could even end those friendships.”

Fox said he thought Trump’s political campaign was motivated, at least in part, by increasing his company’s profits.

“I cannot understand why the Republican Party lets somebody come in and use it to make the Trump brand more successful in the business world,” Fox said. “And the Republicans are quiet? He is laughing at everybody. He is amassing a fortune. Today the Trump brand is worth a hundred times more than it was before. So for him, he already won.”