What Mexico Thinks About Trump
By IOAN GRILLO
MEXICO CITY — IN 2011, when the Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain proposed building an electric fence on the Mexican border, it predictably caused shock waves south of the Rio Grande. Priests, the press and a former president expressed outrage. Mr. Cain quickly pulled back, saying he was just kidding. “That is not a serious plan,” he said. “America needs to get a sense of humor. That is a joke, O.K.?”
Mr. Cain’s retreat reflected a back and forth that had defined the Mexican-American relationship for decades. It was understood that, from time to time, a politician might take a potshot at Mexico. But there was a line: If the punch was too hard, the right voices here would call foul, and the politician would back down.
Until Donald J. Trump. He infamously kicked off his campaign with the taunting phrase “They’re rapists.” Mexico’s foreign relations department called him out for “prejudice, racism and total ignorance,” while major Mexican companies boycotted him. But Mr. Trump only doubled down. His signature line — “We are going to build a wall. And who is going to pay for it?” — draws cheers from his supporters.
Normally, Mexican TV networks only sparsely report on American primaries, but this year’s have garnered almost daily coverage. Viewers here watch with horror Mr. Trump’s leering, reddened face decrying them from Michigan to Mississippi — and the big crowds egging him on. Some here have recommended calm, arguing that the best way to deal with bullies is to ignore them. Others say that it is dangerous to be silent in the face of bigotry and incitement, especially when the fiery language translates into violence, like when Trump supporters beat a Hispanic man in Boston in August.
Mr. Trump’s continued hard-line stance, and the specter of his potential nomination, have created a tricky foreign-policy challenge for the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Sitting Mexican presidents normally hold back from commenting on American elections, for fear of landing on the wrong side of the victor. But with increasing anguish about Mr. Trump here, it became politically difficult for Mr. Peña Nieto to stay silent.
The Mexican president finally waded into the realm of American politics with a series of interviews this month. And he didn’t hold back, comparing Mr. Trump to a fascist. “That’s how Mussolini got in, that’s how Hitler got in. They took advantage of a situation, a problem,” Mr. Peña Nieto told the newspaper Excélsior.
His words made a splash in the American media. But they neither hurt Mr. Trump in the polls nor made him back off. Within days, Mr. Trump responded to a question of whether he would go to war to make Mexico pay for the wall by saying, “When I rejuvenate our military, Mexico won’t be playing with us with war.”
Mexican politicians and pundits are now debating how best to deal with Mr. Trump. For Mexico, it is not only about pride or political correctness. It is about maintaining a decent working relationship between two countries that share one of the world’s longest borders, highest amounts of trade and largest migration flows (there are 11 million Mexican citizens in the United States, and an additional 22 million Americans of Mexican origin).
Mexico may get a respite from the Trump fireballs if he wins the nomination and radically changes his tone to take the center ground in a general election. But with Mr. Trump’s being so unpredictable, none of that is guaranteed.
And whatever happens, Trumpism may have already changed the accepted rules of American political rhetoric toward its neighbor. Other politicians could see his success as a green light to bash Mexico and migrants, whether at campaign rallies or even in Congress. It was a long struggle to push anti-Hispanic racism out of American political discourse, and it could be tough to get that genie back in the bottle.
Trumpism could also have a toxic effect outside the halls of power, on the street. When Mr. Trump was a wild outsider, it was easier for Mexicans to shrug off his taunts with their own lighthearted stunts, like smashing a stick into a piñata in the image of the orange-haired tycoon. But as the favorite to win the nomination, he is harder to laugh at. The stabs hurt.
While Mexico’s opinion of the United States is complicated, there is a generally positive view of Americans here. Mexico receives the most American visitors (25 million in a year) and most likely has the biggest American expatriate community.
But with Mr. Trump riding a xenophobic sentiment shared by millions of Americans, that positive view could be dampened, and remain that way long after the last vote is cast. Those cheering at Trump rallies should remember that xenophobia and hatred can be a two-way Street.