By Theodore Kahn
Mexico is concerned about Donald Trump. The unexpected success of an openly xenophobic and anti-immigrant candidate who has singled their country out for his nativist wrath has Mexicans wondering what a Trump victory would mean for them.
On the one hand, a Trump administration would almost certainly deal a blow to the Mexican economy, even if he failed to renegotiate NAFTA.
But there is growing speculation about the political fallout, as Mexico looks ahead to its own presidential election in 2018.
In particular, many worry that a president Trump would improve the chances of Manuel Andrés López Obrador, leader of the left-wing Morena party, whose popularity has risen swiftly since its founding in 2014.
It is easy to see why many political analysts draw the connection between Trump and AMLO: both have confrontational styles, an anti-globalization outlook, and a dismissive attitude towards existing institutions (although it is worth pointing out the important differences between López Obrador, a lifelong politician and former mayor of Mexico City, and America’s would-be celebrity in chief).
But their similarities aside, would Trump really be a boon for AMLO?
That possibility was discussed recently in Americas Quarterly by Brian Winter, who argued political trends that begin in the United States—think anti-communism in the 1950s, or free-market capitalism in the 1980s—tend to find their way to Latin America.
As Winter points out, many Mexicans agree with the proposition that a Trump victory would increase the likelihood that López Obrador, currently among the leaders in early 2018 polling, becomes Mexico’s next president.
The logic beyond the Trump-helps-AMLO theory seems to be that the aggressive, anti-Mexican rhetoric and actions that would presumably accompany a Trump victory would make Mexicans more receptive to a nationalistic and anti-globalization candidate. And clearly López Obrador is best positioned to make such a pitch. He can credibly promise to fight fire with fire, while reminding Mexicans he was right all along about hitching the country’s economic prospects to the gringo wagon.
However, I see a couple problems with this theory. The first stems from AMLO’s own behavior: never one to shy away from political confrontation, he has been uncharacteristically mum on Trump.
While Mexican politicians and commentators have lined up to denounce the Donald as a racist, ignorant liar, López Obrador’s public comments on the Republican candidate have been restrained, even conciliatory. In February, the politician invariably described as a “firebrand,” calmly explained he would seek a relationship of “cooperation for development” with the US, even if Trump were president. He also appeared to present the self-proclaimed master dealmaker with a business opportunity.
Several weeks later, AMLO did venture to call Trump “deslenguado,” or foul-mouthed. Tame stuff from “el Peje”, a nickname derived from a vicious, sharp-toothed fish found in AMLO’s native Tabasco state.
What explains his reticence?
One possibility is that the much-commented upon similarities between the candidates present a dilemma for AMLO. Could it be that López Obrador sees in Trump a kindred spirit that prevents him from freely attacking him like most members of Mexico’s political establishment?
After all, AMLO shares some of the animating ideas of Trump’s campaign—that NAFTA has been bad for the average worker, that national interests should take precedence over those of large corporations. This overlap might make it more difficult for López Obrador to fully take advantage of any surge in nationalist sentiment from Trump’s provocations.
Another complicating factor for AMLO is precisely the economic damage that Trump could inflict on Mexico.
Regardless of whether Trump actually manages to impose higher tariffs on Mexican goods or force a renegotiation of NAFTA, any efforts in this direction would undoubtedly having a cooling effect on US-Mexico trade. Firms that rely on cross-border markets and suppliers will put off investments and make contingency plans. The sheer quantity of US-Mexico trade—estimated at US$ 1.4 billion a day—means that such a wait-and-see approach will have real economic consequences.
Won’t this short-term pain just play into AMLO’s hands? Not necessarily. Faced with an uncertain economic future, Mexicans might opt for a set of steady hands to manage the economy—a response that would likely favor the right-of-center PAN. Middle-class voters who like AMLO’s anti-corruption message but are not ready to embrace an overhaul of Mexico’s economic model (which has provided stability if not spectacular growth) might think twice about voting for López Obrador in the midst of an economic downturn.
Indeed, concerns about economic stability were AMLO’s Achilles’ heel in the 2006 presidential election, which he lost by a mere 0.56 percentage points to Felipe Calderón of the PAN. During the campaign, AMLO’s opponents bluntly compared him to Hugo Chávez, implying a vote for AMLO would be a vote for a radical socialist overhaul of the economy. It worked. In the weeks after the ads started running, Calderón gained ground in the polls and never looked back.
Of course, it is possible that times have changed. In the decade since the contested 2006 election, mounting frustration over corruption, violence, and official impunity has consolidated into widespread rejection of the political class. And a stubbornly sluggish economy is adding to the discontent. Renewed opposition to education reform—part of president Pena Nieto’s package of structural reforms passed during his first two years in office—reflects growing skepticism over Mexico’s orthodox macroeconomic model.
In the midst of such political and economic malaise, more Mexicans may be ready to roll the dice and vote for an anti-system candidate. If that happens, however, I am not sure how much Donald Trump will have to do with it. A Trump victory would be at best a mixed blessing for AMLO, and its net effect on the 2018 race is uncertain.
But this much is clear: Mexicans are hoping they will never have to find out for sure.
Theodore Kahn is a PhD candidate in Latin America Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies