On June 23rd, Donald Trump visited Arizona to celebrate the completion of two hundred miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. That the number of coronavirus cases in the state had reached an all-time high did not stop Trump from focussing on the structure, hailing it as “great,” “powerful,” and “really foolproof.” His visit to Arizona, a key battleground state in the 2020 election, gave him an opportunity to showcase a formidable campaign promise that he has neither fulfilled nor got Mexico to pay for. Before surveying the thirty-foot-tall fence in San Luis, where a silver plaque awaited his signature, Trump spoke at a border-security roundtable. He boasted of his success in preventing immigrants, drugs, crimes, and even the coronavirus from reaching the U.S.’s southern border. For that, Trump had an unlikely ally to thank. “I want to thank the President of Mexico,” he said. “He’s really a great guy. I think he’ll be coming into Washington pretty soon.”
Two weeks later, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador boarded a commercial flight en route to the U.S. capital. His decision to visit Trump in the midst of a pandemic and a fraught American election spurred criticism on both sides of the border. Many argued that Trump could reap political benefits from the meeting at a time when he is hoping to pull Latino voters away from Joe Biden, especially in battleground states he must win in 2020, such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas. While Trump’s polling averages have plummeted among other groups, his support among Latinos has remained steady. He is still losing to these voters by a wide margin—more than thirty percentage points—but he also appears to be benefitting from Biden’s inability to generate enthusiasm for his candidacy in the community. Recent polls show that less than sixty per cent of the Latino electorate would vote for Biden—a far lower number than the seventy-one per cent who voted for Obama in 2012 and the sixty-six per cent who voted for Clinton in 2016.
During two tightly scripted public appearances, where no questions from the press were permitted, López Obrador flaunted his friendship with Trump, showering him with adulation and praising his treatment of Mexico. “I’m here to express to the people of the United States that their President has behaved toward us with kindness and respect. He has treated us as we are: a dignified country,” López Obrador, who is commonly known by his initials, AMLO, said. He left Washington politically unscathed at home because Trump, in a rare display of discipline, made no virulent remarks against Mexico. “Mexican-Americans uplift our communities,” Trump declared. “They strengthen our churches and enrich every feature of national life. They are hardworking, incredible people.”
In Trumpian fashion, the President took full political advantage of the visit. Hours after the two leaders spoke in the Rose Garden, Trump tweeted a campaign-style video of López Obrador hailing him and his record. Snippets from Trump’s remarks, mixed with triumphant music, narrated the footage. “Today we celebrate the historic victory we achieved together just days ago, when NAFTA was officially terminated and replaced with a brand-new, beautiful U.S.M.C.A.,” Trump says as a picture of the trade deal, featuring his signature in oversized letters, appears on the screen. Earlier in the day, when Biden reminded his followers on Twitter that “Trump launched his 2016 campaign by calling Mexicans rapists,” the proxy account @EquipoTrump responded that “Trump has actually delivered for our community. That’s why President López Obrador said today that @realDonaldTrump has treated Mexicans with ‘understanding’ and ‘respect.’ ” Days later, Axios reported that the Trump campaign planned to spend millions on Spanish-language ads featuring López Obrador’s remarks at the White House.
Equipo Trump is the official bilingual Twitter account of the President’s reëlection campaign. In recent days, the account tweeted a warning in Spanish that a possible Joe Biden Vice-Presidential pick, Karen Bass, would adopt policies of appeasement toward the Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s leader, Raúl Castro. It also wished Peruvians a happy Independence Day. Unlike in 2016, the Trump campaign appears to be actively trying to expand Trump’s base of support among Latinos. The effort is being shepherded by Vice-President Mike Pence’s nephew, John Pence, a corporate lawyer in his thirties who has said that he discovered the perils of socialism while studying abroad in Argentina and teaching English in Nicaragua. It has a Latino advisory board comprising twenty-two members, ranging from Hispanic business leaders to evangelical pastors. And, since the onset of the pandemic, the campaign has been holding frequent online events and sending out e-mails highlighting issues that appeal to conservative Hispanics, warning of “The Radical Left’s” desire to achieve “unlimited abortions through Biden” or its attempt to “cancel Goya Foods.”
Still, the campaign, in many respects, is closely following Trump’s aggressive 2016 playbook. Last fall, when Biden launched an initiative called Todos con Biden (All with Biden), Trump’s team rushed to buy the Web domain. To date, anyone visiting the site todosconbiden.com will find a photograph of the Vice-President looking downward, with his arms crossed, and an announcement, in both English and Spanish: “Oops, Joe forgot about Latinos.” A link at the bottom of the page, which reads “Vamos” (“Let’s Go”), redirects visitors to the Latinos for Trump Web page. “We’ve seen that the Trump campaign has no compunction when it comes to weaponizing any statements of support for their own political purposes,” Fernand Amandi, a Democratic strategist and pollster, told me. “If the campaign thinks it’s enough to propel them to be able to win the Hispanic vote on the basis of AMLO’s comments, they’re sorely mistaken. If their aim is to try to use these comments to increase support from Hispanic voters on the margins, it might very well have that effect.”
Trump, though, also faces enormous political challenges in increasing his support among Latinos. His stance on immigration, and particularly his Administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families, is widely unpopular in the community. As the pandemic continues, Trump’s claims of a thriving economy, which once resonated strongly among Latino men, are no longer credible—the unemployment rate for Hispanics currently stands at more than sixteen per cent. Furthermore, Latinos have caught and died from the coronavirus at an outsized rate—the research group Latino Decisions recently reported that, in a majority of states, Hispanics are more than twice as likely as other Americans to contract the virus. All the while, the President has continued his long-running practice of making false claims about undocumented immigrants and playing on racial fears, as a way to scare voters into supporting him. On June 28th, he tweeted, “Corrupt Joe Biden has confirmed that he ‘would give UNLIMITED Healthcare to Illegal Immigrants’. This would break our system and bring millions of people to the USA.”
To Trump’s opponents, this all begs the question of why López Obrador would lend himself to being so overtly used. After the Rose Garden address, Representative Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and the son of a Mexican immigrant, derided López Obrador as “nothing more than Trump’s collaborator.” In 2018, López Obrador ran for office on a pledge to counter Trump’s vitriol and restore the dignity of Mexico. Within months of Trump’s inauguration, he filed a complaint at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Washington, D.C., denouncing the Administration’s border wall and its immigration policy. He also published a book, “Oye, Trump” (“Listen Up, Trump”), in which he declared that “Trump and his advisers speak of Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination.”
“López Obrador at some point decided, or was convinced, that bending the knee was a better option than standing his ground with Trump,” Arturo Sarukhán, who served as Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013, told me. In Sarukhán’s view, the visit was “a slap in the face to migrants in the U.S.—eleven million of whom are Mexicans—and a boon to Trump’s dog-whistle xenophobia and chauvinism.” There’s a clear answer, though, as to why López Obrador made the trip. He is under enormous pressure to revive the Mexican economy, which was stagnant even before COVID-19 arrived—its prospects now are even bleaker. The Bank of Mexico recently announced that the country’s G.D.P. would fall between five and nine per cent this year, and as many as 1.4 million jobs could be lost. “The U.S. remains Mexico’s largest trading partner, so you cannot underplay the fact that there is an element of economic pragmatism,” Daniel Erikson, a former adviser on Latin America to Vice-President Biden, told me. “The question is, Will it be worth it? And at what cost?”
By focussing almost exclusively on trade and seeking to appease Trump on immigration, López Obrador has glossed over thorny issues such as the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico and the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Instead, López Obrador has reduced the bilateral agenda to the topics that best fit Trump’s agenda. He is among the few Latin American leaders, including the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, who have praised Trump’s Presidency. However humiliating López Obrador’s acquiescence to Trump may appear to be, it has had few negative repercussions for him at home so far. Most of López Obrador’s supporters in Mexico, where the President maintains the unwavering support of his base, view his handling of Trump favorably. “One would think that Trump would be more unpopular in Mexico than in other countries, because we’ve actually borne the brunt of many of his policies,” Denise Dresser, a political scientist at ITAM, a university in Mexico City, told me. “But López Obrador has reframed collaboration with Trump vis-à-vis his base as something to applaud, and confrontation as something to decry. So this may be a political win for López Obrador, at least in the short term.” In the long term, however, there are no guarantees that Trump will refrain from scapegoating Mexico or its people, particularly if he wins reëlection.
The day after López Obrador’s return to Mexico, Trump was back on the campaign trail. In Florida, he stopped by the U.S. Southern Command headquarters, for a briefing on the unit’s counter-narcotics operations. During the visit, he suggested that Mexico was a potentially dangerous source of the coronavirus. Epidemiologists have found that travellers from Europe were the primary sources of the virus in the U.S. “We’re up to two hundred and fifty miles,” Trump said, in reference to his wall. “And especially with COVID—that turned out to be very lucky for us that we had the wall, or we would have been inundated, because they do have some big problems.” Trump’s comments echoed the false, racially charged claims that he had made as a candidate in 2015: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In a subsequent interview with Chris Wallace from Fox News, Trump claimed that the media was not paying enough attention to the coronavirus outbreaks in Mexico and other countries. “Why don’t they talk about Mexico? Which is not helping us,” Trump said, even though the country has recorded a quarter of the U.S.’s number of cases per capita. “All I can say is thank God I built most of the wall, because if I didn’t have the wall up we would have a much bigger problem with Mexico.”