Trump’s Mexican moment leaves a sour taste behind

Inviting Donald Trump to Mexico gave the country's president Enrique Peña Nieto a political lifeline, writes Hussein Ibish

Mexico's president Enrique Pena Nieto with Donald Trump in Mexico City last month, Marco Ugarte / AP Photo
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Mexican culture may be remarkably attuned to pain and loss, but last week delivered a pair of especially brutal blows. One came from Mexico’s own incompetent young president, while the other was delivered by the old spectre that haunts the land of the Day of the Dead: Santa Muerte herself, the exterminating angel.

On August 28, she swooped down on one of Mexico’s most popular and influential artists, the 66-year-old singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel. He was not only a beloved performer and composer of songs that help make up the national soundtrack. He was also a repository and transmitter of Mexico’s history of popular music.

One of his most significant, and frequently overlooked, achievements was the 1996 recording Las Tres Señoras. Gabriel persuaded three of Mexico’s greatest singers –Lola Beltran, Amalia Mendoza and Lucha Villa, by then all old ladies – to come out of retirement and sing together for the first time.

They belted out patriotic and sentimental compositions by Gabriel that drew on a range of traditions, celebrating and summarising Mexican popular culture. The opening and closing, both called Oberatura Mexicana, define the spirit of rancheras and other key Mexican genres – complete with fireworks, nationally distinctive catcalls and whopping cockerel-crows from the men.

It’s histrionic, operatic, preposterous, joyous and ultimately magnificent. Anyone listening who remains unmoved is simply soulless.

Juanga preserved and promoted the best in Mexican culture, but also boldly and effectively challenged some of what’s worst. His flamboyant persona itself reflected deep-seated patriarchal and homophobic attitudes.

Mexicans were reeling from this sudden loss when their hapless president, Enrique Peña Nieto, made the inexplicable blunder of inviting Donald Trump – without doubt the pre-eminent living promoter of anti-Mexican bigotry – to a respectful meeting that left the struggling Republican nominee looking almost presidential.

While adopting a relatively obsequious tone, Mr Trump basked in the quasi-diplomatic legitimacy. That evening, however, he returned to a rally in Arizona that proved little more than a hate-fest against immigrants and Mexicans.

Mr Trump laid out a blood-curdling programme on immigration that would turn the United State into a brutal police state. Hundreds of thousands would be jailed awaiting deportation.

Police would comb the landscape looking for anyone they suspected of being “illegal” or simply disliked. Families would be ripped apart and young people expelled from the only country they have ever known.

The country he described was a Kafkaesque nightmare patrolled by fugitive-hunting goon squads, and with intensive state surveillance to support mass incarcerations and mass deportations. He proposed creating a vast and barely-accountable authoritarian apparatus to ferret out and expel hard-working, peaceful, productive, and otherwise law-abiding and blameless people, and inevitably abuse countless more in the process. His America would be utterly, and hideously, unrecognisable.

Mr Trump’s caricature of undocumented workers as vicious criminals preying on innocent Americans is not only false, it is a complete inversion of reality – citizens are, in fact, far more likely to commit crimes. But fear and hate, not facts, are his métier.

Mr Trump’s weird mindset of dominance and subordination – both sadomasochistic and Manichean – makes him oscillate between a meek and servile tone, as in Mexico, and an angry and vicious one, as in Arizona. Mexicans and Muslims are his favourite targets. Especially Mexicans. America’s most notorious racists cheered his immigration speech the loudest, correctly hearing their own voices speaking through him.

About half of Mr Trump’s pathetic “Hispanic advisory council” resigned in disgust, with one former member saying he felt like a “prop” and another calling it “a scam”.

One of the last “Latinos for Trump” left standing, Marco Gutierrez, provided a perfect grace note by grimly warning that the US could soon have “taco trucks on every corner”. Americans, who have long preferred salsa to ketchup, responded with a mighty “Yum!”

Mr Trump’s fire-breathing performance further alienated Republican leaders, including their National Committee, who are already appalled by his irresponsibility. New campaign rhetoric from embattled Republican candidates like Paul Ryan and John McCain clearly implies they fully expect him to lose and asks for voter support in order to prevent complete Democratic rule.

His poll numbers may be improving, but Mr Trump still needs a miracle to secure 270 electoral college votes and win in November. Now Mexico, of all countries, gives him his only really “presidential” moment. He did his best to squander it at a bizarre, dystopian, white nationalist jamboree. But the trip was still a huge success for him.

While grieving for one of their most uplifting cultural icons, aghast Mexicans watched their own bumbling president inexplicably throwing Mr Trump this invaluable political lifeline. Though his incorrigible self-destructiveness prompted Mr Trump to try to cast it aside, qué pena, carnal! (“man, what a disgrace”).

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

On Twitter: @ibishblog