The U.S.-Mexico Relationship Is About to Get Weirder

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the incoming president, is a nationalist and a populist—just like Trump.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a rally in Mexico City on September 29, 2018.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a rally in Mexico City on September 29, 2018. (Henry Romero / Reuters)

Updated at 2:39 p.m. ET on November 30, 2018.

The president of the United States is threatening to close the border with Mexico to prevent the entry of Central Americans seeking asylum. He is also threatening to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t finance his border wall. All this in the same week that he intends to sign a new, revised North American Free Trade Agreement, rebranded as the USMCA.

It’s a confusing juxtaposition for Mexicans tired of President Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric as well as for ardent Trump supporters and Fox News viewers who must wonder why the U.S. would ever enter into a free-trade agreement with that country.

The situation may yet become more confusing, and surreal, after Andrés Manuel López Obrador is sworn in as the new president of Mexico on Saturday. Although it’s not popular to point this out south of the border, AMLO, as he’s known, shares a few traits with Trump, including disdain for deeper economic integration with the outside world. That’s why it’s rather convenient for him that outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto will sign the deal with Washington and Ottawa in the final hours of his administration (although AMLO’s representatives grudgingly approved it).*

Trump and AMLO will make an odd economic marriage, given both men’s insistence on putting their country first (for a change, they’d add). Like Trump, AMLO is a nationalist populist, though of a more proletarian variety. Like Trump, AMLO claims that his supporters have been handed the short end of the stick by his nation’s more globalized elites (and, says AMLO, by certain “power mafias” ruling over the country from swampy Mexico City). Like Trump, AMLO has little patience for established norms or checks and balances, considering them pretexts for the establishment’s subjugation of the voters he has now come to vindicate.

AMLO has been a busy president-elect, in ways alarming to financial markets. He held a consulta popular referendum of no legal standing, and mostly among his supporters, to ratify his decision to scratch Mexico’s $13 billion new international airport. AMLO’s process—disregard for existing contracts (construction was well under way)—and warnings to get used to hearing from the people more often have led to a slide in the Mexican stock market and the value of the peso.

AMLO’s second consulta popular appeared to prove the people’s desire for his cherished high-speed train, the so-called Tren Maya, and for a basket of goodies such as universal free Wi-Fi and health care, with no consideration of cost or means.** The president-elect now says he wants to amend Mexico’s constitution to allow for more frequent, formal referenda. He also plans to create an office of “super delegate” in each state to act as his emissary, overseeing and coordinating all federal programs. Governors see this as an incursion into their sovereign affairs, a violation of Mexico’s federalism, but AMLO and his National Regeneration Movement, Morena, control a majority in both houses of Congress and in many state legislatures, so there are few impediments to what he’s calling Mexico’s “fourth transformation.” (The previous three refer to watershed moments in Mexican history, including its achievement of independence.)

It should be quite a spectacle, this AMLO presidency, if a rather scary one for anyone who is paid in pesos or holds investments in Mexico.

Just how the AMLO and Trump shows will play off each other is an open question. Mexico’s outgoing administration was full of steady technocrats determined to duck each of Trump’s provocations to minimize damage to the relationship. Indeed, President Peña Nieto took this strategy to the inexplicable extreme recently, awarding Jared Kushner Mexico’s highest honor given to a foreigner, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, much to the dismay and disgust of Mexicans of all political persuasions.

During AMLO’s long transition since his July triumph at the polls, the two men have struck a cordial note in their exchanges, contrary to expectations. But things could now turn sour very quickly. Both AMLO and Trump may conspire unwittingly to a surge of migrants leaving Mexico for work in the United States if they persist with policies that dissuade job creation in Mexico. Even before taking office, AMLO has scared off investors with his disregard for the rule of law and property rights. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly used his bully pulpit to browbeat U.S. corporations that invest in Mexico, most recently attacking GM’s decision to close plants in the U.S. (plants that produced unpopular sedans that aren’t selling) while keeping other plants open in Mexico.

And of course there’s the so-called border crisis. The Pew Research Center reported this week that the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. peaked in 2007, at 12.2 million, and is now down to 10.7 million. Far fewer Mexicans, moreover, are crossing the border illegally than in the past, a result of the Great Recession in the U.S., tougher security measures that predate Trump, and the graying of Mexico’s population. But these facts and figures mean little in the face of that infamous caravan of Hondurans now stuck in Tijuana.

It would be relatively easy (in terms of substance) for Presidents Trump and AMLO to find a joint approach to processing and settling Central American economic migrants in addition to bona fide refugees. But Trump seems far more eager to exaggerate the migration problem for political gain, and AMLO, a fellow grandstander, seems unlikely to turn the other cheek.

* Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated the name of Mexico’s outgoing president.

** This article originally misstated the proposed route of the Tren Maya.