By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.