All ideologies have the potential to be dangerous and the more complex the ideology, the greater chance there is of a dangerous outcome. This is why Trump’s straightforward belief in himself and in his “America first” slogan is actually far easier to come to grips with than the liberal globalism of Barack Obama or the similar neocon globalism of George W. Bush. Because of Trump’s more personalised and direct style of deal making, he has ended up making some unexpected friends as well as some unexpected enemies.
Xi Jinping for example is someone that Trump counts as a friend in spite of the US and China having their worst period of relations since the late 1980s. In the DPRK, Trump remains optimistic that he and his new friend Kim Jong-un will be able to reach a win-win peace deal that is good for the region and the world. In the European Union and Canada – places where US presidents historically found their closest friends, Trump has neither made many personal friends nor political friends with the possible exceptions of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki and Italy’s powerful Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
In Latin America, the US has managed to both actively and passively facilitate the arrival of right wing pro-US leaders, the most recent of which to rise to the top has been the self-professed Trump admirer Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
In Mexico however, the political leadership is neither right wing nor pro-Washington – thus defying an overall trend across Latin America. Last year it became clear that long time presidential “bridesmaid” Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was at long last going to win a major victory in the Mexican presidential election. At the time, many thought that US-Mexico relations would take a down turn as a result. Donald Trump was after all that strident anti-socialist (particularly when it comes to Latin America) whose campaign took on a theme that some perceived as anti-Mexican. Meanwhile, AMLO is the veteran leftist whose campaign often blasted Trump on a personal basis.
And yet while the two men have little in common, both are populists. In the same way that Trump is not a traditional American conservative, so too is AMLO best thought of as a socialist-populist rather than a traditional leftest.
In December of last year, I noted that as one of AMLO’s main campaign pledges is to end the skills drain and brain drain that an often porous northern border has bestowed on Mexico, both men have an interest in reforming the chaotic pattern of migration between Mexico and its northern superpower neighbour. Likewise, as AMLO has pledged to create and sustain high paying jobs in Mexico that would ostensibly result in a reduction in Mexican migration, Trump has an incentive not to punish Mexico economically.
Over the last several days, both men reached a win-win agreement covering each of these aforementioned areas. In classic Trumpian fashion, the US president threatened to put crippling tariffs on Mexico in retaliation for Mexico’s allegedly poor policing of its southern border with Guatemala and its equally lax attitude towards helping the US to police its northern border. Such tariffs would have had a devastating effect on the Mexican economy and a knock on effect would have been to encourage even further illegal migration to the United States.
Trump’s threat however was taken seriously by AMLO who agreed to implement tighter border security from the Mexican side and to cooperate with the US when it comes to detaining perspective asylum seekers. In exchange, Trump has withdrawn his threat of tariffs and the two countries have pledged to cooperate further in the future – a clear nod to the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement which is soon to replace NAFTA.
Unlike most of Donald Trump’s liberal European partners, AMLO is an open populist and someone who embraces leftist socialist tendencies. Also, unlike some of Trump’s friends in Asia, AMLO came to power in an electoral system modelled after that of the US (as is the case in much of Latin America including Venezuela).
In this sense, Trump’s ability to strike a deal with AMLO should have been praised by his typical detractors who frequently complain that Trump has poor relations with many EU leaders but either has or courts good relations with Asian leaders like Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin. AMLO is both a man of the left and a man who came to power through a US style electoral system. This means that the idea that Trump can only be friends with those on the European right or Asian leaders whose road to power is through a very different system to that of the US is total nonsense.
In a world of honesty, Trump’s self-identifying leftist critics would praise his win-win agreement with AMLO. The fact that this is not happening says everything one needs to know about the level of hostility in contemporary US politics.