For a dystopian view of Mexico, read Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano – hang around with Geoffrey Firmin, that alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead in 1938 – it’s the end of the world at the end of the world. Firmin dies an absurd and highly symbolic death at the end of it all, a sad meaningless death. There’s a lot of deep existential despair and heavy drinking involved. Mexico can do that to you.
Donald Trump has said he reads nothing much at all – he has no time for such things and doesn’t need to read anything anyway – he has a good mind after all – so someone must have told him about the Lowry novel. Or maybe he saw the 1984 movie version of the thing – because that’s the Mexico he’s talked about for the last fourteen months. The place is full of rapists and drug dealers and murderers, and they’re coming here, all of them, and they must be stopped.
Maybe he believes that, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s said such things, and saying such things won him the Republican nomination – and then that sort of thing didn’t work in the general election campaign. Hispanics, a large and growing voter bloc, the largest minority voter bloc, loathe him for that, and that has spilled over into other minorities – Asians, blacks – he’s getting killed in the polls. He may have whipped a whole lot of angry white folks into a panic, but even if every single one of them votes for him he still loses. There now aren’t enough of them. And he may be the first Republican in the last forty years to lose the white college-educated vote, and particularly the women in that subset. He shouts dire warnings about a problem that may not be what it seems, and sneers and boasts – he seems a bit unhinged. Hillary Clinton may be a bit too slippery and nasty in her own way, but at least she’s not crazy. Trump is in trouble.
That might explain the sudden trip to Mexico. The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro explains:
He did not mock. He did not scold. He did not blunder.
Instead when Donald J. Trump showed up for a hastily assembled state-like visit at the presidential palace in Mexico City on Wednesday, he managed to accomplish something that he had failed to do throughout the campaign: communicate his provocative political ideas with something resembling diplomacy.
Standing beneath a Mexican flag, Mr. Trump lamented the crimes committed by immigrants, but without his usually harsh, insulting and alarmist language.
He described undocumented Mexican immigrants, but not in the ugly, racially charged ways he has in the past.
And he talked about building a wall on America’s southern border, but in newly measured, less belligerent terms.
“We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier,” he said, before adding, almost sheepishly, “a wall.”
It was Trumpism in an unfamiliar but somehow still recognizable form: shorn of its most offensive elements but faithful to its essential message.
He toned it down. Maybe someone other than non-college-educated panicked white folks will now vote for him, but then there was this:
Of course, as with so much surrounding Mr. Trump, the day was immediately dogged by questions of candor. Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, claimed that in their meeting he had told Mr. Trump his country would never pay for the wall, while Mr. Trump declared that the two men had never touched on who would shoulder the cost of its construction.
It was not clear whether the discrepancy was the result of the language barrier or Mr. Trump’s tendency to spin the facts in his favor.
Well, he does do that quite a bit, and there was this:
As Mr. Peña Nieto spoke at length, Mr. Trump appeared uncomfortable and almost sullen, swiveling slightly side to side, crossing his arms and looking down, rather than at the president. He seemed incapable of maintaining the polite expression of interest that is customary for such occasions.
Mr. Trump occasionally nodded as his translator whispered in his ear as Mr. Peña Nieto delivered his prepared remarks in Spanish. (Mr. Trump does not speak Spanish.)
The tableau itself was startling: Mr. Trump, who has mercilessly maligned Mexico, standing inside the Mexican’s president’s home surrounded by the pomp and ceremony of a formal summit meeting. The grand house sits amid open fields, trees, foliage and a large complex of buildings that drown out noise from the surrounding city.
An air of improbability hovered over Mr. Trump’s entire trip to Mexico. Much of the country was astonished that the New York real-estate developer had pounced on a seemingly perfunctory invitation from its president.
It was a bit surreal, as this was a new Donald Trump:
In Mexico, his rougher edges seemed sanded down as he offered flattery and solicitousness in place of crudeness and brickbats.
The Mexicans-Americans he knew, he said, “were beyond reproach.” He described generations of their hard-working families as “amazing people.”
Even as Mr. Peña Nieto seemed to subtly criticize him – by reminding Mr. Trump that illegal immigration had fallen significantly over the past decade and vigorously defending the North American Free Trade Agreement – Mr. Trump suppressed any urge to trade fire.
Instead, he looked over at the president of a country he has denounced for over a year and told him what an honor it was to meet him.
“I call you a friend,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Peña Nieto.
What? Who are you and what have you done with Donald Trump? But the Washington Post’s Philip Bump gets to the core of what’s going on here:
There are a lot of little checkboxes along the path to the presidency. There’s the eat-something-at-the-Iowa-State-Fair checkbox. There’s the handle-yourself-in-a-debate checkbox. There’s the release-your-tax-returns checkbox. Donald Trump has checked most of those boxes.
On Wednesday, he ticked another one, the stand-next-to-a-foreign-leader-in-a-foreign-place checkbox. An unnamed campaign adviser was oddly specific about its checking that box, telling CNN that the goal of Trump’s visit to Mexico was explicitly to get a photo that makes him look presidential. Normally, that’s couched a bit, describing the trip as being focused on a particular international issue or part of an effort to learn more about a particular place. That couching is mostly a lie, of course; the goal of these overseas trips is to get that photo and to prove that presidential-ness. So points for honesty…
But this might have been a pointless trip:
In Washington Post-ABC News polling, Trump has consistently been seen as lacking the personality or temperament to serve as president. Our most recent survey found that two-thirds of Americans think Trump lacks that temperament – a figure that includes 93 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents and even a third of Republicans. (Hillary Clinton is seen as having the proper temperament by 61 percent of Americans.) When comparing the two, a quarter of Republicans also think Clinton’s got the better temperament for the job, as do 58 percent of independents.
This is apparently what the meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto is meant to prove: that Trump can roll up overseas and effectively represent the United States. That he can behave appropriately within the confines of the presidency. That he can look presidential.
It’s a spectacularly low bar to surpass. It’s a bar so low, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that even a successful meeting will do much to turn those numbers around. Are people going to tune in, see Trump standing next to Peña Nieto (without his customary red-and-white-striped backdrop) and think, “I was worried about Trump’s tendency to pick fights with people but this photo changes that perception?” Maybe! It strikes me as unlikely but … maybe.
I would offer instead that this particular checkbox-checking is not really closely tied to perceptions of Trump’s ability to do the job of president. What people are worried about is not his ability to give a brief statement without falling over the lectern a la Gerald Ford; it’s whether or not he’ll lose his temper on Twitter if a foreign leader goads him…
That’s a constant worry, but generally, everyone on the right said that Donald Trump looked damned presidential up there on that international stage. Forget what he said. He LOOKED presidential. He won the day – and of course those on the left shrugged. That won’t last. He’ll explode again. He’s the volcano here.
Josh Marshall had a slightly different take:
First, Pena Nieto appeared quite ill at ease, even weak and accommodating of Trump. He even seemed to try to soften or apologize for Trump’s various attacks on Mexican people. Given the almost universal ridicule he faced for agreeing to meet with Trump, I’m incredibly curious to see the domestic fall out within Mexico.
Second, Trump seemed fairly normal in how he spoke.
Third, I think the big thing, is what we’ll remember about this in a week and a month: given the opportunity, Trump didn’t even discuss who would pay for his border wall let alone demand that Mexico do so. I strongly suspect that will be the big takeaway for Trump and that it will not wear well. Trump’s line throughout this campaign has been that he’ll tell Mexico to pay for the wall and Mexico will. In a face to face meeting with the actual Mexican President, even one as pliant as this, he was unwilling to do so.
Trump’s brand is “dominance politics.” He’s toured the country for a year telling crowds that Mexico will pay. He’ll make them. And yet, when given the opportunity to sit down with the President of Mexico, he didn’t bring it up? There are words for that kind of person, just not words that are any longer acceptable today. For the moment Trump is the paradoxical beneficiary of “political correctness.”
That is the deadliest insult one can (politely) hurl at Trump, but Trump quickly left Mexico and fixed that problem a few hours later in Phoenix:
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump capped off his two-country whirlwind tour Wednesday night by doubling down on his promise to block illegal Mexican immigrants with a real wall.
Any thoughts that Trump might moderate his blunt rhetoric on immigration disappeared at a rally in Phoenix just hours after he met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has slammed Trump for his harsh language.
Trump promised the crowd a “serious policy address on one of the greatest issues of our time, illegal immigration” – which he then proceeded to call “worse than anybody ever realized.”
Trump recited a long list of cases in which he said illegal immigrants brutally attacked U.S. citizens but were never punished or deported.
But he said Americans didn’t know about them because the news media, special interests and unnamed politicians had imposed a blackout on discussion of the issue.
“In many cases,” he said, illegal immigrants are “treated better than our veterans.”
A vast conspiracy only he knows about – check. Build the wall – check. But there was this:
Trump made a nod to Peña Nieto, calling him a man who “loves his country, as I love my country, the United States.”
“It was a thoughtful and substantive conversation, and it’s going to go on for a while, and in the end, we’re all going to win,” he said, promising that in a Trump presidency, he’d pursue “a new relationship between our two countries.”
But the overall tone of the speech appeared to clash with the conciliatory comments Trump made at a news conference with Peña Nieto after their meeting.
That’s a bit of understatement. Trump was on fire:
To make sure everyone knew he’d changed nothing about his position, he declared: “We are going to build a great wall along the southern wall, and Mexico is going to pay for the wall. One hundred percent. They don’t know it yet.”
Construction on the wall, he said, will begin on “Day One.” It will be “physical, impenetrable, beautiful (and) tall,” he promised, and it will be monitored by sensors above and below ground.
CNN notes that he wasn’t backing down:
Donald Trump on Wednesday stated clearly there would be “no amnesty” for undocumented immigrants living in the US, putting to rest questions about whether he was softening his stance on the issue that’s driven much of his campaign.
“For those here illegally today who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only. To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else under the rules of the new legal immigration system that I have outlined today,” the Republican presidential nominee said.
He added: “There will be no amnesty.”
“People will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized – it’s not going to work that way. Those days are over,” Trump said.
He did not commit to deporting every undocumented immigrant living in the US as he previously had, but vowed that immigrants living in the US illegally would never have a path to legal status under his presidency.
And his folks would be busting down doors and dragging people away:
Trump vowed to create a “deportation task force” within the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division “focused on identifying and quickly removing the most dangerous criminal illegal aliens in America.”
“Maybe they’ll be able to deport her,” Trump said, joking the task force could deport his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Where would they send her back to, the suburb of Chicago where she grew up? This sort of thing is awkward:
Trump’s speech comes at a critical juncture for his candidacy, which has stared down deficits in every major national poll in the last month as well as in a slew of polls in key battleground states.
And in Arizona, a state that Republican nominees carried in the last four presidential elections, Trump is only maintaining a slight polling lead over Clinton.
Sen. John McCain, who is supporting Trump’s bid but has also publicly warred with Trump, did not attend Trump’s speech Wednesday, which came a day after McCain won his Senate primary election.
“Senator McCain is spending a much-deserved day off with his wife, Cindy, at their home in Sedona,” a McCain aide told CNN on Wednesday.
The Washington Post adds more detail:
Repeatedly raising his voice to a yell, he said that “anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” and he vowed to crack down especially hard on illegal immigrants who have committed other crimes.
With less than 10 weeks until the election, Trump increasingly has tried to adjust his pitch to appeal more to moderate voters, as polls show he has fallen solidly behind Democratic rival Hillary Clinton nationally and in battleground states. However, the visit here and the speech in Phoenix could provide a jarring contrast for voters and send a confusing message about the kind of president he would be…
The address in Phoenix was considered a chance for Trump to clarify whether he still wants to forcibly deport all of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants after sending mixed signals recently. He left that question unanswered – dismissing it as irrelevant – while also strongly suggesting that he would push to deport as many people as possible.
Forget that afternoon in Mexico. Trump was doubling-down on everything, and Josh Marshall sees the president that Trump would be:
This was as wild and as unbridled a speech as I’ve seen from Trump. Even if you couldn’t understand English, it would be stunning to watch the slashing hand gestures, the red face, the yelling. It’s hard to imagine any presidential candidate in living memory giving such a speech. And again, this is if you didn’t know what the words even meant.
We’ve been here before:
As the speech was unfolding, I said something on Twitter that I’m sure many will find extreme or beyond the pale. But watching this speech, compared to the press conference today in Mexico City, what kept coming to my mind was the contrast between Hitler’s uniformed rally speeches from the hustings and the suited, statesman Hitler we see in the old news reels in Munich and at other iconic moments in the late 1930s. Hitler is sui generis, of course. His crimes are incomparable. But the demagogic style, the frenzied invocation familial blood sacrificed to barbaric outsiders – these are not unique to him. When we see this lurid, stab-in-the-back incitement, the wild hyperbole, the febrile railing against outsiders who will make us no longer a country – the similarities are real. More than anything, perhaps the most chilling part of this day is the contrast between the two men – a measured, calm statesman figure we saw this afternoon and this railing, angry demagogue figure who captured the emotional tenor of Klan rally. As I said, the ability to shift from one persona to the other is a sign of danger in itself.
Other than that, it was more of the same:
He’ll build the Wall and Mexico will pay for the Wall… It’s almost a catechism.
On mass deportation, there was more obfuscation than change. Trump said everyone without proper documentation is subject to deportation – the violent and the patriotic, the productive and the dependent are all together. He said there are some two million alien criminals in the country who will be deported immediately. On top of that, he said there is a large but unspecified number of additional aliens who are also criminals and they’ll be deported immediately too.
I believe the federal government actually puts that number between 600k and 700k. So his number is roughly three times the actual number and then many more on top of that. One million more? Five million more? You can take your pick depending on your mood and what you want to hear. Wild fabulation about numbers and facts was a signature of the speech.
Notably, Trump also said that the federal government has no idea how many undocumented immigrants are in the country. It could be 3 million or 30 million, he said. These remarks have only two purposes – too deepen the sense of chaos and to kick dust into any specific discussion or examination of just what Trump proposes to do.
He did drop the “deportation force” in favor of a “deportation task force” created within ICE but that’s a quibble:
This is all certainly a more complicated explanation of his policy than what Trump said in the primaries – that all 11 million will have to be deported and fast. But substantively, it sounds like the same policy, with more obfuscation, more bows to prioritization and some cognizance of the scale of the task. But substantively it’s the same…
We’ve been at this for two or three weeks – dropping his hardline positions, picking them back up, briefing going a la carte. If this is the final statement, we’re basically where we started, just with a few garnishes about our love for the Mexican people and the wonders of immigration that happened in the past.
And that leaves us nowhere:
The debate about immigration has become so polarized that it can be difficult to remember that there are reasonable policy questions to be debated and wrestled with, over the terms, scope and numbers of immigrants the country should absorb at any one time. But what we saw tonight isn’t a tense version of that debate. It really has nothing to do with that debate at all. This is a blood-soaked white nationalist politics that has caught fire with a significant minority of the electorate. There’s no reason to imagine that changes before November.
And in November, just after Halloween, just about the time of our Election Day, we get the Day of the Dead once again – not the Day of the Dead in 1938 in Quauhnahuac but something like that Day of the Dead in 1938 in Munich or Nuremberg – but under the volcano in either case. Sometimes it does feel like the end of the world at the end of the world. There’s a reason Geoffrey Firmin drank a lot.