In a delirious attempt to divert attention from the fact that he is perhaps the most unpopular President in the history of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto invited Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to visit him at Los Pinos.
Sure, changing the subject must have seemed like a good idea. After all, the Reforma newspaper has just released a poll showing the President with a dismal 23% approval rating, just a few weeks before presenting the state of the union address to Congress. Meanwhile, his administration continues to be rocked by corruption allegations, a troubled economy and even accusations that he plagiarized his college thesis.
But what has just occurred was a fiasco.
Naturally, Peña Nieto also sent an invitation to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But that’s probably because he never really thought anyone would actually come.
It’s a cultural thing in Mexico — you run into a business contact or an acquaintance you haven’t seen since that party where you totally made a fool of yourself, and you say you’ll meet for coffee. But there’s a certain etiquette to these things south of the border. Deep down, you both know you’re not really supposed to actually make a plan to meet. It’s street-smart Mexican diplomacy, the kind of understanding that runs far and wide across this country of 120 million.
Clearly, though, Peña Nieto doesn’t get the Trump campaign, and nor do any of his trusted advisers. This despite the fact that Trump has made it his campaign modus operandi to blow up protocols, media outlets and political correctness alike. He is the anti-candidate candidate. It’s what got him the GOP nomination.
As a result, in less than 24 hours, Peña Nieto had backed himself into a corner; Trump was on his way. Mexicans were out on the street protesting, social media was abuzz, #TrumpNoEresBienvenido (#TrumpYouAreNotWelcome) was trending on Twitter, and Mexico’s President was now hosting a state visit with perhaps the second-most hated man in the entire country.
It couldn’t get any worse, but somehow did.
Peña Nieto held a joint press conference standing side-by-side with a man he previously likened to Adolf Hitler. The Mexican President’s speech was gracious, and he said he would work with whomever won November’s election. The thing is, Trump isn’t the leader of the free world, so you can’t expect to play a suave game of hardball with the former host of “The Apprentice” the way Barack Obama has with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As a result, Trump got the photo op he wanted, standing there looking presidential in an attempt to bolster his credentials as a potential world leader to anyone still on the fence. And then he opened his mouth and confirmed what Mexicans feared would happen all along: He talked about the wall.
To a captive audience in Mexico and the United States, Trump said, “We did discuss the wall. We didn’t discuss payment of the wall. That’ll be for a later date.”
Peña, te hiciste güey. Peña Nieto just stood there. And even though millions of Mexicans were seething with anger and indignation, their President didn’t respond to a comment by a man who has single-handedly riled up millions of American voters against Mexico since, oh, about three minutes into his campaign.
True, many Mexicans see Peña Nieto as incompetent and even corrupt. But what Trump said was worse than any of that. So at the very least, Mexicans expected Peña Nieto to reprimand his guest.
But it didn’t happen.
And, as expected, Trump returned triumphantly to Arizona to present a much awaited immigration plan on Wednesday night — and also got to brag about how he had spoken to the Mexican President himself.
We all watched, flabbergasted. And were reminded why Peña Nieto is these days as despised in Mexico as Trump.
So the neta, or awful truth as we say in Mexico, is not that Enrique Peña Nieto got “punked” by a Republican nominee (although he did). And it’s not even just that Trump could become the commander in chief come January 2017. No, the really sad truth is that this could be what a bilateral conference between these two neighbors looks like in future.
Perhaps the most depressing part of all this is that it demonstrates that Americans are far too enthralled by reality TV, in much the same way that Mexicans love their telenovelas. This is despite the fact that these two important nations jointly face genuine challenges such as over the economy, drug and human trafficking and security issues on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
At some point, we’re all going to have to remember we need serious heads of state to lead us as we try to address these challenges. But right now, we are still waiting for them.
Romina Ruiz-Goiriena is editor-in-chief at Prowell Media, a native digital media company in Mexico producing content for around 11 million people across Mexico and the United States, and founder of its site Barrio. Other outlets in Prowell Media’s portfolio include Referee, Noticias en la Mira and Código Magenta. The views expressed are the writer’s own.