On Trump, Peña Nieto, and Razors

Who’s making the huger mistake?

At about 9pm last night on Politics Twitter, The Washington Post’s political correspondent Robert Costa broke the news that the campaign of He, Trump was planning a last-minute trip to Mexico City, to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and discuss US-Mexico relations. Last week, Peña Nieto had invited both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to meet him and discuss bilateral issues between them. There are a multitude of reasons why this snap decision comes across as bizarre, confusing, or downright insane, but here’s a couple of the important ones:

  • Donald Trump does not like Mexico. Since well before his Presidential campaign, he has railed at Mexico as “enemies” who are engaged in ripping off the US for jobs, prestige, and GDP dollars. His entire campaign for President began by referring to all undocumented migrants from Mexico as rapists and criminals, and his signature policy platform is the construction of a “big, beautiful, classy” wall along the US-Mexico border. He has also questioned the impartiality of a U.S. federal judge of Mexican descent, and promised to rip up NAFTA and use mafia-style extortion to make Mexico finance the construction of the wall.
  • Conversely, Mexico does not like Donald Trump. Polling in every country except Russia, China, and North Korea shows a preference for a Hillary Clinton presidency, but Mexico’s margin is the largest, with Clinton leading opinion polling by 87%; for comparison, the next largest margins (Denmark and Sweden) are in the mid-60% range. Peña Nieto has spoken in stark, harshly critical terms about Trump in the past, and the response of the Mexican press and public to this visit can be best summed up as “bewilderment and outrage”.
  • This continues the erratic, soft-on-planning approach that has characterized the entire Trump campaign. Typically, foreign visits by Presidential candidates are planned weeks in advance, with careful attention given to the details of itinerary, security measures, meetings, optics, and public appearances. By all accounts, Trump decided to do this on Sunday or Monday — 2–3 days before the meeting will be held. It also adds to a logistical nightmare of a day: Trump held a fundraiser in California this morning, flies to Mexico to meet with EPN this afternoon, and then back to Phoenix to give a “signature speech” outlining an immigration policy that has changed 11 times in 9 days. I don’t know whether the space-time continuum makes that scheduling possible, but we’re about to find out.
  • Enrique Peña Nieto is deeply unpopular in Mexico: his 23% approval rating makes Donald Trump’s 30% seem downright rosy. He has spent much of the last year embroiled in corruption scandals related to family real estate and links to prominent individuals named in the Panama Papers, as well as accusations that he plagiarized his Law thesis.

All of which begs the question of why the heck this visit is happening.

Possibility 1: Trump’s Razor and the politics of humiliation

I’ve become quite fond of Josh Marshall (of TPM)’s formulation of Trump’s Razor, a take on the classic axiom that the simplest explanation is the most likely to be correct: “ ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts,” and that is most likely the correct explanation for Trumpian behaviour.

Let’s add a couple of additional facts concerning He, Trump: we know that he is impulsive as hell — by all accounts, his preferred policy stance on a given issue is whatever the last person he talked to suggested that it should be, and the total lack of long-term planning of this trip, frequent cancellations and reschedulings of rallies, and general erratic-ness of the entire campaign suggests as much. We also know that, like most classic strongmen wannabe authoritarians, Trump thrives on the politics of dominance and humiliation; his caustic nicknames and childish antics are designed to humiliate his enemies, and his treatment of former allies has been light on dignity and heavy on repeated shows of dominance — witness Chris Christie’s transformation from Governor of New Jersey and aspiring Presidential Candidate to Reek from Game of Thrones (it rhymes with Veep). We also know that his campaign has made efforts in the last two weeks to make him seem “more presidential” — though these have often devolved into the political equivalent of negging non-white voters into aligning with him.

This trip could either be an attempt to “look Presidential” by meeting with a foreign leader, or to rally the base by getting into a dust-up with a foreign leader. But regardless of Trump’s motivations, there are definitely clear incentives for Peña Nieto to use the opportunity to attack and humiliate Trump. Given his own flagging popularity, attacking a foreign buffoon who is near-universally unpopular in Mexico probably makes for smart political strategy, if only to change the subject in the Mexican press. There’s also a lot of signals that suggest that this could happen: the press pool of Trump’s campaign isn’t travelling to Mexico City, but the two will conduct a joint press conference in front of a deeply hostile Mexican media.

If Trump’s razor is correct, and if Peña Nieto is a halfway canny politician, then he’s walking into a huge (yuge!) political ambush, and won’t realize it until the Mexican press starts dragging him over the coals.

Possibility 2: Peña’s Razor and the politics of bluff-calling

But that’s quite the assumption to make of Peña Nieto, who has displayed a remarkable ability to get engulfed by gaffes and scandals in his four years in office. So it’s entirely possible that this whole thing has been governed by Peña’s Razor instead, and that the explanation most reliant on a serious error in judgement is the correct one.

So let’s suppose you’re Enrique Peña Nieto. Your popularity is falling, and you face the prospect of an election in your massive, northern neighbour between a competent stateswoman and a bloviating, racist psychopath whose signature policy framework is extreme, punitive action against your country. So you extend an invitation to both leaders to come to Mexico to discuss bilateral politics, thinking that this logically ends with you and Hillary Clinton having a detailed conversation about the particulars of joint commercial and foreign policy issues. There’s no way that the Orange Fascist will ever accept this offer.

Until your bluff gets called and he does accept that offer. Given the colossal shitstorm that Pena Nieto has faced in response to accepting Trump’s offer of a visit, such a case of bluff-calling seems at least plausible.

Either way, I think this probably ends badly for Trump. The domestic political incentive for Peña Nieto to push back hard against a candidate who has branded Mexico a crime-ridden swamp hellhole is just too strong for Mexico’s President, or press, to ignore. But it won’t be clear until later whether this was a bigger miscalculation on the part of Trump or Enrique Peña Nieto.

UPDATE at 5pm Eastern time: Peña’s Razor wins out. Trump looks “presidential” by not vomiting on EPN’s shoes, and EPN likely made himself even more unpopular with a body politic that already hated him.

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