What was Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto thinking with his Trump invitation?

Deep thoughts.
Deep thoughts.
Image: Reuters/Mathieu Belanger
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto shocked his country by inviting US presidential candidate Donald Trump to meet him in Mexico City.

You can understand why the Republican nominee is headed to Mexico, despite repeatedly lambasting the US’s southern neighbor and its citizens as enemies, rapists and criminals: It’s completely inconsistent, but Trump is losing and needs to do anything to repair his standing with Hispanic voters and moderate Republicans whose support he needs to win.

But why would Peña Nieto extend an invitation to a man so reviled in Mexico that his likeness is regularly whacked with piñata sticks, someone he previously likened to Mussolini and Hitler? Is he living up to the dimwit persona that Mexicans love to meme? Or is this a calculated move to divert attention from his abysmal approval ratings?

Bad news have been cascading over the Mexican presidency in past days. A recent media investigation revealed that Peña Nieto plagiarized his law school thesis. The country’s murder rate has spiked to its highest level (link in Spanish) since 2012. Meanwhile, Mexico’s economy contracted for the first time in three years.

Trump’s arrival will overshadow those headlines, but only briefly—it stretches the imagination to see how it could bolster the embattled Mexican president. Trump is even less popular than Peña Nieto himself:

Plus, the brash businessman is not only personally disliked, but he summons more than a century’s worth of historic resentment against the US. Why fan that fire?

Perhaps Mexico’s president is betting on the redeeming power of a favorable comparison, or is setting up himself to be the savior of Mexico’s honor. A pro-government editorial (Spanish) in the newspaper Excelsior attempts to rationalize the meeting by portraying their president as a levelheaded statesman. “Diplomatic coup!” the article proclaims. It explains how, despite troubled relations between the US and Mexico, Peña Nieto’s administration has restored a “cordial tone.”

Peña Nieto said himself in a tweet that he mainly seeks “to protect Mexicans wherever they are.”

Like Trump’s explanation that his flip-flopping on immigration policy was merely linguistic, that argument is a stretch. It goes against a tradition of not interfering in American elections that has served Mexico well. (In fact, previous Mexican presidents had never before (Spanish) met with US presidential candidate.) Receiving Trump might have already damaged Peña Nieto’s relationship with presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, or at minimum cost him her respect.

Perhaps Peña Nieto will seem prescient if Trump wins, but the meeting won’t look like such a coup if Clinton is elected.

Right now, the confab seems best summed up by the Mexican expression patadas de ahogado, or a drowning man’s kicks. It applies to both pompadoured politicians, as this political cartoon suggests.

There could, however, be a much simpler explanation. Peña Nieto might have never thought that Trump would actually take him up on the invitation.