Trump’s taunts are stirring a level of nationalism in Mexico

Confrontation with the United States is so central to Mexican history there’s an institution dedicated to the trauma. It’s called the Museum of Interventions.  

Remember the Alamo? They do here — as the prelude to a string of defeats, invasions and territorial losses that left Mexico wounded and diminished, its national identity forged by grievance.  

The museum is housed in a former convent where Mexican troops were overrun by U.S. soldiers in the 1847 Battle of Churubusco. And for most of the three decades since the museum opened, its faded battle flags seemed like the stuff of buried history, an anachronism in an age of galloping North American Free Trade Agreement integration.

But President Trump’s wall-building, great-again nationalism is reviving the old Mexican version, too. His characterization of tougher border enforcement and immigration raids as “a military operation” hit the nerve that runs through this legacy, undermining his aides’ trip to Mexico City this week and the message that relations with the United States remain strong.

Instead, the public outrage at Trump has sunk those relations to their lowest point in decades. It has inspired a campaign to boycott U.S. chains such as Starbucks and buy “Made in Mexico” products. Protesters marched in a dozen cities this month, carrying grotesque effigies of the American president. And Trump’s taunts have buoyed the poll numbers of 2018 presidential contender Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing populist Mexicans see as the figure most likely to fight back.

For Mexicans, the problem is not merely the wall. They know their country is poorer, more violent and less law-abiding than the United States. If Trump had announced plans for tougher border security, many Mexicans would have understood, even as they criticized him.

But when they hear Trump boasting he will make Mexico pay for the wall, and the wild cheering in response, they recognize an unmistakable attempt to humiliate them. It is American nationalism at Mexico’s expense, and it stings in a deep, atavistic way, like a childhood bully coming back to beat you up again.  

“I’m proud of Mexico, and I love my country,” said Sergio Pacheco, 56, a mechanic who works for American Airlines. “He can have his wall if he’ll give us our territory back.”  

Pacheco was touring the Museum of Interventions for the first time. There were giant 1840s maps showing Mexico’s borders reaching into the Pacific Northwest.

President James K. Polk wanted that land. Mexico wasn’t selling, and fighting broke out. The United States declared war in 1846.

U.S. troops sailed down from New Orleans a year later, then marched up the old conquistadors’ trail and brought Mexico to its knees. They stayed a year, forcing the country to sign away half its territory.  

Later came the occupation of Veracruz by the U.S. Navy in 1914, and the 1916 invasion by thousands of U.S. soldiers chasing Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the prototypical “bad hombre,” who had raided the border town of Columbus, N.M.

The result of these encounters, according to Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer, is that the two countries developed vastly different forms of nationalism. Mexico’s is a “defensive” one, he said, steeped in a sense of injustice and indignity, unlike the more belligerent northern version, of American exceptionalism and militarized Manifest Destiny.  

Pacheco never thought about this history much. But the diplomatic clashes of the past few weeks have left him “shocked.” He is a fan of American music and movies and the Super Bowl. For most of his lifetime, the two countries have been steadily growing closer.  

“We’ve always looked up to the United States,” he said. “Now, after all this time, we’re realizing that you don’t really like us.”

New reality
President Enrique Peña Nieto has mostly tried to accommodate the new reality, challenging Trump’s proposals in restrained, diplomatic language. He has offered a more forceful response only when he felt he had no choice, such as when he canceled a trip to Washington after Trump tweeted that the Mexican leader should stay home if he wouldn’t pay for the wall.  

Mexicans, too, are divided about what to do. This month, protesters held two marches in the capital. Both were anti-Trump, but one was also a demonstration against the deeply unpopular Peña Nieto, whom organizers view as a Trump-enabler. Others, including tycoon Carlos Slim, are calling on Mexicans to close ranks behind their president, because the country is under attack.

An irony of the spat with Peña Nieto is that he has already paid a steep political cost for enacting controversial energy changes favored by American companies. He has opened Mexican oil and gas development to greater foreign investment, but that has only led to higher prices for angry Mexican consumers and lower poll numbers for him.

The last time the country was so open to U.S. investment, during the Gilded Age dictatorship of Gen. Porfirio Diaz, Mexican resentment of the government boiled over into revolution. The country eventually adopted steep tariffs that limited trade for decades.

Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the holdings of Standard Oil and other foreign companies in 1938, infuriating the firms but delighting Mexicans. In a show of patriotism, thousands of Mexican women came to a central square in Mexico City offering money, wedding rings and livestock to pay the companies back.

“I grew up in a country where you were taught in obligatory history textbooks that the United States was the enemy, the country that stole half our land and the country of the ‘Ugly American,’?” said Denise Dresser, a prominent Mexican political scientist whose father was a U.S. citizen.

She helped organize the march this month that was also against Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country from 1929 to 2000 and cast itself as the heroic defender of Mexican dignity.

Mexico was a relatively closed, insular society for most of those years, but as more and more Mexicans came into contact with the world through television and mass migration to the United States, nationalism was transformed.

Mexican workers returning home also broke down the old divisions. “They brought back a view of the United States as a tolerant, upwardly mobile place, and began to demand rights back home that they saw in the United States,” Dresser said.

“That created a virtuous cycle, and a new sense of identity constructed not in opposition to the U.S., but in favor of North America,” she said.

But in Trump’s taunts many Mexicans hear confirmation of their deep-seated suspicion that Americans still don’t value and respect them.

Trump’s comments are forcing a re-examination of Mexico’s relationship with the United States, from its intricate commercial and industrial ties to deepening cooperation with U.S. law enforcement. New legislation in Mexico’s senate would halt imports of American corn, which have grown from $390 million to $2.4 billion annually since the advent of NAFTA, in 1994.

NAFTA is not the natural, default setting of U.S.-Mexico relations. It is an attempt to transcend the mistrust and bitterness of the past.  

The agreement took an aspirational view of U.S.-Mexico ties. It recognized the two countries were significantly different. But it treated Mexico essentially as an equal partner, along with Canada, in creating a prosperous, democratic and collaborative place called “North America,” quieting the skeptics who insisted Mexico didn’t belong there.  

Since NAFTA took effect, annual U.S.-Mexico commerce has increased from $80 billion to $550 billion. And as trade barriers fell, Mexico’s defensive nationalism did, too.

But as American factory jobs moved south, NAFTA dealt a blow to the latent notions of U.S. nationalism built on postwar-era industrial pride.

Trump’s “America First” worldview restores the idea of industrial products as vessels of patriotism. But it has left Mexicans baffled by the claim their country is taking advantage of the United States through NAFTA. Mexican workers earn a small fraction of what their American counterparts make, and the trade partnership is overwhelmingly driven by U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies. Mexican cities have filled with U.S. chain stores and restaurants, not the other way around.

In the chants of “Build the Wall!,” Antonio Garza, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, sees the return of the “animal spirits” that once soured relations between the two countries. But Garza, who served from 2002 to 2009 under President George W. Bush and now works as an attorney in Mexico City, said he’s seen something different in the resurgent nationalism on Mexico’s streets.

This time, it has a singular focus. “It’s directed at Trump,” he said, “not the United States.”