Mexicans this morning woke up to the headlines that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will be traveling to their country today to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The country's collective anger at the news is no surprise. Trump, after all, has spent most of his campaign trashing Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, drug dealers and "criminals." He's even tried to illustrate that point by inviting family members of victims murdered by undocumented immigrants to share their stories on stage.
Trump's campaign stump speech also includes promises to build a border wall, which he insists Mexico will pay for.
So what the hell is the Mexican president thinking inviting Trump to Mexico City? Peña Nieto recently compared him to Hitler and Mussolini and mobilized Mexico's diplomatic corps in the U.S. to counter the Trump menace. And now he's inviting him over.
Peña Nieto extended similar invitations to both U.S. presidential candidates, fully aware that his country has become a central part of a campaign that is focusing on immigration, border security, the drug war, trade and a handful of issues that tie the two countries together.
Such meetings are not unprecedented. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain visited President Felipe Calderón in Mexico City to discuss immigration, commerce and other bilateral issues.
Peña Nieto will try to look like the bigger man in the room—which will be a difficult task considering Trump towers over him. But the Mexican president wants to appear like a true statesman who is above the insults hurled by Trump.
It's a risky gamble. If Peña Nieto gets bullied by Trump on his home turf, it would be catastrophic for his already embattled image. Trump bullied his way to the Republican nomination, and could try to use the Mexico meet to win points with his base after being criticized in recent days for going soft on immigration.
Peña Nieto, however, feels like he is playing his strongest hand. The Mexican strategy has always been to avoid confronting Trump directly, rather highlight everything the country has to offer. Mexico is trying to counter Trump by showing the facts, and using data to dispel myths. At times Mexico's strategy has been interpreted as silence or weakness— El que calla otorga, or “Silence is consent,” as Mexicans like to say. But Peña Nieto, is taking the high road.
Inviting Trump to Mexico is bold. Peña Nieto is playing with fire—and he knows it. Trump is unpredictable, and he's a master at playing to the camera. It's an unequal match in many ways. Trump is big, loud, impulsive and came out of reality TV. Peña Nieto, meanwhile, sticks to the script and has a hard time improvising.
The meeting will come hours before Trump's big immigration speech in Arizona, where some expect him to tone down his rhetoric on deportation, in a desperate attempt to woo conservative Hispanics. So he could use his last-minute trip to Mexico to show he’s someone who can work with Mexican leadership.
Then again, Trump could also use the private meeting to rally his supporters and twist what really happened behind scenes. The trip is his way of showing that he's not afraid of Mexico and that he can act presidential.
Mexican opposition leaders are questioning Peña Nieto’s decision, while Mexican intellectuals and political pundits are demanding a public apology from Trump.
“Mr. Trump, even though you’ve been invited, know that you are not welcomed. Mexicans have dignity and we repudiate your hate speech,” former First Lady and 2018 presidential hopeful Margarita Zavala tweeted Tuesday night.
“The least Peña Nieto should demand from Trump is a complete apology for his threats and insults,” renowned Mexican historian Enrique Krauze tweeted.
The Clinton camp has also put out a statement reminding Mexicans of the nasty things Trump has said about Mexico so far.
Calls for protests at Mexico City’s iconic Angel of Independence monument are spreading on Mexican social media, and Mexicans are using the hashtag #SrTrumpConTodoRespeto (Mr. Trump, with all due respect) to slam the candidate. Some have gone so far as to call Peña Nieto “a traitor.”
Meanwhile security has been ramping up at the U.S. Embassy since Tuesday evening.
The Mexican President is playing the role of a diplomat. He knows there’s a chance that Trump can get into the White House. If Trump wins, Peña Nieto would have to find a way to work with him for two years. A communication shutdown between the two neighbors would be unthinkable.
And in a way, Trump and Peña Nieto both find themselves at a moment in their political careers where they don’t have much to lose.
Peña Nieto’s popularity continues to slump amid corruption and security scandals, while Trump's campaign is reshuffling and scrambling to regain its footing against Hillary Clinton in the polls.
They are two men looking for a boost. And in each other they have found the unlikeliest of opportunities to get a bump.