You could not come up with a more desperate pair of political leaders than GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Trump has dug himself into a huge hole in the polls, and his pivot to African Americans has all the skill and grace of the new guy at the YMCA. His plans to reveal a “softer, gentler” immigration plan seemed questionable to supporters and detractors alike. Peña Nieto, who was elected in 2012, has been mired in scandals, student deaths, escaped drug lords and questions about his own résumé, and his approval rating is 23 percent.
Both of these men could use each other. Both of these men could have scored a win yesterday. Both of these men utterly failed and reminded everyone around the world exactly what bad leadership looks like no matter which side of the wall you’re on.
Trump has spent the entirety of his campaign insulting and demonizing people, but none have felt the wrath more than Mexico and Mexican Americans. Trump has called Mexicans rapists, murderers and bad business partners, and that was before he was the GOP nominee. His one consistent policy proposal—that a wall be built between the United States and Mexico and that Mexico pay for it—is a financial, foreign policy and human rights nightmare. The last three Mexican presidents have compared Trump to Adolf Hitler, with former President Vicente Fox (and George W. Bush BFF) saying that Mexico wasn’t building that “f—king wall."
You can see why Trump needed Peña Nieto. He needed to show that he was tough and could stand up to a world leader, and that his plan to build a wall and stay tough on immigration had more weight to it than a chatroom rant. Why Peña Nieto invited Trump (and Hillary Clinton) to Mexico to meet is much less clear. While Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are in the toilet, Mexican presidents serve only one term (his is up in 2018); and while he might score some points for insulting Trump, giving the GOP nominee a platform to stand next to a world leader still tips the scales in Trump’s favor even if he got read for filth in front of a global audience.
In the end it didn’t matter because both leaders grossly failed the “Say it to my face” test that every world leader is supposed to be able to pass. After a private meeting, Peña Nieto gave a brief statement to the press, saying nothing about Trump calling Mexicans rapists or murderers or being bad business partners.
You know that feeling of disappointment you have when you see some black pundit go up against a Trump supporter on CNN and totally roll over? Multiply that by 120 million people in Mexico. When a reporter asked about the wall, Trump said they didn’t discuss potential payment for the border wall at all.
I’m sure that before this meeting, both leaders were all Key and Peele, telling everybody within earshot, “I’m gonna tell Trump/Peña Nieto—bitch!” but when the moment came, they choked. Peña Nieto can compare Trump to Hitler but had nothing to say when the man was 5 feet away from him. Trump can brag about making Mexico build a wall and pay for it but claims that he didn’t ask about the money when Peña Nieto was in front of him.
The fact that, hours later, Peña Nieto claimed (from the safety of Twitter) that he and Trump did discuss the wall and that he explicitly told Trump that Mexico wasn’t paying for it doesn’t give him back that moment. We’ll never know for sure who’s lying, but I wouldn’t put it past Peña Nieto to pull a Kim Kardashian and accidentally leak some hidden video of the conversation backing up his claims. Essentially, Donald Trump is Taylor Swift in this situation: Sad!
A few hours later, when Trump gave his immigration speech in Arizona, it was abundantly clear that he had learned no diplomacy or lessons in discernment from his meeting in Mexico. His “kinder, gentler” immigration plan in Arizona was nothing more than a more virulent version of his Republican National Convention speech, the one that barely gave him a bump in the polls.
You don’t need to have seen the speech—just know that David Duke said it was one of the best speeches he’d ever heard. What was missing from the speech were two key campaign moves that went relatively unnoticed. First, #TeamTrump quietly announced that they were backing out of speaking to a black church in Detroit. Second, his plan to make Mexico pay for the wall (whether it likes it or not) would require blocking money transfers from Mexican illegal immigrants and siphoning that money into a fund to build the wall; essentially, massive theft and an act of war.
This was about the saddest day in Western Hemisphere politics since early July, when the internet mistakenly assumed that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Barack Obama and Peña Nieto were equals. Mexico clearly knew better. Yesterday was a crash course in how not to improve your campaign, how not to conduct foreign diplomacy and how not to expand your voting base. The Mexican people already knew that they'd have a less-than-stellar empty suit as president; hopefully Americans won’t have to get Trump in the White House to realize the same thing.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.