Trump visits Mexico, brings home xenophobic tirade for his base

Story highlights

  • Felix Sanchez: Trump's tough immigration speech odd after seemingly conciliatory meeting with Mexico's Pena Nieto
  • He says meeting optics put Mexico on equal footing with US, but later speech for American audience was xenophobic

Felix Sanchez is the chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The red-meat speech on immigration would come soon enough. But first...Donald Trump flew earlier in the day Wednesday into Mexico, bringing his own version of magical realism. He landed at Los Pinos--the Mexican White House.

Trump, the surreal aggressor, voluntarily helicoptered into enemy territory to face an unknown outcome.
    Two embattled men facing abysmal approval ratings looked to each other for salvation. The Mexican President, who had nothing to lose, suddenly found himself as the unexpected power broker/mediator to the world's most unruly potential head of state.
    Felix Sanchez
    They were meeting about two months before the US presidential elections: a scene out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Trump --abandoned in the polls by educated whites, blacks and Latinos -- was reaching for a lifeline.
    And indeed the trip brought a surprising result. With his command of the timing and optics of the event -- and his canny positioning to ensure that his comments were the last word -- this may well represent the event at which Trump became a politician.
    Like him or not, Trump scored a home run with this strategic surprise trip to Mexico, a nation presently in mourning over the death of its world musical icon, Juan Gabriel. Trump, standing at the matching podiums with an American ally, elevated his presidential stature.
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    The visual parity between a world leader and a world leader contender emphasized Mexican and US equality—a new world order, even, with Mexico, in this instance, taking center stage.
    Only a few hours later, of course, it was Trump's 10-point xenophobic tirade, presented with Latino antagonists, like Sheriff Arpaio, in tow that took center stage, as the candidate reverted to his old self in a speech on immigration, completely unbraiding the potentially progressive message he began in Mexico City.
    He had had his Los Pinos photo op and now it was back to reassuring his base. A shame.
    But let's not let that completely tarnish his foray to visit with Peña Nieto, who deserves praise.
    Trump: We did discuss the wall, didn't discuss payment
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      Trump: We did discuss the wall, didn't discuss payment


    Trump: We did discuss the wall, didn't discuss payment 00:42
    Despite the fantastical nature of the encounter, the Mexican President confronted head-on Trump's disinformation campaign against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Trump's reliance on extreme images of marauding Mexicans pillaging and looting the US has created the new American bogeyman, the new Willy Horton.
    For the courage to face off with Trump, President Enrique Peña Nieto should get kudos for defending the honor of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. It's not like Barbra Streisand, Ben Affleck or Oprah Winfrey had come to our defense.
    But what was remarkable was that it was not the Mexican President who was arriving at Trump Tower for a benediction, but the United States Republican presidential candidate who appeared to come to seek the Mexican President's counsel.
    It was not a visit to the capitals of Britain and Germany, but it is a true North American summit: a unique moment where Mexico flexed and exercised power over the possible next US President. Mexico was the only place Trump could come and attempt to achieve a crucial validation he lacks.
    Mexicans, after all, still hold the key to a locked US voting demographic.
    Trump did well in his Mexico trip, though he was not spiritually cleansed of his sinful, vitriolic rhetoric and immigrant fear-mongering. But he aimed his pitch at Mexican-American voters and nervous Republicans worried that he had taken his message too alt-right.
    How might this have helped his candidacy?
    The Democratic Latino coalition has always had an Achilles heel that includes three critical Latino segments: Cuban-Americans, who don't have an immigration issue thanks to the US dry foot, wet foot policy; Puerto Ricans, who similarly do not have an immigration issue, because all Puerto Ricans are born US citizens; and finally multigenerational Mexican-Americans, who for the most part do not have immigration concerns.
    Not that these US Latinos don't have empathy or support for Latino immigrants and their struggle, but it is not their top priority. Jeb Bush understood the Latino sweet spot and how these voters were ripe to support him, which is why the Clinton campaign worried more about Jeb Bush than any other GOP candidate.
    But it's hard to see how this will work for Trump, particularly if they got an earful of his call to arms against immigrants later in the evening on national television. These Latino swing voters appear to have coalesced behind Secretary Clinton, who has a long and authentic history with the Latino communities from Texas to Puerto Rico.
    Trump 'using' Pena Nieto, says former Mexican minister
    Trump 'using' Pena Nieto, says former Mexican minister


      Trump 'using' Pena Nieto, says former Mexican minister


    Trump 'using' Pena Nieto, says former Mexican minister 06:39
    What the Mexican President did today was to reframe the US --Mexico relationship, by emphasizing how the border economy affects far more than just US Latinos, it floats the economies of major states from California to Texas. In their joint appearance, the debate shifted away, however briefly, from finger pointing to bi-national, shared governance. The exclusive focus on undocumented immigration expanded to include discussion of the illegal flow between both countries of cash, drugs and guns and how they contribute to perpetuating gangs and drug cartels.
    What the Trump meeting also showed is how little we actually understand how the major cogs of the US economy work: our reliance on trading partners like Mexico, the benefits that have redounded to both nations under free trade agreements, and the importance of perfecting, but not discarding bilateral commercial agreements.
    Trump may have won the optics of the day (the first part, at least) and he may have somewhat resuscitated his campaign, deemed by many to be on life support, but the issue is whether this moment will propel Trump all the way to the White House.