Often, President Trump’s supporters explain his more extreme statements and stances by pointing out they are “negotiating positions.”
Trump is a master negotiator, they say, and can wring the most out of a “deal” by staking out tough opening positions.
That’s the spirit in which we’re supposed to take the president’s declaration last week that we will build a border wall and “Mexico will pay for it” — a staple of his campaign speeches. Or the trial balloon floated last week that we will impose a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico to pay for it.
Just negotiating positions, a means to an end — a way to win the deal called foreign relations.
But what if the means — the tough declarations and pronouncements — have effects of their own, before we even get to the ends? And are the ends something that we in Southern Arizona really want anyway?
As Jaime Chamberlain, owner of a produce company called J-C Distributing in Nogales, Ariz., told me: “I find myself explaining to people all over the United States how lucky and privileged we are to live near the border.”
Trump’s positions are old news — he always said he wanted to build a wall, or a barrier, or some sort of monument to waste and ego along the southwestern frontier. I call it that not because border security is unimportant, but because a long wall is a wasteful and environmentally disastrous way to achieve it. But it had a gut appeal to people who live hundreds of miles away.
Then, during the campaign, Trump found it irresistible before his excited crowds to say not just that he would build a wall but that Mexico would pay for it.
Why? Well, naturally we don’t want to pay for anything we don’t have to. But of course, this fits in with a Trump pattern: Humiliate the adversary. Don’t just knock a guy down, but make him eat dirt.
That sold well to the people who operate from the position that Mexico is an adversary that has taken us on a ride, that we’ve been victimized by them, never mind our dominant position in the relationship. It sold well, importantly, in the Rust Belt states that Trump needed to win to take the presidency.
But the idea that Mexico would or should pay for a wall we build on our side of the border was always an absurd proposition that never should have made it past the campaign-rhetoric stage. A flourish like that should have been forgotten on Nov. 9. Try to get the wall built if you can, sure, but forget about Mexico paying for it.
Any financial lever we use can just be countered by Mexico using a lever of its own against us. If we make them pay through a fee on remittances, for example, they can easily make us pay the money back through a duty of their own.
But of course, Trump could not let go of that campaign promise of humiliating Mexico. So last week, on the same day Mexican diplomats were in Washington, D.C., preparing a planned summit meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump reiterated the pledge to make Mexico pay.
Peña Nieto, a widely despised president, had no choice but to cancel this week’s meeting in protest. For that, and for Trump’s excesses, the weak president Peña Nieto has suddenly been granted a largely unified Mexico.
Unifying Mexico against him was a magic trick that Trump never intended to perform, but he did it as part of his means to an unclear end.
In a press conference Friday, Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, said in Spanish, “This unity is the most surprising thing I’ve seen — with great pleasure — in my life.”
“This national unity is very important,” he went on. “It’s going to put the (Mexican) government in a strong position that best supports national interests.”
While Mexicans rose up in loud opposition to the tenor of Trump’s overtures, the response from Arizona leaders — the ones who dared speak out — was also mostly negative. That’s because the policy that theoretically could help a few in the Rust Belt would most likely hurt us in Arizona.
As Sen. John McCain, a Republican, said in a written response to Trump’s actions last week, “Facts are stubborn things, and the facts clearly show that NAFTA has delivered enormous economic benefits to the citizens of my home state since it went into effect in 1994.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, also a Republican, echoed McCain’s sentiments, and Lea Marquez Peterson, CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber, decried the possible loss of commerce in Southern Arizona. Marquez-Peterson is a close ally of Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican free-trader who was quiet last week about Trump’s blow-up of the Mexico relationship.
We need Ducey, and Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, to speak up against the pointless bullying of a country that is, despite all the complications of the relationship, our friend. Ducey and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, among others, have just rebuilt the relationship after the disastrous days of Gov. Jan Brewer, who brought on a Mexican boycott of Arizona.
“It behooves us to think of ourselves as a North American economic bloc,” Chamberlain, of Nogales, said. “We’re a tremendous force to be reckoned with when you talk about the Canadian economy, the Mexican economy and the American economy.”
Fracturing that relationship does not help Southern Arizona, where one of our few economic advantages is cross-border trade.
Now we have Trump tearing up much of the hard rebuilding work with his rhetorical negotiating position, creating a new call for boycotts of American goods in Mexico.
Slim said Friday, Mexico is in a great position to negotiate with the United States and should now emphasize improving its “internal economy,” not international trade.
All this for what? To bring a possible benefit to the Great Lakes states.
“They’ll create a few thousand jobs, but 325 million American consumers will pay for it,” Slim said of the proposed border tax.
And we especially will pay for it, here in the borderlands.