The inauguration speech contains, in a nutshell, the challenge Mexico faces in the coming months. The American president has implicitly pledged to protect his country from its Southern threat. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.” Consonant with his nativist discourse, he wants Americans to produce their own products, with their own labor force and capital, for themselves. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), where division of labor and specialization generates benefits to all partners, is turned into victimhood: US companies are not voluntary agents investing in profitable ventures abroad, choosing to shed jobs at home in order to be more competitive in the world, but victims of forces controlled by “the other”. Mexicans now become an abstract force that takes, steals and destroys.
Outcomes emerging from free trade can be criticized for many reasons, including their distributional consequences. Market forces often leave the destitute, the infirm and the unskilled behind. Wealth becomes concentrated at the top. But that is not the objection to free trade the new President is talking about. He unleashed his populist wrath against Washington, D.C., not the rich. In his view: “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost”. Notice how he completely neglects to mention that politicians may be working on behalf of the rich. Populists in Latin America have always noted that when poor people pay, it is the rich who become wealthier. But instead, in an astounding turn, a businessman who gets away with not paying federal taxes, who uses his philanthropy for personal gain and stiffs his employees and business partners alike, shifts the populist anger away from people like him, towards the political class.
What is to be done? Mexico must use every legal, economic, moral and persuasive resource at its disposal to protect its citizens in both sides of the border, to preserve the North American integrated economy, and to exercise the right of democratic countries to only enact policies voted and agreed by its citizens, not a foreign country. Mexicans will never build a wall, let alone pay for it. American citizens, on the other hand, have the responsibility to scrutinize and challenge every action the new President takes, every word he utters, any hint he gives of turning his vitriolic discourse of hate into concrete policies or executive actions. The time for resistance, on both sides of the border, is now.