Within minutes of news breaking that Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto would be hosting U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump at his official residence Los Pinos, the first memes of the encounter hit the Internet. By the time the two politicians had given their joint news briefing on Wednesday, hundreds of satirical images were moving through both social media and top Mexican news sites. In one, Trump and Peña Nieto were portrayed as “Dumb and Dumber.” In another, Trump was portrayed as a big clown holding a hoop for the little clown Peña Nieto to jump through. In yet another, Peña Nieto was portrayed licking Trump’s boot.
The satire reflects a wider indignation among many Mexicans at their leader shaking hands with a man who many here believe has insulted their nation. Since the Republican nominee launched his presidential bid in 2015 with a notorious attack on Mexican immigrants to the U.S. as drug smugglers, criminals and “rapists,” the local media have given blanket coverage to Trump’s anti-Mexican comments — from his demand that Mexico pay for a border wall to his statement that a U.S. judge was not qualified to preside over civil fraud proceedings against Trump University because he was of Mexican descent. Unsurprisingly, surveys show furious disapproval of the billionaire; one poll by the Reforma newspaper found only 3% of Mexicans believed he would be the best candidate to win the U.S. election.
“It’s like if you have a neighbor who insults you and threatens to start to a fight with you,” says accountant Ricardo Contreras, 45. “You don’t then invite them over for dinner.”
Discontent over the meeting was voiced by Mexican politicians across the spectrum.
“Of course I can’t welcome a person who has attacked my country,” said the left-leaning Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera.
“Mexicans have dignity and we repudiate your discourse of hate,” tweeted Margarita Zavala, a leading member of the center-right National Action Party.
During an afternoon session in the Mexican senate, dozens of members took to the stand to condemn Trump’s visit. Meanwhile, hundreds of people participated in hastily organized street protests at two points in Mexico City, bearing banners that read, “Trump Out, Peña Nieto Out.”
Amid such disapproval, there was some head-scratching as to why Peña Nieto had arranged the visit at all. There is little tradition of Mexican sitting Presidents meeting with U.S. presidential candidates, so he was under no pressure to do it. The visit was all the more surprising considering that in March, Peña Nieto had compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. And to top it all, Trump’s visit took place the day before Peña Nieto was due to give his State of the Union address.
Jorge Buendía, a pollster and political analyst, said the President appeared to want to show that he was being proactive in defending Mexicans by talking face to face with Trump. “Peña Nieto has been criticized for being too passive over criticisms by Trump,” Buendía said. “It is likely this is an attempt to show that he is doing something to make Trump moderate his position.”
During the news briefing, Peña Nieto spoke in support of the millions of Mexican immigrants in the U.S., denying that they were the criminals Trump had accused them of being.
“Mexicans in the United States are honest, hard working and respect the family and the law. They help the development of your country,” Peña Nieto said to Trump. “As such, Mexicans deserve everybody’s respect.”
Political analyst José Antonio Crespo says the negative impressions formed by the Trump meeting will likely outweigh the positive impressions formed by Peña Nieto’s defense of migrants.
“It looks to be counterproductive for Peña Nieto, and do him more harm than good,” Crespo says.
He added that there was also a danger that Peña Nieto had helped Trump win some more Latino voters, to whom Trump made a clear pitch from Mexico.
“I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican Americans, not only in terms of friendships, but in terms of the tremendous numbers that I employ in the United States and they are amazing people,” Trump said, as he faced a barrage of Mexican reporters.
Peña Nieto’s judgment on the impact of Trump’s visit is also seen as reflecting wider problems in his presidency, according to Crespo.
“He has poor advice and lacks direction,” Crespo said. “He will go one way on an issue and then he will do an about-turn.”
Flak from the Trump visit merely adds to Peña Nieto’s pile of problems. In the second quarter, Mexico’s economy shrunk for the first time in three years. July was the nation’s most homicidal month since 2012. And Peña Nieto has suffered from a string of allegations over conflicts of interest. One such scandal involved a mansion his wife bought from a company that had won government contracts.
A survey in the Reforma newspaper this month found that Peña Nieto’s approval rating had dropped to 23%. The Trump visit may have been an attempt to distract from these problems and portray Peña Nieto as fighting for the nation’s interest against an external threat. Judging from the initial reactions, the tactic has failed.