Mexico City—Throughout his unorthodox campaign, Donald Trump kept sending mixed signals about Mexico and his ideas about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
He denounced Mexican immigrants, who comprise a significant share of the undocumented labor force in the U.S. today. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists," he said. Then, during one of the debates, he praised Mexican leaders. In a retort to Jeb Bush, Trump claimed that Mexico’s leaders were “much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning” than American officials in Washington.
This love-hate attitude toward Mexico—vilifying Mexicans in the U.S. but praising Mexican leaders as pulling a fast one over Americans—made no sense to Mexican observers.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox denounced Trump as a “a crazy guy” and “a false prophet." Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda opined in the New York Times that Mexico should “fight back” against Trump: “By threatening to deport all undocumented immigrants, about half of whom are Mexican; to build a wall on the Mexican border; and to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is far more important for Mexico than for the United States, Donald J. Trump made Mexico one of the central issues of the campaign.”
Yet, while Mexican politicians expressed outrage, Mexicans continued to be perplexed by the campaign as it unfolded. Most Mexicans consider immigrants, legal or undocumented alike, as men and women who want honest work, often times resisting the trap of joining gangs or drug trafficking, and therefore worthy of being praised. Trump’s claim that Mexican leaders are “smart,” on the other hand, was considered ridiculous: Mexicans consider President Enrique Peña Nieto to be an idiot.
So when Donald Trump invited Carlos Slim, one the world’s richest men and the single-largest investor in the New York Times, to dinner at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago, it became clear that Trump’s admiration for Mexican “leaders” meant businessmen, not politicians.
“What President-elect Trump wants to do in coming closer to the Mexican business community has an impact, not only nationally but regionally with Latin America, and opens the doors for good business relations overall,” said Larry Rubin, president of the American Society of Mexico and one of several candidates to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Mexico. “The closer that the administration is to businesses and governments in Mexico and in the region, the better for the U.S.”
The dinner between Trump and Slim set the stage to clear the table between the two moguls so they could proceed on how best to work together. While Slim has expressed skepticism at Trump’s wild campaign promises, such as building a wall along the border and tearing up NAFTA, he understands posturing and how to leverage it. He has amassed a sweeping fortune, with investments in countries around the world. If Trump wants to negotiate better deals that will strengthen the American economy, he could use a partner like Slim—who knows how to make profitable deals globally.
More important for Trump, who has alienated the mainstream media in the United States, he has to reach out to former adversaries. Slim, as the single-largest investor in the New York Times—which published a negative story on Trump just about every day for a year and a half—can offer guidance to the incoming administration. During the campaign Trump accused Slim of being part of a “conspiracy” against him—and the source of the sexual assault stories where Trump is heard on tape bragging about touching women inappropriately.
What did they talk about over dinner? What both billionaires have in common is infrastructure. Trump has promised to rebuild America’s infrastructure and Slim has more than a decade’s experience in the field: In 2005 he started Impulsora del Desarrollo y el Empleo en America Latina SAB de CV, or “IDEAL,” which could very well undertake large-scale infrastructure projects along the border, such as building a wall. Which, of course, would use lots of cement from CEMEX, the largest cement company in the world, and it’s in Mexico.
It is clear that Trump is a modern-day Calvin Coolidge in his philosophy. Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business.” Trump believes politicians have ruined the country, getting us in useless wars while neglecting the homeland. While “trillions,” as he said throughout the campaign, have been squandered in the Middle East, America has been neglected, its infrastructure in need of repair, good jobs being outsourced to foreign countries, trade deficits draining the country’s wealth, and an opioid epidemic ravishing the heartland.
Trump, who has long admired (and been jealous of) Carlos Slim’s success, is reaching out to Slim as he fills his administration with billionaire businessmen.
If the business of America is business then it will take “billionaire businessmen” to turn things around—as if the purpose of his administration were akin to a hostile takeover and new management was needed for a turnaround to make the shareholders (voters) happy.
Trump's campaign headquarters was the abandoned set of "The Apprentice." Photo: Louis Nevaer.
Trump ran a haphazard campaign. Yet, perhaps to his own amazement, he won. And now, to realize his vision of making America great again, he’s betting that he needs to enlist the most successful people on the planet to get the job done.
Trump "is surrounding himself with the 1 percent: billionaires and millionaires, investment bankers and venture capitalists, Wall Street insiders and family fortune heirs, many educated at elite schools. It is the most brazen embrace of big money since the 1980s era of Ronald Reagan, Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe and Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko,” David Smith wrote in The Guardian.
In his selection of billionaires and millionaires for key administration positions and his reaching out to Slim, bypassing the Mexican president, it is clear that Trump believes the problems facing the United States—and its neighbors, Canada and Mexico—arise from incompetent politicians who don’t know how to run businesses.
If Barack Obama’s administration was a period of inclusion, diversity, and opening the White House to people who had formally been excluded, then Trump is preparing to launch a "by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent" plutocracy.
One of Coolidge’s favored sayings was, “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”
As Trump has shown in his career, strength—or its appearance—is a strategic position when negotiating an artful deal. “It’s a million dollars a minute in trade that goes across our border,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Obama. “The CEOs [on both sides of the border] are very interested in preserving what they see as mutually beneficial relations. There’s a lot of attention to what the policies will turn out to be and a desire to have a dialogue with whoever the new officials will be.”
In other words, for the Trump administration—and the Trump organization—welcoming Carlos Slim into the fold is of strategic importance: Billionaires know best, even if they're Mexican.