MEXICO CITY — American comedian Conan O’Brien often pokes fun at celebrities who think they can change the world. “I really don't like that … I'm very suspicious of that,” he told me in a recent interview here.
But the Age of Trump has forced even Conan to get involved in politics. Recently he acted as a sort of American ambassador to Mexico — and America needs one.
Eighty-six percent of Mexicans have an “unfavorable” opinion of President Donald Trump, according to a poll conducted in January by the Mexican newspaper Reforma. In Mexico City, it’s easy to find Trump-shaped piñatas. Social media memes about corn silk lampoon his hair.
Meanwhile, conversations among Mexicans are peppered with puns playing with the similarity of the name Trump to the Spanish words “trompa” (snout), “trompada” (punch) and “trompudo” (thick-lipped).
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, recently described the relationship between Mexico and the United States as “phenomenal.” But that’s almost as laughable as one of Conan’s jokes.
Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, opposes the construction of a border wall along the southern U.S. border (and to Mexico’s paying for it), the mass deportation of Mexicans and the termination of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
There’s nothing “phenomenal” about any of that. The two countries are facing their worst moment since the American invasion of Veracruz in 1914. The impasse also rekindles the resentments that linger from the Mexican-American War, in which Mexico lost half of its territory.
So what does a good comedian do during troubled times like these? Dive right in — which is why Conan visited Mexico to tape a one-hour special for TBS, “Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico,” featuring Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, and “Star Wars: Rogue One” star Diego Luna as guests.
I met Conan in Mexico City at the Angel of Independence monument. From nearby vendors we bought chips with hot sauce and tacos and beer. Conan insisted on trying the spiciest hot sauce on his tacos — and I let him.
With tearful eyes, and his lips on fire from the hot sauce, Conan zeroed in on Trump’s impact. “It’s the saddest thing that I’ve encountered here. Mexicans think that the words that they hear from the president are how Americans feel. It’s not true.”
When Trump announced his presidential bid on June 16, 2015, he likened Mexican immigrants to criminals, drug dealers and rapists. “They are not our friend, believe me,” Trump also said during that speech.
But, as Conan pointed out, Trump doesn’t speak for more than 300 million Americans.
“This concept that Americans have a negative view of Mexicans is not true. It’s just not true,” Conan said. “I live in Los Angeles, and Mexicans are a regular part of our lives. They’re incredibly hardworking, they’re funny, they’re terrific. They’ve brought so much to the culture. They are the culture of California.”
After the interview with Conan, I traveled to the beautiful town of San Miguel de Allende to take part in the 2017 PEN Lecture Series, devoted to defending freedom of speech. During the winter, San Miguel is full of American and Canadian expats. “Spanglish” can be heard in every corner of the appropriately-named Conspiracy Square, which is in the center of town.
The American and Mexican participants at the PEN event discussed journalism in the Age of Trump and showed extraordinary solidarity. Trump tries to divide us, but people are uniting against him. That sense of unity was what I took away from my talk with Conan and my visit to San Miguel de Allende.
Still, four difficult years are ahead of us. Trump’s offensive behavior, threats and bullying might have even more serious consequences for bilateral relations — especially as he tears apart families with his program of deportations. But for each crude remark from the president, there are many acts of resistance.
I doubt that Trump would laugh at Conan’s show from Mexico, if he bothered to watch it. Trump doesn’t seem to be able to find humor in anything, which is one of his most worrisome traits. In fact, I’ve never heard him laugh. That makes a joke from Conan even more welcome and necessary. To Mexicans, he is the Anti-Trump.
P.S. Conan’s show from Mexico airs this Wednesday, March 1st at 10pm/9c on TBS. And here is my interview with Conan for Fusion TV http://bit.ly/2mAW21m