On the evening of April 20, President Donald Trump launched an attack on immigrants.
On the morning of April 22, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador severely criticized reporters for their tough coverage of his administration. What do Trump and López Obrador have in common?
In the middle of a devastating pandemic, which has created the gravest crises of their individual presidencies, both men have decided to take on the wrong enemy.
Immigrants and journalists are not Trump’s and López Obrador’s respective foes. Both leaders are creating distractions when they should instead be focusing all of their efforts on fighting the coronavirus and its terrible economic effects.
Let’s talk about Trump first.
“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens,” Trump tweeted on April 20 to his more than 78 million followers, “I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” Trump planned to seal America’s borders, using the pandemic as an excuse.
Trump has never tried to conceal his anti-immigrant attitudes. In June 2015, as he launched his presidential campaign, he described Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. More recently, Trump has referred to the undocumented as “illegal aliens.”
And throughout his time in office, he has done everything in his power to build a wall along the Mexican border.
But Trump’s threat to suspend immigration to the United States turned out to be nothing more than rhetoric: Although the administration’s order, which will remain in effect for 60 days, affects thousands of foreigners waiting for their green cards, the ruling comes with so many exceptions that hundreds of thousands of other immigrants won’t be effected at all. Experts have said that the president’s decree, supposedly devised to enhance the fortunes of unemployed Americans, will do little to help them.
Up until now, more than 50,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. After the first confirmed case in the U.S. was announced on Jan. 21, Trump took nearly eight weeks to declare a state of emergency. According to a survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only 44% of Americans agree with the way Trump is handling the crisis.
His symbolic decision to suspend immigration serves two purposes: It pleases his most loyal supporters in the runup to the November presidential election while distracting the broader public from his terrible response to the virus.
Trump isn’t the only one inventing enemies in order to obscure his poor handling of the pandemic. The president of Mexico is doing the same thing.
López Obrador, or AMLO, as he’s known, has so many real world problems to deal with in Mexico — the virus, widespread violence (March was the nation’s most violent month since he took power), endemic corruption, economic stagnation, poverty and overwhelming social inequality — that making up a new one doesn’t make any sense. But that’s exactly what the president has done, and it turns out journalists are the big problem.
López Obrador has often ignored the recommendations of health experts. Although the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, calling for “urgent and aggressive action” to confront the virus, AMLO continued to attend large gatherings of his supporters. At a news conference at the beginning of the month he even told them: “You can hug each other; there’s no problem.”
Since then, thousands of Mexicans have been infected with the coronavirus. During this time, journalists have done their jobs and reported on the president’s mistakes. It is their duty to challenge a leader who ignores scientific advice and sets a bad example for the population.
In a long speech during that April 22 news conference, AMLO complained bitterly about the journalists and columnists who criticize his government and called them conservatives. “In Mexico, journalism is neither professional nor independent.
And ethical? Far from it,” he said.
AMLO is using Trump’s playbook: With the pandemic in full swing, he has chosen to focus on a false enemy. And like the American president with his anti-immigrant crusade, Lopez Obrador’s goal is to distract people from the severity of what will very likely be the worst crisis of his six-year term.
Mexico is a democracy, which means that we have the right to disagree with our leaders and respond to them directly. With that in mind, I’ve written the following letter to Lopez Obrador:
Mr. President, many of the journalists who have criticized you also reported on the poor decisions of former President Enrique Peña Nieto, as well as those of previous administrations. (I myself called Peña Nieto “Mexico’s worst president” and said that Felipe Calderón was “the president of the dead.”)
It’s true that in the past you and I were on the same side. But we journalists haven’t turned against you; it is you who have turned against us. It’s our job to challenge those in power, and you are now in power. That’s why we watch you so closely and confront you when we deem it necessary. And we will continue to do so, particularly during a critical moment like this.
Independent journalists aren’t part of some conspiracy. You are the legally elected president and should be able to complete your six-year term. The media may not be plotting a coup against you, but we are neither conservative nor “fifi” (“posh”). We have the right to say something when you make mistakes or try to distract attention from a health emergency. Your job is to lead the country; our job is to report the facts and challenge the powerful.
Those two tasks are often at odds, but that shouldn’t pose an insurmountable problem. I have interviewed you many times in the past and you never complained. I have always asked impertinent questions, and you always responded however you wanted to. From my perspective, nothing has changed.
If López Obrador succeeds in his battle against the pandemic, Mexico will succeed too. The same goes for Trump and the United States. Now is not the time to pick fights, much less with imaginary foes. Our two countries need everything they’ve got to combat the virus. Right now, there is no enemy — real or illusory — that is more dangerous.