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Of Conservatives, Progressives and Iconoclasts

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has demonstrated that, while he and Donald Trump may harbor different worldviews, they coincide in their cagey exploitation of militarism.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
The celebration of July 4 is traditionally a civil and apolitical event with music, dances and fireworks. However, this year Trump decided to have tanks and fighter planes.


The Greek-origin word paradox is defined as a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that, when investigated or explained, may prove to be well founded or true.

In modern politics, conservatives are those who claim to hold fast to traditional values and attitudes, attempting to preserve the institutions of the past for the benefit of today’s traditional elite. Whereas progressives are self-described agents of political change who seek to uproot past privilege and prerogative, often in the service of greater inclusivity of historically marginalized segments of the population.

Given these broad definitions, it stands to reason that the group more likely to be considered iconoclasts, i.e. those who attack cherished beliefs or institutions, would be the progressives. But back to the term paradox. Donald Trump’s brand of populist conservativism is by far the most iconoclastic political force in American politics today. To the south, the argument can be made that the self-proclaimed Mexican progressive nationalist, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), is actually far from being iconoclastically progressive, at least on immigration. This isn’t the first time that a comparison of the two inextricably linked, neighboring nations offers a paradox. However, it is important to see each one’s leadership for what it is, versus what it claims to be.

Trump’s brand of conservatism turns upside down many tenets of traditional U.S. conservatism, such as fiscal restraint and an alliance-based foreign policy. Relentlessly playing to a base of support he appears to understand exceptionally well, despite not having life experience remotely connected to them, Trump’s rhetoric is jingoistic, shocking, and often contradictory. But facts and results matter little. He promised a wall; it has not been built. He did not repeal and replace Obamacare.

As promised, he did pass a tax cut on partisan lines that is expected to add $1.9 trillion to the national debt over ten years, a cost that will be borne by our children, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Unlike traditional conservative politicians, most of whom claim to be fiscal hawks, deficits no longer matter in Trump’s paradoxical conservatism. By the way, the U.S. deficit currently stands at $22 trillion. Certainly not all Trump’s fault, but you know Ronald Reagan rolls over in his grave every time he hears Trump invoke him as a conservative pole star. (Fun Fact: The last time the United States had a balanced budget was 2001 under Democratic president Bill Clinton.)

But it is in the military jingoism of President Trump’s rhetoric that he most appears to violate the unspoken precepts of America’s traditional conservatives. Trump’s veneration of the military establishment exasperates and unsettles many in this almost religiously non-partisan class of Americans whose personal backgrounds do tend to lean conservative. His praise is too much for their comfort, according to the legion of retired officers who routinely criticize the President’s politicization of the institution they served.

In a bald attempt to pander to them and his base, he hijacked the traditional – there’s that word again – non-military-focused Washington, DC, July 4 thcelebration to make it a bastard son of France’s Bastille Day, or Russia’s Victory Day, or North Korea’s oh-it-must-be Tuesday demonstrations of military power. Flanked by M1A2 Abrams tanks, Trump extolled the U.S. military and “your favorite president’s” support of it. Except, of course, when it disagrees with him, like former Secretary of Defense Mattis. (Fun Fact #2: The last tank battle the United States fought was in February 1991 in Kuwait against an outclassed Iraqi enemy.)

Meanwhile, in Mexico, the paradox of AMLO’s almost complete capitulation to Trump’s iconoclastic immigration policy is anything but progressively transformative. Caving to Trump’s threat of escalating tariffs on all cross-border trade, AMLO has betrayed his nationalist heroes, especially President Lazaro Cardenas, who defiantly expropriated the American company Standard Oil in 1938 to form Mexico’s parastatal oil company, PEMEX.

AMLO ran on a platform of getting the Mexican army out of the fight against drug trafficking and criminal syndicates. This was in keeping with his Fourth Transformation, grounded in Mexico’s history when the country kept its army in the barracks for seven decades. AMLO has tasked his newly created National Guard (the Army and Federal Police with new uniforms) with doing, as many Mexicans say, “ Trump’s dirty work on immigration.” He has dispatched 15,000 guard and military members to the northern border with the United States, and 6,000 to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala in an effort to stop Central Americans from transiting Mexico and seeking asylum in the United States.

This is hardly the progressive iconoclasm expected of a President elected to clean up Mexico’s rampant public sector corruption and improve security. Instead, he is taking marching orders from his northern neighbor. Now, to be fair, few practical alternatives to Mexico’s current role as Trump’s immigration enforcer have been offered. And AMLO is indeed between a rock and a hard place, as uncontrolled outflows of Central American migrants are bad for all concerned. However, the paradox of AMLO’s professed campaign agenda and what he is actually doing on the immigration issue is remarkable.

AMLO has also demonstrated that, while he and Donald Trump may harbor different worldviews, they coincide in their cagey exploitation of the military’s demonstration effect, which is interesting because Mexico has never been a militaristic nation. Nonetheless, on July first, AMLO held a pass and review ceremony of his newly formed guardsmen and women and later spoke for 90 minutes at Mexico City’s iconic main square, the zocalo. It isn’t quite a paradox, but perhaps a sad irony, that both Donald Trump and Fidel Castro would have approved.