Mexicans reacted with dismay and outrage Wednesday as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrived in their capital and met with President Enrique Peña Nieto. Their message was clear: Trump wasn’t welcome, and Peña Nieto never should have invited him.
“We don’t like him. We don’t want him,” former Mexican President Vicente Fox told CNN. The former president called Peña Nieto a “traitor” for extending the invitation to Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Mexico over the last year and has vowed to force the nation to pay for construction of a massive border wall.
“You’re coming to take your picture with the very people you’ve offended,” Miguel Barbosa, of the leftist opposition Democratic Revolution Party, told Trump on Twitter. “Get out!”
The anger crossed political lines. Members of the conservative National Action Party were as vociferous as people on the left. Margarita Zavala, a possible 2018 presidential candidate for the party, said Mexicans “have dignity, and we repudiate his speech of hatred.”
Mexico City’s local parliament declared Trump a persona non grata, and opposition parties attacked Peña Nieto for allowing himself to be “used” by Trump’s base political machinations.
And after the meeting and brief comments by Trump and Peña Nieto, protesters gathered at the iconic Angel de la Independencia monument in downtown Mexico City were unmoved.
”I hope Peña Nieto understand Trump’s words: in your face I’m telling you, Donald Trump will build the wall!,” said student Tania Dorantes, 21.
But it was also a risky political calculation for the Mexican president and Trump, both of whom are lagging in public opinion polls.
“It feels like an insult,” said Elisenda Estrems, 41, an artist who was eating breakfast Wednesday morning at a Mexico City cafe. “The whole city will be up in arms. I hope they throw him out.”
“It’s embarrassing that the president has invited someone who hates Mexicans to our country,” said Olga Ruiz, a 42-year-old professor.
Mexican shops now specialize in yellow-haired Trump piñatas, ready to be smashed to bits. And the candidate is mocked in running jokes on social media and even in song.
Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, called Wednesday’s early afternoon meeting between Trump and Peña Nieto “a puzzling maneuver.”
“These are men who are not very popular, so you wonder what they add to each other’s numbers,” Payan said. While Trump probably views the meeting as “a grand gesture that may ingratiate him with Latino voters,” Payan said he doesn’t know what the Mexican president hopes to gain.
“Peña Nieto is gambling here with whatever he’s got left to use,” Payan said.
Peña Nieto, who is scheduled to give his annual address to the nation on Thursday, has been plagued by personal and political scandals in recent months, as well as rising crime rates and a lackluster economy.
On top of that, last week Peña Nieto was accused last week of plagiarizing much of his law school thesis, provoking widespread mockery on social media.
Public opinion polls show fewer than a third of Mexicans approve of the job he is doing. And although Peña Nieto has been critical of Trump in the past, saying there is “no way” Mexico will pay for a border wall, and even comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler, his decision to receive Trump at his official residence Wednesday threatens to further erode voter support.
Nevertheless, Peña Nieto’s motives remained a mystery; while Trump’s gains are clear, there seemed to be little upside for the Mexican president. Some people suggested Peña Nieto extended the invitation to both Trump and the candidate’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, but did not expect either to accept. It’s a tradition in some parts of Mexico, a kind of false hospitality that allows people to seem welcoming even when they’re not.
For Claudio Negrete, 35, Trump’s visit is another strike against Peña Nieto. “It’s a self-serving move,” Negrete said Wednesday as he prepared to start work at a taco stand in Mexico City’s leafy Condesa neighborhood.
Trump’s presidential campaign is personal to Negrete, who spent more than a decade working in the U.S. illegally. He has family in Scottsdale, Ariz., and plans to return there later this year.
“This is real to us,” Negrete said. “We’re afraid if he is elected that there will be deportations and families separated.”
Trump, whose pledge to shut down illegal immigration won him conservative support in the Republican primary, has been flirting with softening that stance in recent weeks in an attempt to win over general election voters, a majority of whom believe immigrants in the country illegally should be allowed to stay.
Whether or not the Mexico visit will help him with those voters remains to be seen.
If the outrage on Mexican Twitter was any indication, the visit is not playing well for Peña Nieto. The hashtag #quepeñatrump was taking off on Wednesday morning — a play on the president’s last name and the Spanish word “pena, translating to “what a shame, Trump.”
“This isn’t a calculated risk. It’s extreme stupidity,” wrote Mexican political analyst Jesús Silva Herzog, who said Peña Nieto is being used as “a tool for propaganda for the country’s worst enemy.”
“There’s no way this can work out well,” he wrote.
Cecilia Sanchez of the Times Mexico City Bureau and Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington, D.C. contributed reporting.
2:11 p.m.: Updated with additional reaction and detail.
This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.