Picture a North American country where a political outsider — branding himself as an incorruptible job creator — blamed the political system for every problem, and then promised to eradicate crime and restore respect.
This is not happening for the first time in the United States this year. It happened in Mexico in 2000.
Many Canadians and Americans recently got to know former Mexican President Vicente Fox, after he was featured in the news with some pointed observations on the behaviour of Republican Party U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump. Fox’s February interview with Jorge Ramos — where he first uttered the phrase “fucking wall” to refer to Trump’s plan to erect a new barrier between Mexico and the United States — went viral.
It is not surprising for Mexicans to hear Fox swear. It was an essential component of his campaign before the July 2000 Mexican Presidential Election, and a character trait that was supposed to portray him as more authentic than other Mexican politicians.
The success of the Fox campaign in Mexico cannot be denied. First, it created the illusion that all that was wrong with a country’s economic performance and global standing could be blamed on a system of bad governance. Fox then perfected the notion of “ruling party change” as the only acceptable way to provide a better life for Mexicans.
The position was naïve enough to be offensive. All that was wrong with the country was the direct fault of a party that had been in power for seven decades. If Mexicans removed the party in power, nothing would ever be wrong again. Trump’s current disdain for Washington is eerily similar to that of the Fox campaign in 2000. It’s me, and nobody else, who can clean this mess.
Fox was also effective in running for president as a “businessman” and not as a “career politician” (in spite of the fact that he had governed the State of Guanajuato, Mexico’s sixth most populous state, from 1995 to 1999). This careful positioning created a stark contrast with his two main rivals in the race (ruling party candidate Francisco Labastida was a former governor and three time cabinet member, and centre-left contender Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was a former governor who was running for president for the third consecutive time).
Fox’s message was clear: Insiders were crooked, and an outsider was needed.
In 2000, businesspeople were respected in Mexico — certainly more so than politicians — and the idea of a “dealmaker” who had been in charge of The Coca-Cola Company taking over the federal government led many voters to believe that corruption and wrongdoing would fizzle out. Many Mexicans who do not traditionally vote for Fox’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) bought into this twisted logic, enabling Fox to win the election with 43 per cent of the vote in one of the last Latin American countries to lack a presidential run-off in the event no candidate manages a majority.
The third similarity between Fox and Trump is easier to explain in 2000, when the Internet was young and few Mexicans were able to have access to critical journalism. Fox consistently peddled easy solutions to complex problems. He famously suggested that he would put an end to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas (which had started in 1994) “in 15 minutes.” This did not happen. Not in 15 minutes, not in the 72 months Fox spent in office.
Fox also used friendly media outlets to his advantage. The best example of this tactic was a glossy interview on TV Azteca — Mexico’s second largest private network — where Fox spent an hour discussing his “vision” with a reporter named Sari Bermúdez. It is important to note that TV Azteca afforded no other presidential candidate the same prime time treatment.
Bermúdez was ultimately appointed by President Fox as head of the National Arts Council (Conaculta), a position that usually went to cultural luminaries and not broadcasters. The choice made even less sense after Fox spent the months prior to his inauguration touting the need to de-politicize appointments and allegedly relying on professional headhunters to select his cabinet. This was another sound bite designed to reassure voters, especially those who yearned for the end of partisan patronage.
In the end, Fox’s way was very similar to that of his predecessors.
Last but not least, we must look at the way in which the two candidates discussed crime, albeit in different platforms. On July 30, in one of a handful of tweets where spelling and grammar mistakes were absent, Trump wrote: “Violent crime is rising across the United States, yet the DNC convention ignored it. Crime reduction will be one of my top priorities.”
This is remarkably similar to the rhetoric employed by Fox in 2000, when he blamed the ruling party for a rise in criminal activity. For Mexicans, Fox’s pledge to wipe out crime turned out to be an empty promise. During Fox’s first year in office, the incidence of crime across the country stood at 4,412 per 100,000 residents. By the end of 2004, after four years of Fox’s six-year term, it had almost tripled to 11,246. It turns out the issues were substantially more complex than the outsider led Mexicans to believe in press conferences and photo-ops.
So, here we are sixteen years later north of the Rio Grande: “The system is sick and I’m the cure.” “I have run businesses, so I can run a government.” “I can solve problems quickly and easily because I am not a politician.” “I will eradicate crime from our streets.”
Given his evident lack of knowledge about foreign affairs, Trump may not be aware of how much he has borrowed from the Fox campaign. They have much more in common than the purported public tension between them would suggest. Trump may stand alone as the dean of simple insults, but both he and Fox are living examples of insulting simplicity.
Mexicans witnessed Fox’s rise to power, and endured six years of sound bite solutions that led nowhere. To observe Fox now lecturing the American public on the dangers a “false prophet” is nothing short of satirical.