South of the Border: Mexican Populist Presidential Candidate Runs Against Trump While Copying His Campaign

Andrés Manuel López Obrador is running a populist campaign aimed at those left behind by globalization and angry at the country's elites. And he might win.



A left-wing populist and outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is the perceived frontrunner in Mexico's 2018 presidential race. His rising popularity south of the border can be seen as both a reflection and a result of Trump's rhetoric and policies.

Lopez Obrador, or "AMLO" via his name's initials, spoke in Washington, D.C., last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His remarks came two weeks after the publication of his book, "Oye, Trump," ("Listen up, Trump"), a compilation of recent speeches made in eight U.S. cities this year. Lopez Obrador is positioning his campaign as a populist response to Trump, but he's attempting to appeal to the same crowd—those left behind by globalization and angry at the country's elites—where Trump's campaign found fertile support in 2016.

"The countryside is not only where food is produced, there is a lifestyle there which must be valued again," Lopez Obrador said Tuesday, just down the street from the White House. Discarding that lifestyle, he said, has strained families and increased crime. The elites are to blame, he says, because they lack understanding of the ill effects of a globalized economy on the country's rural areas. They instead chose to bar themselves off in their cosmopolitan centers and are unaware of those struggling in the countryside.

"When technical people simplistically decide that you could abandon the countryside," he warned. "They're making a major mistake."

In other ways, too, Lopez Obrador has sounded almost Trumpian, even while campaigning as a Trump critic. He has criticized the Trump administration for suggesting the imposition of tariffs on Mexican goods, but has echoed Trump's calls for NAFTA to be renegotiated.

This is Lopez Obrador's third crack at the Mexican presidency. He previously declared himself the "legitimate president" after losing in 2006 and has remained adamant that the election, as well as his second loss in 2012, were stolen from him from shadowy interests controlling the corrupt political establishment.

The former mayor of Mexico City has developed his populist bona fides over the years. Though some of his economic views could put him in Donald Trump's camp, it may be more accurate to compare him to Bernie Sanders. Some media outlets such as The Guardian have compared him to other left-wing populist figures, such as Ralph Nader and the UK's Jeremy Corbyn, who Lopez Obrador subsequently met following his recent trip stateside.

But the comparison to Trump only goes so far. Unlike Trump, who effectively rose to the presidency by executing a hostile takeover of one of the two major political parties in America, Lopez Obrador is running outside Mexico's main political parties, promising to end corruption and to expand public expenditures while cutting taxes.

These are standard populist tactics, like his tactic of contrasting the culture of the rural and urban populations, but some observers worry that Obrador has more in common with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez than with the current occupant of the White House.

Reason TV's Nick Gillespie interviewed Cato Institute scholar Roberto Salinas-León last month to discuss the future of NAFTA. Salinas-León warned the policies of protectionism and anti-immigration policies of Donald Trump could embolden Lopez Obrador, whom he described as the Mexican "equivalent of Hugo Chávez. A rabid, primitive, vitriolic, populist."

Though Lopez Obrador and his supporters decry the accusation as scaremongering, he doesn't do himself any favors. He seemed reluctant this past Tuesday to condemn the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, which continues to collapse under the weight of its socialist economic policies. He has also been an advocate for "self-sufficiency" and views foreign trade in the agricultural and energy sectors as problematic—central tenets of what came to be called "Chavismo."

"We are going to produce what we eat. We will no longer buy from outside the country." Lopez Obrador said Tuesday.

If Lopez Obradors detractors are correct—that he's the Mexican Chavez—a victory next June could mean the relationship between America and its second largest trading partner will remain in disrepair.