When Donald Trump lamented Canadian shoe smuggling during a recent speech to a small-business group, I thought of a farcical 1995 movie called Canadian Bacon. Its premise wasn't much stranger than Trump's complaint that Canadians cross the border, shop for shoes, then "they wear them" and "scuff 'em up" as they head back home to Saskatoon or Halifax. It's a common way to avoid duties on foreign purchases.
In the movie, a U.S. president was battling low popularity. America had run out of genuine enemies, so the president ginned up a phony conflict with our neighbors to the north. One of the movie's rare funny scenes was when actor John Candy insulted Canadian beer during a hockey game, thus starting a riot that gave the president the cold-war idea.
It would all be so politically incorrect, except the whole joke was based on an obvious point: Canada is one of the most peaceful nations in history. Even Trump has to realize that if the biggest problem we have with another country is that its citizens come and—gasp!—spend money at U.S. shopping malls, then it's not a particularly big problem, eh?
Sure, it's hard to grasp the president's rude remarks toward Canada as he praises a guy who runs the world's largest concentration camp (North Korea's Kim Jong Un). But few Americans get too upset because we know there won't be any serious repercussions at the northern border. But, of course, most of the president's ire has been directed at the other border, and problems in our less-developed and more troubled (but still friendly) southern neighbor continue to spill over.
The latter point is obvious, given the nationwide turmoil that ensued after the federal government stepped up family separations for illegal border crossers. It remains to be seen whether the executive order Trump signed actually stops this cruelty, but it would be nice if more Americans realized that the politics of grievance and anger here could make a challenging situation in Mexico worse.
For instance, Mexico's national election will be held on July 1. In the United States, politicians whine about nasty TV ads. In Mexico, 113 local elected officials and candidates from various parties have been murdered over the course of the race, with more than 600 candidates dropping out because of fear. Talk about a frightening mess.
Meanwhile, the leading presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a populist who promises to tackle Mexican corruption and to grant amnesty in the drug war, but he also champions leftist economic policies. As Foreign Policy reports, some people fear Obrador is "the Mexican Hugo Chávez—a dangerous radical who would threaten the country's political and economic stability." Others see him as a "practical reformer."
One need only look at repression and food lines in Venezuela, where Chávez and his successors obliterated the economy, to understand that the stakes are high. The publication notes that as Mexico enjoyed "the longest period of sustained economic growth in its history" and embraced notable economic reforms, Obrador was the main opposition voice.
Is progress too slow? Of course. Is Mexico awash in corruption? The answer is obvious. But if you think the United States has an immigration problem now, what happens if Mexico's next president governs like a socialist and kills the economy? My fear has long been that Trump's occasionally unhinged rhetoric toward Mexico would create political blowback south of the border. The Economist refers to him as "Mexico's answer to Donald Trump."
Oddly, the New York Times notes that discussions about the United States have been notably absent from the campaign, mainly because all of the candidates are united in their dislike of our president. "Mexicans alike have come to view most of Mr. Trump's threats and hostile rhetoric as little more than bluster and political gamesmanship aimed…at his base," according to the report. That's a relief, and something I saw during a recent visit to Jalisco. Other than the "F*** Trump" t-shirts sold to tourists at Puerto Vallarta souvenir shops, the Mexican people are doing a better job than many Americans at rolling with Trump's incendiary rhetoric.
Still, I wonder about the nationalistic "Make America Great Again" approach that simultaneously tries to reduce immigration while limiting (through tariffs) the ability of Americans to import goods from other countries. Clearly, a booming economy with bustling Mexican factories and a growing tech sector will mean that fewer Mexican nationals will need to seek employment in the United States. As always, the easy movement of people and goods across borders is the best way to assure freedom and prosperity in both countries.
Our problems with Mexico are undoubtedly more serious than any problems with Canada. But it would be much better if our administration's approach to all of our neighbors were more constructive and diplomatic—and less evocative of a scene from a bad comedy.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was first published by the Orange County Register.