When a response to an attack isn’t delivered in a timely manner, it loses impact. The perfect example: Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s delayed response to Donald Trump’s criticism of Mexican immigrants. The Republican presidential contender first started attacking Mexico when he announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, with his infamous comments about immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Then he started saying that he planned to build a wall along the border, and that Mexico would pay for it.
Peña Nieto didn’t get around to responding to either of these broadsides until March 7 of this year—265 days late. In an interview, Peña Nieto finally declared that Mexico would not pay for any such wall and likened Trump’s “strident” tone to that of Hitler and Mussolini. Yes, Peña Nieto finally defended Mexican immigrants in the United States. But what effect did his comments have on Trump’s campaign? None. Weeks later, Trump continues to repeat his nonsense about Mexico.
Such dawdling isn’t unusual for Peña Nieto. In an interview last September, Peña Nieto, when asked about Trump, said, “I don’t want to be a part of his game.” That was back when Peña Nieto believed that the real estate mogul had no chance to win the White House. Peña Nieto’s strategy then was to ignore Trump and act as if he didn’t exist: Don’t engage the bully, don’t directly address him and perhaps he’ll go away.
Ignoring problems tends to be Peña Nieto’s typical response to his presidency’s most enduring challenges: the disappearance of 43 college students in Ayotzinapa; the escape of drug kingpin El Chapo; allegations of corruption over his wife’s purchase of a luxury home from a government contractor; 52,000 violent deaths in Mexico during his tenure; and now the prospect of Trump becoming the GOP candidate. Peña Nieto would rather duck and cover than react.
But last year, while Peña Nieto was ignoring Trump’s comments, other Mexicans reacted with outrage. Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former secretary of foreign affairs, launched a social media campaign, and insisted that Mexicans “don’t cower—we don’t look better with our mouths shut.” And the Mexican actor and comedian Eugenio Derbez—who recently got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame—took a similar stand. “I don’t think we should keep silent,” Derbez told me in a recent interview. “I think we have to speak up; I think we need to respond [to Trump].”
In fact, hundreds of artists, journalists, commentators and authors joined Derbez and Castañeda in defending Mexico. Shortly after Trump’s initial comments, the actors Cristian de la Fuente, of Chile, and Roselyn Sanchez, of Puerto Rico, along with the Colombian singer J Balvin, backed out of participating in Trump’s Miss USA pageant. While Peña Nieto kept silent, thousands of people around the world displayed a reassuring sense of solidarity with Mexico.
So what forced Peña Nieto out of his self-induced silence?
The Trump problem exploded again last month after former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderon and Vicente Fox strongly denounced the candidate’s plan for the wall at the southern border. Peña Nieto’s administration may have felt cornered, and finally decided that it was time for the president to react.
Of course, by now Trump has consolidated his talking points about Mexico and created a gimmick for the campaign trail. During many of his recent speeches, Trump asks the crowd: “Who’s going to pay for the wall?” And his cheering supporters reply, “Mexico!”
As regular readers know, Trump and I have had beef since I asked him to sit down for an interview last year. I sent him a handwritten note, and he responded by posting my phone number on social media. After that, he had me ejected from a news conference after I tried to question him on the logistics of his immigration policies.
From the very start of his campaign, I felt that Trump’s rhetoric was dangerous and contagious. For months now, we’ve witnessed a bully at work. And bullies need to be confronted quickly and without hesitation. Ignoring them is hazardous, and that’s what Peña Nieto did for eight months. Not a single official message from the Mexican president countered what Trump was saying. Meanwhile, Trump’s support grew.
Peña Nieto’s was a flawed strategy, and we are seeing the effects.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”