What Trump Could Learn From Studying Mexico’s History

By John Zmirak Published on September 1, 2016

Donald Trump’s visit to Mexico has captured the headlines, and seems like a smart piece of political strategy. It suggests that he understands the need for dialogue, and the fact that our southern neighbor is far too important to America’s national interest for a president to treat it as a handy campaign pinãta. Just imagine if Mexico became not merely uncooperative but actually hostile, and cozied up to Russia or China: We’d face a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trump’s speech on immigration was stirring, detailed and smart. It focused rightly on America’s national interest and the needs of the least among us: crime victims, less skilled workers and hard-pressed honest taxpayers, all of whom suffer from our uncontrolled national borders.

His having met with that country’s leader, let us hope that Mr. Trump embarks on a deeper study of Mexico’s people and history, from which he could draw a long list of valuable lessons in politics and governance. Sadly, most of those lessons would be on what to avoid.

What Happened to Monterrey, Mexico?

Mexico is a vast, complex, and beautiful country full of hard-working people of enormous creativity and faith, which has for most of its history been crassly misgoverned — wasting its great potential, and driving millions to flee their homes for America, in defiance of our just and democratically enacted immigration laws.

I’ve only visited Mexico once, in 2000. I stayed with Catholic activists in the city of Monterrey, which was then one of Mexico’s most prosperous cities. People called it “Mexico’s Dallas.” Apart from the gorgeous architecture and delicious food, the thing that stayed with me most was our drive through the city’s slums. The houses were small and fragile-looking, crowded too close together. But most were carefully maintained, freshly painted, and festively decorated. These people, however poor, insisted on their dignity.

Since then, Monterrey has been devastated by drug cartels, whose heavily armed and utterly ruthless soldiers think nothing of gunning down police captains, mayors, and thousands of civilians. I wonder what those humble homes I saw in 2000 look like today, and how their inhabitants are faring. I wonder how many were willing to break America’s laws to come here.

Mexico Inherited Bad Political Philosophy From Spain

That one city is a microcosm of Mexico as a whole. The stark contrast between American and Mexican history can be traced all the way back to the culture and politics of the nations that colonized them. The English who settled in North America came from a kingdom where the Magna Carta had prevailed for more than 300 years, guaranteeing due process and property rights. Its monarch’s rule was dependent on the consent of the English Parliament. Local government was strong, and much of the power decentralized. The English Reformation, for all the cruelty that was practiced on both sides, had underlined the need for restraints on royal power, as non-conforming Protestants cited medieval, Catholic precedents in Common Law to protect their political and religious freedom.

By contrast, the Kingdom of Spain had made itself religiously homogeneous in 1492 when it expelled the last Jews and Muslims. In 1520-21 the Spanish Crown crushed the revolts of localists. Its kings repealed the fueros (Spanish Magna Cartas) that had once guaranteed the rights of citizens and small communities. Spain’s kings rejected as inefficient and antiquated medieval restraints on monarchs, and governed according to the new and “modern” theory of absolute monarchy. Order was not seen as something that grew organically from the ground, but as a magnetic force that proceeded from a single all powerful center, in Madrid.

This contrast in political philosophies set the tone for the histories of two nations. While English colonies developed vibrant town councils and state legislatures, mostly rejecting attempts to impose royal governors from England, the provinces of New Spain were run by appointees arriving from Spain. The initiative for laws came not from the citizens of Mexico City or Monterrey, but from faraway Madrid.

Nor did the Spanish legal system provide the same robust protections for property rights as English citizens — and colonists — could rely on. Read the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (cited here at The Stream) on how crucial property rights are to raising people from poverty and supporting the rule of law.

Town Meetings in New England, But Not in New Spain

When England tried to impose protectionism for its own benefit on the residents of its colonies, their local governments resisted, and winked at citizens smuggling to avoid such crippling tariffs. By contrast, New Spain’s governors were perfectly willing to govern that province in Spain’s (not New Spain’s) interests, suppressing whole industries if Spain found the competition obnoxious. The path to wealth in New Spain lay through royal patronage and vast land grants, not industry or commerce.

When the United States and Mexico cast off their colonial masters, each followed for the most part in the tracks which their past had lain down. While the American founders built into their Constitution elaborate checks and balances, and preserved most taxing and governing power for states and even towns, the elites who seized power in newly founded Mexico continued to act like Spanish grandees, seeing those whom they governed not so much as citizens but as subjects — especially the large majority of Indian and mixed-race residents, who had little voice in governance. (Of course, in America we persecuted our Indians and imported African slaves — our hands are by no means clean.)

It was only the Catholic Church that preserved some land for Indians, land that ambitious descendants of the Conquistadors would gradually steal, in the name of “freeing” Mexico from the dominance of the Church. The periodic revolutions and coups d’etat that marked the transitions of power in Mexico were not philosophically driven movements like the American Revolution, but mostly the acts of strongmen like General Santa Anna who sought unaccountable power. Sometimes they used that power, as in the 1920s, to persecute clergy and churchgoers — trying to break the back of the only institution that could resist the centralized state. The faithful priests and peasants who took up arms in resistance (the Cristeros) nearly toppled that evil government.

Nationalism, Populism, Protectionism: 3 Imports America Doesn’t Need

Through all these historical traumas, the hard-working and long-suffering people of Mexico have forged a powerful sense of their own nationhood, which ideologues sometimes have fanned into intolerant nationalism. The socialist Party of Institutionalized Revolution rode such sentiments to power. In 1938 it seized the property of the (foreign-built) oil industry and turned it into a crony capitalist monopoly; then it harshly restricted the influx of foreign capital. Such economic populism, whether practiced in Mexico or Argentina, has a predictable effect: It starves local industries of much-needed investment, and helps make a few fat cats rich, while impoverishing the majority.

It’s ironic, then, that Donald Trump has made so much political hay from criticizing Mexico. In many ways the political impulses he has tapped into throughout his campaign are examples of what went wrong in Mexico. Economic populism; protectionism; angry reactive nationalism; impatience with the separation of powers and the rule of law; and the willingness to override property rights (see eminent domain): these are the hallmarks of Mexican political history, which produced a struggling country whose citizens are fleeing its cities to move to ours.

Nevertheless, as Trump said eloquently and accurately in his policy speech on immigration, the U.S. is the aggrieved party in the immigration crisis. While our neighbors in Mexico deserve our goodwill, respect and prayers, their country is in fact rife with social problems that we should not be importing in the form of millions of low-skill migrants whose political and social expectations have been formed by crony socialism.

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