From the first day he descended the escalator in Trump Tower and launched his presidential campaign, so much of Donald Trump’s candidacy was rooted in Mexico.
Mexican immigrants were bringing drugs and crime, he said. They were rapists. (Some, he “assume[d], are good people.”) They were stealing our jobs. We needed a wall — and Mexico would pay for it.
On Wednesday, Trump took the plunge and visited his apotheosis.
He accepted an invitation from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, notifying the world of his decision late Tuesday night. It was classic Trump: His first official visit with a sitting head of state would not be a formal, carefully orchestrated event, but a gamble and a show.
On stage during a subdued news conference in Mexico he tried to pretend the past year of campaigning hadn’t happened, while speaking from notes. And the wall? He said he and Peña Nieto didn’t discuss payment. (The Mexican president later said he wouldn't pay for it.)
Neither a refutation of his previous themes nor a doubling down on them, Trump's appearance straddled the line. But his remarks should not be confused for a true renewal of ties between the man who may be president and the Mexican nation denigrated. To see that, you only needed to wait for his Phoenix, Arizona, speech on immigration Wednesday evening.
A funny thing happened on the way to the border
On Mexican soil he had discussed his “tremendous feeling” for Mexican-Americans, a comment we should endow with as much credence as his infamous Cinco de Mayo taco salad tweet.
He talked about keeping our “hemisphere” safe and prosperous, a surprising enlarging of his purview given that it was Mexico itself that he so often describes as the enemy of American safety and prosperity.
Back in Arizona, he began by praising Peña Nieto and talking carefully about immigration's effect on working people in the United States.
But it didn't take long before he doubled down on what he called the dangers of illegal immigration in startling and disturbing detail: the wall, complete with underground and aerial surveillance; an expanded deportation force; a beefed-up version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Operation Wetback.
He mixed new policies such as the surveillance apparatus with rehashed versions of earlier reform proposals — many of them, still, new to him. Throughout it all, a dark and apocalyptic vision running through what was billed as a 10-point policy address.
So it’s the dog whistle and not the neighborliness that Trump clings to regarding Mexico — our southern neighbor and our third-largest trading partner with whom in 2015 goods and service trade totaled more than $583 billion, according to federal figures.
It doesn't need to be this way
There is another path for Mexican-American relations, one that had its own milestone Wednesday not long before Trump flew south.
A plane took off from Fort Lauderdale heading for Santa Clara, Cuba, in the first regularly scheduled commercial flight in more than a decade between the two nations: a powerful symbol of their rapprochement after half a century of severed diplomatic ties.
What could have been a routine flight, became a reminder of the Cold War and what happens when rhetoric is matched with action and neighbor turns against neighbor.
President Barack Obama, in what may be a major achievement of his administration, began normalizing ties in 2014.
We continue to have our issues with Cuba — from human rights violations to the slow expansion of economic exchange. The embargo is still in place — which Trump, trade warrior that he is, might appreciate.
But the path toward more diplomatic cooperation and less nationalistic strutting is the right one, in Cuba as in Mexico.
That's not the path Trump has chosen.
In his speech in Phoenix, Trump eventually trailed off from his unsettling and inaccurate picture of murder and mayhem emanating northward from the border, and rambled about deporting Hillary Clinton, the fraud of climate change, and radical Islam. He promised gangs would disappear and inner cities, now broken, would be rebuilt. Oh, and Mexico would pay for the wall "100 percent."
All pretense at statesmanship had ended. It was back to rabble rousing.