Butterfly Effect: Guess Who's Scared of Trump? His Populist Friends - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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It's great if your enemies fear you. The American president isn't that fortunate.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

It was arguably the most controversial of President Donald Trump’s statements during his first campaign for the presidency. Mexican immigrants, he said, were criminals, drug dealers, “rapists”… and “some good people.” Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, it seems, is desperate to convince Trump he’s one of the “good people” the U.S. president mentioned almost as an afterthought.

AMLO, as the Mexican leader is known, visited the White House Wednesday — his first foreign trip since taking office in late 2018 — despite criticism in both Mexico and the United States. Officially, the visit is meant to celebrate the July 1 launch of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the new regional free trade pact replacing NAFTA. But what explains AMLO’s willingness to overlook worries that he’s whitewashing Trump’s past comments and effectively endorsing his reelection campaign, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau politely turned down an invite to the same event?

It’s easy to accuse AMLO — a bombastic populist himself, who criticized Trump’s comments about Mexico back when the president made them — of hypocrisy. And that wouldn’t be wrong. But behind the weakness forcing the Mexican leader to quietly play along with Trump, there lies a peculiar geopolitical pattern that extends much beyond AMLO.

Few countries have escaped Trump’s vitriol — over trade, defense budgets, the coronavirus, visa bans and more — over the past four years. But Europe’s centrist democracies and authoritarian states such as China don’t appear to be getting bullied.

Instead, it’s fellow, democratically elected populists whom Trump describes as friends that at once seem to both fear the U.S. president the most, and appear convinced that they can successfully pander to his ego. That’s not good for America.

Trump publicly ridiculed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, claiming the latter often boasted about a library New Delhi had built in Afghanistan, and accusing India of not doing more for the war-torn country. He has reportedly mocked Modi’s accent in private. Still, the Indian leader, who has portrayed himself as a muscular champion of India’s interests, has not only quietly taken the humiliation but has gone out of his way to please Trump. When the U.S. threatened nations with sanctions if they continued to trade with Iran after America walked out of the nuclear deal, Europe pursued alternative banking channels to insulate its companies from the threat. China continued buying Iranian oil. But New Delhi stopped purchasing crude from Tehran. Instead, India has increased its imports of American oil tenfold over the past two years. And Modi held mega rallies with Trump in Houston last September and in Ahmedabad, India, in February, in thinly veiled efforts to prod Indian American voters to support the president.

The U.S. president has threatened tariffs on Brazilian aluminum and steel. In May, the U.S. banned travel from Brazil, home to the second-highest tally of coronavirus cases in the world after America. But Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro visited the U.S. leader for a friendly dinner at his Florida resort in March and in June threatened to follow Trump in withdrawing from the WHO.

And AMLO has succumbed to arm-twisting from Trump, sending troops to Mexico’s southern border to curb immigration, and agreeing to house tens of thousands of U.S. asylum-seekers. He even tried convincing Trudeau to join the meeting with Trump in Washington this week.

For all their public bravado, it isn’t entirely surprising for populist leaders like Modi, Bolsonaro and AMLO — each of whom has pitched himself as an outsider taking on entrenched establishment interests — to kowtow to Trump. They face growing allegations at home of human rights abuses and of subverting democratic practices.

Last year, the Modi government overnight ended the special autonomy Kashmir has enjoyed for decades, and then rushed through a controversial citizenship law that discriminates against Muslim immigrants. Bolsonaro has systematically weakened protections for the Amazon, and has routinely made misogynist comments and racist remarks. “[Indigenous] Indians … are increasingly becoming human beings just like us,” he said earlier this year. And AMLO has blatantly planted his loyalists in key institutions that previously functioned independently — such as the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission.

These are all acts that in another era would have attracted strong censure from the U.S. — even if for self-serving American interests. Modi, Bolsonaro, AMLO and similarly elected but increasingly authoritarian leaders have all concluded that by giving in to Trump’s other demands, they can avoid that challenge. And indeed, the U.S. has been muted in its criticism of Modi, Bolsonaro and AMLO.

That’s unlike communist China, whose leadership knows that ultimately, its strategic contest with America for the world’s future won’t be altered by concessions from either side.

For sure, some of the effects of Trump’s approach — such as coercing Mexico to stop migration at its southern border or getting India to buy American oil — have helped the U.S. too. But for the most part, these leaders have massaged Trump’s personal interests, whether it’s Modi’s rallies or AMLO’s photo op with the president.

“A visit by the Mexican president at this moment … implies an act of intervention that, albeit indirectly, will end up benefitting the campaign of Donald Trump,” columnist Ricardo Raphael wrote in Mexico’s Proceso magazine last week.

Megalomaniac leaders bothered only about their rule won’t mind. America should.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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