Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
By Holman Jenkins Jr.
May 3, 2016
For decades it suited citizens on both sides to ignore the U.S.-Mexico border for labor contracting purposes; federal law even provided a de facto amnesty with a five-year statute of limitations on illegal entry.
Today, if anyone cared to, illegal immigration could easily be solved by introducing a fraud-proof national ID card with biometric information; make it illegal, with real penalties, for employers to hire anyone, citizen or immigrant, who doesn’t have one.
Voilà, no need for a wall, though we also detect no appetite for a real immigration solution. Most Americans continue to favor eventual legalization for those already here. Even Donald Trump’s incessant thumping has only raised immigration to a middling issue. Right now, the net people flow is toward the south. Their economy is growing faster than ours. There’s even reason to suspect the U.S. border crackdown has hindered movement back to Mexico.
Yet candidate Trump incessantly attacks Mexico not only over immigration, but over the North American Free Trade Agreement, one of those “stupid” trade deals negotiated by our “stupid” negotiators. How did Mexico become enemy No. 1? Good question. The lyrics of Mr. Trump’s recent foreign policy speech may have been non compos mentis but the music featured an authentic lilt. The world is becoming more chaotic; the U.S. in the future will be selecting its commitments more circumspectly and economically.
Unbelievably, then, Mr. Trump picks a fight with one of America’s most important strategic partners in such a world.
He complains about Carrier Corp. relocating factory jobs to Mexico, but how else are U.S. companies to compete and preserve their remaining jobs? Carrier is only No. 4 on a list of global air-conditioner brands that includes three Japanese, two Korean, two Indian and a Swedish company.
Ford Motor Co. has been especially berated by Mr. Trump for building cars in Mexico, but what’s a better way for Ford to compete and protect its market share against Japanese, Korean and German makers who (let’s face it) mostly build their cars in U.S. Southern states with nonunion workers?
We haven’t even mentioned the growing collective power of the U.S., Canada and Mexico as energy exporters. Nafta is our safe harbor, our fortress, in an anarchic world.
Yet Mr. Trump’s campaign has been a litany of threats directed primarily against one nation—Mexico. He threatens a trade war to make Mexico pay for his wall. He threatens visa restrictions on Mexican visitors. He threatens to seize the money Mexican workers send home to their families.
These are Putinesque extortions. In a memo to the Washington Post, Mr. Trump as much as says that Mexico is a weak punching bag and would have no choice but to yield to America’s superior leverage.
Mr. Trump flogs our southern neighbor for the puniest of political reasons, because it riles up a certain class of voter. During the Wisconsin primary, 10-year-old girls at a kid’s soccer game, for the benefit of a visiting team heavy on ethnic minorities, chanted “Donald Trump, build that wall!” As California’s primary approaches, Trump rallies bring violent confrontations between police and Latino demonstrators, some of whom wave the Mexican flag. As Vladimir Putin learned in Ukraine, even weak countries don’t take well to being humiliated. It creates a constituency for outcomes that are self-defeating for all concerned.
Of course, it’s always possible that President Trump would disown his Mexico-first foreign policy as quickly as he did two wives. His most prominent business endorser, Carl Icahn, assures us Mr. Trump would be a “pragmatist.”
The Trump phenomenon’s chin-stroking analysts are right about one thing: The unskilled, unmobile, small-town American manufacturing worker who makes up his most important support base has largely been sold short by our political system. (As a side note, the political system has hardly leapt to the defense of newspaper workers rendered jobless by Craigslist.)
There’s a reason for this: Business owners, their employees and their consumers who benefit from trade are more numerous and have more clout. On balance, the years 1982-2006, which coincided with a dramatic relocation of the world’s manufacturing to Asia, were pretty decent ones for the U.S. economy.
When he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama had the good sense to be pleasantly vague, noncommittal and even obfuscatory about his agenda, and as a consequence didn’t expend any political capital later disowning campaign promises.
Mr. Trump, arguably, is not a more oafish or unsubtle politician, but he never would have propelled himself into contention without his “wall”—a singularly concrete promise of change. Just about everything else Mr. Trump says, such as his vow to replace ObamaCare with “something wonderful,” outdoes even Mr. Obama for vapidity.
But would President Trump really want to throw his first year down the toidy by provoking an unnecessary showdown with an American ally? If not, the biggest mystery of his first days in office might be what flamboyant excuse he dreams up for changing the subject.
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