The revelation that Donald Trump was preparing to visit Mexico per the request of the Mexican government and its president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was leaked to the press before the details had even been worked out. And there are so many details. The gamble that such a trip represents for Donald Trump is a big one. It demonstrates the extent to which the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign knows they are well behind the eight ball heading into the fall campaign season. This is the equivalent of a Hail Mary passes downfield, which, while a gamble, offers the prospect of a big payoff.
The obstacles before any presidential campaign in planning a secure visit to Mexico City are daunting, but particularly for a candidate who has not made antagonizing the Mexican government and its people a centerpiece of the campaign. Reports indicating that Trump seized on the invitation of the Mexican government, one extended to both Trump and Hillary Clinton, on the day of a long-anticipated speech in which he planned to clear up the foggy details of his evolving immigration plan is auspicious. It represents a potentially deft optical maneuver on the part of Trump’s campaign team. For this visit to end up as a net positive for Trump, however, would require a lot of moving parts to perform in perfect coordination.
The theatrical brilliance of Steve Bannon, a man who made his mark in show business, is evident in Trump’s sojourn to Mexico. Optically, Trump may benefit from this trip, but only if he plays his cards right. The prospect for success rests on the Olympian and diplomatic posture Trump strikes. If he presents himself as a statesman, bravely confronting a foreign government hostile to his proposals, the impact of the trip will redound to his benefit. That would demand of Trump more discipline than he has so far displayed over the course of his foray into presidential politics. He may, however, get an assist from the Mexican government.
There are competing incentives at play here. Donald Trump’s primary voters would like nothing more than to see him descend on Mexico, berate the Mexican people (who have a highly unfavorable view of Trump), and dictate the terms of Mexico’s down payment on the construction of a towering border wall. The problem for Trump is that there are just not enough of those primary voters to win him the White House. Trump needs to expand his base, and that will mean seeming capable of performing statecraft. For President Peña Nieto, however, the situation is very different. The Mexican president is less popular in Mexico than Trump is in the United States. Peña Nieto has every incentive to present himself as a bold leader who will stand up to Trump. That may well mean putting the Republican presidential nominee in an embarrassing position.
That, too, could work to Trump’s benefit. Americans reject the appearance of foreign interference in the electoral process by putting Trump in a bad position (a position he would be smart to welcome, even at the expense of his ego). Moreover, the prospect of Trump being berated by the Mexican government and scorned by the Mexican public may allow the GOP nominee to posture the victim and generate sympathy. “Trump is going to Mexico for the same reasons that he went to Chicago in March,” The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs speculated. Insofar as the Trump campaign expected that a rally in center city Chicago, just a few minutes’ walk from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, would be marred by protests, Jacobs may be right.
The upsides for Trump are, however, limited by the prospect that such a display would not project competence to Trump-skeptical voters. It would confirm the impression that Donald Trump is the chaos candidate. The celebrity candidate’s core supporters are “change voters,” and they don’t appear to care how radical that change may be. The broader electorate, however, does. Those voters with jobs, mortgages, children, and hope for the immediate future will not vote for a candidate they believe will blow it all up. They are continuity voters; they seek stability, even if they contend that they want “change” after eight years of Democratic governance in Washington. If Trump’s visit turns into a fiasco, the result will not be a deluge of new converts to the GOP nominee’s campaign.
All told, however, this is a bold move from the Trump campaign that indicates they know they will not win this election as a result of safe plays. As Hillary Clinton’s convention bounce fades and the evolving scandals regarding her behavior at the State Department consume her campaign, Trump has a chance to recover some of the ground he lost over the summer. His trip to Mexico is a gamble, but it is one that very well may reward him “big league.”