In 1928, sociologist William Isaac Thomas published a book titled The Child in America, in which he wrote, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
His observation became known as the Thomas theorem, which contends that beliefs do not necessarily need to be grounded in facts to have profound effects on the world.
Few examples demonstrate this principle better than President Donald J. Trump’s all-out affront on immigrants, which although largely baseless, has had profound consequences in the United States and the world.
On Saturday, June 8, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced a cautious – and likely temporary – victory for his country before a large, energetic crowd in downtown Tijuana on the U.S./Mexican border:
“We’re celebrating yesterday’s important agreement because it was putting us in a very difficult situation with these tariffs because we would have had to impose the same measures on U.S. products,” Lopez Obrador explained, as he read from an uncharacteristically scripted speech.
The rally, which Lopez Obrador called to celebrate the “dignity” of all Mexicans, came after a week-long faceoff with United States’ President Trump over his threat to impose tariffs on all Mexican exports to the U.S. As is his custom, Trump announced his threats via Twitter:
On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2019
According to Trump, the tariffs were designed to encourage Mexico to put more pressure on drug traffickers and undocumented migrants. However, as the weekend played out, it became evident that the proposed measures were simply another chapter in the president’s long-running semantic war against Mexico, the U.S.’ third largest trade partner.
Trump has also used protectionist threats to rail against China, America’s largest trading partner, and Canada, the country’s second-largest trading partner. Still, when the going gets tough and the president feels the need to rally his base, he always turns to Mexico.
Rhetoric Against Mexican Immigrants
At campaign-like rallies across the country, which have become a staple of the Trump presidency, the commander in chief has time and again used anti-immigrant rhetoric to solidify his political base. And while he has denounced all immigrants, his vitriolic speeches frequently hone in on Mexican immigrants.
Since taking office in 2017, he has accused Mexico of harboring criminals, facilitating the illegal drug trade, and failing to stop undocumented migration along the southern border.
Trump’s reliance on Mexico to validate his fear-informed vision of the world likely relates to the fact that, at 25 percent of all immigrant flows, Mexicans are by far the largest immigrant group in the United States. In this sense, Mexicans have come to represent the symbolic “other” in Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric. And unlike any other nation in the world, Mexico allows Trump to fuse together his protectionist trade policies with his racist worldview.
Former Mexican President Porfirio Diaz’s infamous quote “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States” has never rung so true.
Naturally, Trump’s hyperbolic description of Mexico flies in the face of reality.
Mexico and United States
Mexico, which is home to the world’s 15th largest economy, is hardly the country Trump makes it out to be. In recent decades, the Mexican economy has experienced substantial growth, education opportunities have expanded, the middle class has grown, and migration to the U.S. has fallen so much that the flow has actually reversed. In fact, since 2009, more people have been returning to Mexico than have left for the U.S.
And while Mexico is in the midst of its most violent stretch in modern history, the cause of Mexico’s violence is tied to the historic demand for drugs in the United States. As empirical research reveals, while drug-related homicides have more than doubled since Felipe Calderon launched the U.S.-financed War on Drugs in 2006, homicides not related to the drug trade have remained roughly the same. In other words, if it weren’t for the United States’ insatiable demand for illegal drugs, Mexico would in all likelihood be experiencing an unprecedented period of safety.
Despite this, in the U.S., Trump continues to accuse Mexican immigrants of being criminals, rapists, and drug dealers. Trump does so in spite of overwhelming evidence demonstrating that migrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born U.S. citizens, and neighborhoods with more immigrants are significantly safer than those with fewer foreigners.
Still, what makes Trump’s latest protectionist measures so alarming is that they could convert the fictitious crime-ridden world that the president has been warning everyone about into reality. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In 1948, sociologist Robert Merton, who coined the term, wrote:
“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”
Therein lies the power of Trump’s xenophobic worldview. Eventually, if left unchecked, the fictitious world that Trump lives in may well become our reality.
Higher tariffs contribute to declines in domestic productivity, higher inequality, and spikes in unemployment. In other words, Trump’s tariff war with Mexico, combined with the ones he is concurrently waging with China and Canada, could very well undo the economic and social progress that the world’s largest trading partners have made in recent decades.
Economic backsliding in Mexico would contribute to increases in unemployment and inequality, making it easier for organized crime to recruit foot soldiers, and increasing the push factors that drive Mexicans to migrate to the U.S. in the first place.
In turn, increased immigration from Mexico, combined with economic decline in the U.S., would play into Trump’s hand as it would validate his anti-immigrant rhetoric.
In the end, if the world economy begins to decline and the U.S. spirals into a protectionist shell, Trump’s bombastic leadership style will be to blame. And yet, it may not matter because the world we’ll find ourselves in will be eerily similar to the one Trump warned us of on the campaign trail back in 2016.
And if that day comes, there will stand Trump, the prophetic leader, tweeting: “I warned you. The world is a dark place. And you need me to lead you through it.”Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.