When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto compared Republican hopeful Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler this week, he blew it. He should have compared him to Herbert Hoover.
Hoover, you may remember, was the U.S. president who presided over the country’s Great Depression of the 1930s. He was a Republican populist who, like Trump today, campaigned for raising import duties on foreign goods to allegedly protect American workers. Once he became president, he started a trade war that contributed to the U.S. depression.
In an interview published March 7 by the Mexican daily Excelsior, Peña Nieto likened Trump’s rhetoric to that of Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Referring to Trump’s tirades against undocumented Mexican immigrants, the Mexican president said, “That’s how Mussolini got in, that’s how Hitler got in.”
But the comparison was neither original nor suited to be made by a Mexican president. It had already been done a zillion times in the U.S. media after former KKK leader David Duke announced that he would vote for Trump, and was even the subject of a hilarious spoof titled “Racists for Trump” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
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Problem is that, coming from a foreign president, it trivializes the deaths of the millions of victims of the Holocaust, and helps spread the notion among Trump supporters that their candidate is the victim of a smear campaign.
Instead, the Mexican president should have referred to Trump more realistically, with an example that would be more credible, and closer to home. That would be Hoover, the 31st president of the United States.
Hoover’s campaign platform for the 1928 election called for raising import duties of agricultural goods to help U.S. farmers. Problem was, once he was elected and the U.S. government started raising tariffs on agricultural imports, other U.S. industries demanded similar tariffs to help protect their own businesses.
Pretty soon, all U.S. industries — by then barely affected by a 1929 Wall Street crash — were asking for higher tariffs on imports. In 1930, Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised import duties to record highs. That led other countries to retaliate, raising their own tariffs on U.S. goods.
The ensuing trade war led to a 66 percent drop in international trade between 1929 and 1934. According to U.S. State Department figures, U.S. exports to Europe fell from $1,334 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932.
Economists are debating to this day whether the trade war was a major cause of the Great Depression. But few dispute that it was a factor in the collapse of the U.S. economy in the early 1930s.
Trump has said that he would slap a 35 percent import tax on Mexican car imports. When asked at the Feb. 25 Republican debate whether that wouldn’t trigger a trade war with Mexico, Trump responded, “Well, you know, I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year.”
Aside from the fact that his figure is deceiving — it doesn’t count the 40 percent of U.S. components that are included in Mexican-made cars that are exported to the United States — Trump’s disdain for the possible impact of a trade war is a reminder of the populist-isolationist position that U.S. politicians were taking before the Great Depression.
In addition, Hoover — like Trump today — blamed undocumented Mexican immigrants for much of America’s economic problems. In 1929, Hoover launched the Mexican Repatriation program that forced a half-million undocumented Mexicans to return to their home country.
My opinion: No, Mr. Peña Nieto, your analogy may be good for domestic consumption in Mexico, but it trivializes the Holocaust and misses the opportunity to tell Americans that Trump’s simplistic populism could bring about a new Great Depression to the United States.
Your argument should be that Americans who now pay $24,000 for a Ford Fusion made in Mexico would pay $32,000 with Trump’s import tax, and that the U.S. car industry could no longer compete in other markets without low-cost Mexican car parts. As long as Trump doesn’t have blood on his hands, you should not compare him with Hitler, but with Hoover.
Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español; Twitter: @oppenheimera
Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español