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Sore loser politics: A Mexican lesson about Trump

Sore loser politics: A Mexican lesson about Trump
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Wednesday will bring an end to the Trump presidency, but it will not necessarily bring an end to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm MORE’s political career. His false claims of electoral fraud, as ridiculous as they seem to his opponents, offer him a viable path to keep his base and possibly return to power. A precedent for this type of “sore loser politics” exists: for a recent example, look to Mexico and its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador

The comparison to López Obrador might seem surprising, especially given Trump’s historical antipathy to Mexico. Yet, despite their different ideological leanings and political trajectories, both men have used false charges of fraud to try to snatch survival out of the jaws of defeat. In 2006, López Obrador lost the Mexican presidential election by a very narrow margin (0.56 percent) to Felipe Calderón, a member of Mexico’s center-right National Action incumbent party (PAN). He and his followers challenged the results in a similar way to Trump and his Republican loyalists after the 2020 U.S. presidential election. They argued, without actual proof, that the election had been corrupted by all sorts of methods, from the futuristic-sounding “cybernetic fraud” involving a supposed algorithm in Mexico’s new electoral reporting system, to “old-fashioned” methods such as ballot theft.  

López Obrador’s party, the left-center Democratic Revolution party (PRD), also launched an official effort to demand a recount, filing 227 complaints across Mexico, including one that comprised 900 pages and nine boxes of alleged evidence. (Trump lawyers Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani again suspended from YouTube over false election claims Sacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Biden administration buys 100,000 doses of Lilly antibody drug MORE and Sidney Powell would have been impressed.) Mexican electoral authorities approved a partial recount, but the final tally confirmed Calderón’s advantage. 

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López Obrador’s cries of fraud galvanized and convinced many of his supporters, and they — like Trump’s followers today — sought to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power and bring turmoil to the nation’s capital. Throughout the summer and fall of 2006, they took to the streets in Mexico City, organized protests and rallies that brought hundreds of thousands of people to hear López Obrador speak at the city’s central plaza, the Zócalo. Protesters impeded traffic in Mexico City, occupied federal offices and blocked outgoing President Vicente Fox’s State of the Nation address. Eventually, on a chaotic inauguration day, PRD legislators came to blows with PAN representatives on the floor of Congress.

López Obrador’s efforts ultimately were unsuccessful in changing the outcome of the election, or even in delaying Felipe Calderón from beginning his six-year term. Nevertheless — and here lies the perverse brilliance of sore loser politics — they were successful in strengthening López Obrador’s position within his party in the long term. His claims about fraud became the foundational myth of his political movement after 2006, consolidating his status as the victimized leader of an aggrieved constituency. 

For the next 12 years, López Obrador would launch continuous critiques of other opposition leaders, who in comparison looked weak, unprincipled or too willing to compromise. By building a movement around the false narrative of fraud, López Obrador remained politically viable despite a loss that otherwise might have meant the end of his career, or at least his presidential ambitions. In 2012 he ran, lost and claimed fraud again, then left his party and founded a new one, Morena, with which he finally won by a landslide in 2018. 

All of this explains why Trump’s latest transgressions probably do not seem as preposterous and reprehensible to López Obrador as they do to so many other world leaders. Indeed, rather than condemning the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, López Obrador instead excoriated the social media companies that suspended Trump’s accounts, labeling the action “censorship” and a “holy inquisition.” He also delayed congratulating Joe BidenJoe BidenIntercept bureau chief: minimum wage was not 'high priority' for Biden in COVID-19 relief South Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Obama alum Seth Harris to serve as Biden labor adviser: report MORE on his electoral victory, giving credence to Trump’s baseless allegations of fraud by waiting until all the legal cases about the election were dismissed.  

Of course, there are key differences between the two presidents. López Obrador engaged in sore loser politics as an opposition candidate, not as an acting president with all the power of the U.S. government at his command. Mexico has had a history of electoral fraud that gave some plausibility to his allegations; Trump’s claims of fraud had no basis in history (he even made them after he won in 2016, when he claimed there had been millions of “illegal votes”). Most importantly, while López Obrador and his sympathizers were defiant, they remained relatively peaceful, rather than engaging in openly seditious violence.

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Despite their differences, Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador are both sore losers who built powerful movements based on spurious grievance and victimhood. In Mexico after 2006, López Obrador’s baseless charges of fraud caused a turbulent transition and, more importantly, cemented the enduring loyalty of his followers. In the United States in 2021, Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his defeat went further, instigating a violent assault on Congress.   

Americans would be wise to keep this Mexican lesson in mind as they watch what Trump and his supporters do over the next few months (and years). Trump himself may have become a toxic figure after the recent events on Capitol Hill, but his base will not disappear. Indeed, by launching and promoting what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “Big Lie” of electoral fraud, Trump, like López Obrador, has created the conditions for an enduring political movement.

Even if Trump is impeached and barred from running for office again, Trumpism — reinvigorated around the claim of electoral fraud — in all likelihood will remain a powerful force in American politics. 

Carlos Bravo Regidor (@carlosbravoreg) is a political analyst and an associate professor of journalism at CIDE, a public research and teaching center in Mexico City.

Julia G. Young (@juliagyoung) is an associate professor of Latin American history at the Catholic University of America in Washington.