Oblivious to his lackluster performance in government, Mexico's President López Obrador is revving up efforts to make himself a transcendental figure of Mexican history, like other unsung predecessors.
MEXICO CITY — His discourse, body language and tone are increasingly intolerant and suggest rising desperation. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) has become so verbally radical this year that he has indiscriminately attacked educational institutions, journalists and individuals who, paradoxically, had been among those who defended and promoted him — or at least his causes. The change in his demeanor compared to when he took office is patent and, nevertheless, none of this has altered the devotion of his electoral support base.
Pollsters are keen to understand the AMLO phenomenon of enduring approval despite such pathetic results on the ground and especially the gap between approval rates for the president and his government. As pollster Francisco Abundis observes in his column for Milenio newspaper, public perceptions of the general state of the economy are not determining when it comes to approval of the president. People "pay attention to other indicators, like social programs." This, adds Abundis, was broadly similar to how opinion treated one former conservative president, Vicente Fox. "When sympathizers of the leader are questioned about the administration's mistakes, the response is often to blame his team or those around him, but never the president," he writes.
Building a personality cult
In the "report" of his first three years in power on December 1, the president revealed what might be a new strategy for the rest of his six-year term: If the key factor for his supporters (and ratings) is not tangible results measured by traditional indicators (like growth, jobs and security), then he must resort to personal promotion, which was precisely the point of his massive meeting in the Zócalo, Mexico City's historic main square, on December 1. In other words, the presidential logic seems to be shifting shifting towards the consecration of his personality rather than of his socialist project.
In history, the leaders who aspired to a mythical status outnumber those who attained it
The crowd that attended the mass meeting, and the president's ratings, suggest this may be the right bet. Traditional measurements appear not to be applicable to this president, because he has managed to be identified as the promoter of certain causes and viewed as the incarnation of accumulated resentments that go beyond satisfaction with the usual material or tangible paybacks. AMLO's voters do not want results from him, for their devotion is somewhat religious, based more on faith than reasoning. In a word, there is a different phenomenon at work, which needs to be categorized in its own terms.
At the meeting in the Zócalo, Mexico City's historic main square, on December 1
Transformational leaders vs. transformational projects
In history, the leaders who aspired to a mythical status outnumber those who attained it. Some became mythical for the wrong reasons (in John F. Kennedy's case for example, for being killed), and others for transforming their societies, for better or worse. Mao, Stalin and Nelson Mandela are legendary, but not in the same ways. The excessive power our system gives our presidents make them think they can become transformational leaders, able to solve the country's problems even without a suitable project. And they want to do it within a six-year term. Many tried it and almost all have ended up in history's trash bin, or somewhere worse.
Two decades ago, the journalist Thomas Frank wrote in his book What's the Matter with Kansas? that people vote against their own interests. They place values above interests and connect with leaders who promote immaterial causes that are not of immediate concern to them. He cited specifically the voters in the U.S. state of Kansas, who prefer candidates opposing abortion or favoring guns, to others concerned with the usual items like growth, jobs and education.
The consecration of a mythical leader?
So not all electoral preferences can be strictly gauged or understood with standard, analytical tools. Effective leaders use myths to their advantage, and often manage to draw voters to seemingly irrational projects. Fidel Castro became mythical, yet he impoverished and restricted Cuba for a good half century. Xi Jinping runs an extremely successful country but also seeks ideological sustenance from Mao, the greatest of oppressors.
But in Mexico, unlike many other countries, this isn't the moment for AMLO's consecration as a mythical leader. People can access information and make comparisons, which reveal the discrepancies between grandiloquent claims and dismal results. Still, expect three years of unrelenting self-promotion, which may yet create the myth. But, as Abundis observes of the conservative Fox, his inability to deliver on people's vast expectations of him (for presiding over the end of 70-years of one-party rule in 2000) sharply cut his heroic figure to size. And he gradually became the opposite of a myth: a piece of fiction, a matter for reflection or just a failure.