It’s Mexico-bashing season in US politics again.

In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign brought Mexican rapists, “bad hombres,” and “build the wall” into mainstream political discourse. This time around, the rhetoric has escalated further, no longer centered on a defensive wall alone but on an offensive campaign against Mexico, taking whatever form the feverish minds of the Republican primary contenders can come up with.

In response to a legitimate question by moderator Ilia Calderón at the September 27 debate to the effect that most fentanyl is smuggled across the Mexican border by US citizens at legal border crossings, Vivek Ramaswamy responded by advocating for “sealing the border” with the military, without explaining what that would entail or how trade would continue with the nation’s second-largest trading partner under those conditions.

Ron DeSantis then upped the ante, insisting that he would use the military to “go after” Mexican cartels as the “foreign terrorist organizations that they are.” Sprinkled throughout the rest of the evening were Chris Christie’s promise to deploy the National Guard to the border, Nikki Haley’s railing against sanctuary cities, and Tim Scott’s geography-busting assertion that every US county “is now a border county.”

By current standards, this was a relatively decaffeinated evening. On other occasions, Scott had promised in a campaign ad to “unleash” the military against the cartels, Ramaswamy had promised to “annihilate” them, and Haley had pledged to lay down the law with the Mexican president by means of a “you do it or we do it” pledge. And lest this be seen as simply an attention-getting ruse by primary has-beens, front-runner Donald Trump has promised to “deploy all necessary military assets” to Mexico, including special forces, cyber warfare, and “other overt and covert actions.”

Although a Lindsey Graham–led faction has argued that the United States does not require an authorization for use of military force to act in Mexico, other Republicans in Congress are preparing just such an AUMF against anyone “responsible for trafficking fentanyl or a fentanyl-related substance into the United States or carrying out other related activities that cause regional destabilization in the Western Hemisphere.”

Given the United States’ history in Latin America, the resolution as worded would practically require Uncle Sam to intervene against itself, giving the lie to the old joke: “Why has there never been a coup in the United States? Because there’s no US embassy there.”

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Leaving aside for the moment the campaign bluster and crude intimidation tactics, let us take a moment to imagine what might happen if a President Trump, DeSantis, or whoever actually decided to follow through with a plan to invade Mexico.

The first bombs start raining down in the early-morning hours, part of a “shock and awe” campaign designed to seize the initiative against the newly designated foreign terrorist organizations. As dawn breaks, the Pentagon shares a handful of carefully culled videos that purport to show the selection of only isolated, unpopulated targets such as mountain fentanyl labs. Social media, however, quickly gives the lie to this, showing residential areas being repeatedly hit by missile strikes. Despite initial attempts to deny the validity of the videos, the Pentagon then backtracks, admitting that a few “isolated” areas were hit by error or — as the argument evolves — because cartels are moving into populated neighborhoods to use them as human shields.

In a nationally televised address, President Claudia Sheinbaum condemns the bombing as an “act of war” and calls on the Mexican citizenry to resist the US onslaught by all peaceful means. Propelled by the destruction and fear of further bombings, the first refugee flows start heading toward the border. In a hastily convened summit, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States condemns the attack and calls for immediate talks on creating a pan–Latin American political and economic union; the condemnation is quickly echoed by BRICS states and, despite furious US lobbying, the European Union. At the UN Security Council, Mexico ally Brazil tables a resolution to call for an immediate end to the bombing, which the US duly vetoes.

Then it happens: a bomb goes off in a major US city, followed by another. In the absence of an immediate culprit, fingers are pointed at the cartels, their US distributors, or bombers-for-hire on cartel payrolls. US tanks roll across the border and are immediately met with hostile demonstrations in Tijuana, Mexicali, Reynosa, and Matamoros, where maquiladora workers walk out of US-owned factories and join the protesters. The demonstrations quickly spread across the country as well as to Mexican American communities in US cities. Nevertheless, the ground assault rolls on with seeming invincibility, blithely unconcerned with international opinion, as US forces overwhelm the Mexican army while occupying a hundred oil wells in the Cuenca de Burgos region of Tamaulipas and the lithium deposits in Sonora nationalized by Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2021.

Until, about a hundred miles or so from the border, they are hit by a coordinated series of attacks from guerrilla units armed — ironically — with US weaponry, including armor-piercing .50-caliber sniper rifles, M-134 rotary machine guns capable of shooting between two thousand and four thousand rounds a minute, M82 semiautomatic rifles that can pierce bulletproof vests and tanks, and a variety of other military-grade firearms. US troops return fire and call in air strikes, but the attackers disappear into the mountains, only to appear and disappear again and again.

In an eerie repeat of the 1916 Punitive Expedition led by General John Pershing, the ground campaign quickly bogs down as US troops are forced to reconnoiter arid, unfamiliar, and hostile territory under the constant threat of a well-armed ambush. In a number of areas, cartel leaders are hailed as heroes for opposing the US invasion, and their ranks swell. Meanwhile, Mexican American communities in the United States are being subject to their own attacks by armed vigilante groups accusing them of involvement in the bombings. Dozens are assaulted, and, when one is beaten to death by police, the Mexican community — joined by other Latino groups — organizes a massive strike, paralyzing the service, construction, automotive, and transportation industries, which are already reeling from the closing of the border and the inability to import vital parts and supplies.

The United States tips into a severe recession, followed by Mexico, increasing the numbers of refugees marching northward into the hundreds of thousands. National Guard and reserve units are mobilized and sent to the border, but when this proves insufficient, Congress approves billions in emergency funding to create a mined and drone-patrolled no-man’s-land on the US side of the border, displacing thousands and wreaking environmental havoc. Despite all of this, the border is ultimately overrun and, although federal troops hold off at first, a trigger-happy contingent of the Texas Tactical Border Force opens fire, which spreads along the line, leading to a bloody massacre. This only hardens Mexico’s resolve to resist, as what was billed as a surgical intervention settles into a long, brutal, costly, and fruitless occupation that savages the North American economy while normalizing the spread of cartel violence into the United States.

It’s Not Just the GOP

To pin the blame on Republicans alone for this turbocharged rhetoric would be a mistake. For although the GOP has been thumping the tub on invasion alone, Democrats have been in lockstep with them on virtually everything else. This includes muscling through NAFTA, militarizing the border, accelerating deportation procedures, and creating the legal infrastructure for future anti-immigrant crackdowns during the Bill Clinton years. Barack Obama’s administration broke records for deportation numbers and immigrant enforcement budgets while instituting the “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation and expanding family detention until blocked by the courts.

As for Joe Biden, he has largely maintained Trump’s border policies while, in a full-scale reversal of his 2021 proclamation, gamely announcing on October 5 that he had no choice but to waive twenty-six federal laws to allow construction of the border wall to resume in Texas. Not only have Democrats in Congress not pushed back on the GOP’s invasion rhetoric — at all — they have consistently provided bipartisan cover to the incendiary assertions of their colleagues across the aisle.

And then there is the media. From Time’s placing of Mexico on its 2019 list of “biggest geopolitical risks” to a US-funded London think tank dubbing AMLO the “tyrant of the year” for 2022, coverage of the president’s five years in power by establishment media and its allies in the NGO-sphere has been hysterical, mendacious, patronizing, and ignorant. Like a gruesome laboratory experiment, this nonstop media carpet bombing has set the culture necessary for the GOP’s ideas to mutate from far-fetched to plausible — so much so that something that would have sounded absurd only a few years ago is now a highly touted part of the platform of the likely Republican candidate.

In the (still unlikely) event that the physical bombs do begin to rain down, legacy media will be the first to denounce the Republicans, secure in the knowledge that this will be more than enough to drown out the role they played in allowing it to happen. For the Mexican and US publics, however, the horror would just be beginning.

This article originally appeared in Jacobin on October 10, 2023 and appears here with the permission of the author.