Steel bollard can be seen atop a concrete wall as it lines the banks of the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas.
Steel bollard can be seen atop a concrete wall as it lines the banks of the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas. Credit: Flickr / Glenn Fawcett for U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Two and a half years ago Dennis Nixon stunned some members of San Antonio’s business community not only by endorsing Donald Trump, but by signing on as one of his top Texas fundraisers. He personally would donate more than $100,000 to Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee.

What so startled his fellow business leaders was that IBC, the bank Nixon heads, is a leader in promoting and funding economic ties between the United States and Mexico. Its customer base is heavy with Mexicans doing business in the U.S. and Americans doing business in Mexico. Quite a few South Texas businessmen gave to Trump’s campaign, but few with such ties to Mexico. IBC Bank is prominent in San Antonio, but it is headquartered in Laredo, just blocks from the border.

So why was Nixon supporting a presidential candidate who began his campaign by accusing Mexico of sending us “people that have a lot of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Later he would call them “animals.” Why was Nixon endorsing this man who enraged Mexicans, a significant portion of his customer base, by repeating as his signature campaign rally cry a pledge to build a massive wall between the two countries and forcing Mexico to pay for it? A man who called NAFTA, the trade pact that has been great for IBC and Texas (think Toyota in San Antonio), “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made” and threatened to void it?

Nixon’s explanation was simple. In the wake of the 2008 near-collapse of the financial system that had forced the government to bail out the nation’s biggest banks, Democrats under President Barack Obama had enacted new regulations. Many of those regulations, Nixon said, were crippling small and medium-sized banks such as his. It was, he suggested, an existential crisis. And despite all the money that she had famously taken from Wall Street, it seems, he couldn’t count on Hillary Clinton to solve the problem.

In addition, he suggested, if Trump was elected it would be good for people like him to have his ear.

For some time, Nixon’s decision appeared to be smart. After Congress passed and Trump signed a banking regulation reform bill last May, IBC’s profit growth rate nearly doubled to 30 percent for the last two quarters. Meanwhile Nixon, together with other business leaders, lobbied the Trump administration on NAFTA. After much huffing and puffing over it, the president eventually agreed to a quite modest updating of the treaty, papering over the modesty of the revisions by insisting on changing its name to the clunky U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

Dennis Nixon, CEO of the International Bank of Commerce.
Dennis Nixon, CEO of IBC Bank Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In some ways, Nixon’s gamble on backing Trump is in line with the nation’s business community at large. Unlike the crowds that flock to his rallies and chant “Build the wall” and still, at times, “Lock her up,” this constituency never saw Trump as a believable hero. These are the same people who quietly fought bathroom bills here and around the country, who are appalled at Trump’s flirtations with dictators abroad and white supremacists at home. But they were ready to accept those parts of Trump in exchange for what turned out to be tax cuts (almost) beyond their dreams and massive cuts to federal regulations covering areas much wider than banking.

And now, it appears, they don’t have the ear of the Trump administration. Nixon recently published a commentary in the Rivard Report headlined: “For Common-Sense Border Security, Look to the River.”

He described himself as someone who “has lived and worked for decades only a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande, and who is a member of organizations such as the U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue and the U.S.-Mexico Economic Council.” And he complained that “too many people in Washington would rather make decisions based on ideology and politics rather than listen to the folks who are the most knowledgeable and the most affected by these issues at the local level.”

He’s certainly right about the politics, but not about the ideology. Not “many people” in Washington are ideologically committed to the wall. It is widely agreed that one size does not fit the entire 2,000 miles, certainly not the “big, beautiful” 30-foot-high wall of campaign rallies. Even Trump has repeatedly admitted as much, going back to 2015.

The details could be worked out. As Nixon suggested in his commentary, a rational process would include designing border protection piece by piece in consultation with both law enforcement and community leaders all the way along its 2,000 miles.

Theoretically, Trump could get that and proclaim to his base that the border has been secured. But he recently showed who has his ear after torpedoing a funding bill he had agreed to, provoking the record government shutdown that is hurting the economy while devastating hundreds of thousand government employees and contractors. It wasn’t the business leaders who had his ear. It was conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

It remains to be seen how much damage the shutdown will do to the economy and to the Republican Party. But other consequences for Nixon and his business colleagues have already begun. Voters are revolting. The Democrats won the House, and Nancy Pelosi is now the second most powerful person in Washington.

What’s more, Trump is in danger of losing the White House to any of an array of Democratic hopefuls who would make Hillary Clinton look like a Republican. Bankers have been delighted to see the Trump administration gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau birthed by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But Trump has made her, if not others to whom she is a hero, credible candidates for the White House.

It’s possible Trump, and Nixon, will avoid that fate. But I wouldn’t bank on it.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.