STURGIS, S.D. – Gary Rathbun rumbled into South Dakota to attend the United States’ pre-eminent gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts atop his Harley-Davidson, a 2009 Ultra Classic that brought him 800 miles from Idaho. It is the 40th Harley he has owned. It will also likely be his last.
Like many of Harley’s most loyal customers, Rathbun was enraged by the company’s announcement this summer that, because of the Trump administration’s trade fight, it would begin manufacturing the bikes it sells in Europe outside the United States.
His anger echoed that of President Donald Trump, whose public denouncement of Harley’s decision has put one of the country’s most iconic brands in the uncomfortable position of clashing with a president who is immensely popular with most of its customers.
“I’m riding my last Harley,” said Rathbun, 67, a retired truck driver whose bike rally essentials included a steel knife nestled in his belt, a saddlebag stuffed with a Ruger pistol and a small bottle of Jack Daniel’s cinnamon whiskey. “It was American-made, and that’s why we stood behind them.”
Harley took a public relations risk to protect its bottom line when it said it would skirt European Union tariffs aimed directly at the industry in retaliation for Trump’s steel and aluminum levies. Rather than eat the cost of the tariffs or raise prices on the bikes it sells in Europe by $2,200, the company said it would move some production overseas.
In a warning to other companies that might follow suit, Trump described Harley’s decision as an act of corporate treason, declaring in a Twitter post in June: “If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end — they surrendered, they quit!”
It was a sentiment shared by many of the hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts who converged this week upon the Black Hills of South Dakota, most of whom developed a relationship with their Harleys well before Trump became president. Still, as leather-clad baby boomers revved engines, drank beer and swayed to classic rock ballads, Trump’s influence was palpable.
Like Trump, Gary Panapinto, 63, a machinist from Illinois, had doubts about Harley’s true intentions, believing that the company was planning to offshore the bulk of its bike production, and, like Trump has intimated, he suggested that Americans would be forced to buy a product that was made overseas. While Trump has fanned that perception, Harley has said it will shift production only for bikes it sells in Europe and that American bikes will still be made in the United States.
“They need to keep them here in the United States, especially if they’re going to sell them here,” Panapinto said. “I think Trump is just trying to protect jobs in the U.S.”
The company declined to comment, but it pointed to a July interview in which its chief executive, Matthew Levatich, defended the decision. He denied that he wanted to shift its manufacturing, noting that it would not take up to 18 months to execute the plan if it were in the cards all along.
“We’ve worked very hard to be apolitical in how we approach our business and our consumers everywhere in the world,” he said. “We have to do what we have to do based on the facts and circumstances before us, and we’re doing that.”
Some hard-core Trump supporters said they understood the economic rationale behind Harley’s decision. Few complex machines are fully sourced and assembled in the United States these days, and even the riders who are devoted to the ideal of a fully American-made product said they understood that companies must compete globally.
Bikers have been among the groups most loyal to Trump, as motorcyclists in the United States tend to be predominantly working-class men older than 50 and veterans — demographics that comprise the bulk of the president’s base. Trump has embraced that allegiance, saying recently that “I guarantee you everybody that ever bought a Harley-Davidson voted for Trump.”
On Saturday, Trump invited hundreds of bikers from the New Jersey Bikers for Trump chapter to visit him in Bedminster, N.J. He praised them as “people who truly love our Country.”
Some who are generally pleased with Trump said he was wrong to bully the motorcycle maker merely for trying to make a profit, but they remained loyal to him nonetheless.
“You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. He’s hot one day and he’s cold the next,” Bill Schaner, an electrical supply salesman from North Dakota who has owned seven Harley bikes, said of the president. “If they’re going to make bikes in Europe and sell them in Europe, let them go. We’ll take the bikes made in America.”
Veterans of the Sturgis bike rally, which is in its 78th year, said that the hardships facing Harley-Davidson go beyond Trump’s tough words and stem from years of declining ridership in the United States.
Leslye Beaver, owner of the Beaver Bar in Sturgis and several other biker bars across the country, said that Harley and other U.S. motorcycle manufacturers are at a crossroads because their products have lacked appeal to young people in the United States. She pointed out that the trade disputes have increased their raw material costs and hindered their ability to export to Europe, which is a growth market.
“I think they’re doing what they have to do to stay in the game,” Beaver, who lives in Georgia and supports Trump, said while patrolling the parking lot of her bar in a golf cart. “It’s human for people to be mad because Harley is so American, but I think they want to be here.”