The love affair between President Donald Trump and rural America has always made sense to me.
When I covered the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump often went to remote farm communities where Democrats, and even other Republican candidates, never bothered.
The image of a New York billionaire holding a rally down the street from an Alabama Dollar General might have seemed hilarious to some reporters, but to the farmers and their families at those rallies, a rich, television celebrity coming to their hometown made them feel important and even hopeful that someone like him would value a place like theirs. The details of his policies weren't important at those rallies. It was about the way he made them feel.
But that feeling is being tested in ways even American farmers never imagined, despite the fact that Trump, as a candidate, told them exactly what he would do as president when he was elected.
"You know, China?" he asked a rally in Clear Lakes, Iowa, in 2016. "What they're doing to us in trade is unbelievable. They're killing us. It's one of the great thefts in the history of the world."
Even in a state like Iowa, where farmers rely heavily on Chinese markets to buy their crops, the crowd nodded and cheered as Trump promised to make China play by the same rules as America. "Everybody has great confidence in me, with China, with all these places. And don't worry about it. We'll take great care of the situation."
But since 2016, some of those same farmers have been doing almost nothing but worry. Delivering on his promise to be tough on China, Trump imposed a 25% duty on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods in July 2018, and later, another 10% tariff on $200 billion more of Chinese products.
China responded in kind with tariffs on peanuts, cotton, sorghum, pecans and a host of other agricultural products. American commodity prices collapsed as demand fell from the country that many American farmers counted as their single largest buyer.
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The love affair is over. As talks dragged on in 2018, Trump promised to send subsidies to soybean, dairy and other farmers who were having to store or destroy excess crops without Chinese, Canadian and Mexican markets to sell to. But while farmers were waiting for those checks, disaster struck farms from Florida to North Carolina as Hurricane Michael stripped cotton plants bare and uprooted an entire year's harvest in October of last year.
Fires in the west decimated acre after acre in California, while torrential rains inundated Midwestern farms along the Mississippi.
But those struggling farmers are still waiting for disaster aid to help get through the worst of the floods, fires and hurricanes, as an impasse between the Trump administration and Democrats over aid for Puerto Rico has delayed that help to farmers, too. With everything they were already dealing with, it wasn't any wonder when the patience in rural America simply ran out last week when news of more Chinese tariffs from Trump broke.
"We've been understanding during this negotiation process, but we cannot withstand another year in which our most important foreign market continues to slip away and soybean prices are 20 to 25%, or even more, below pre-tariff levels," said John Heisdorffer, a soy grower in Keota, Iowa, who chairs the American Soybean Association. "The sentiment out in farm country is getting grimmer by the day. Our patience is waning, our finances are suffering, and the stress from months of living with the consequences of these tariffs is mounting."
"Trump can only hope that the way he makes farmers feel will be more important than the policies he delivered."
Lynn Chrisp, the president of the National Corn Growers Association, echoed the frustration: "Farmers have been patient and willing to let negotiations play out, but with each passing day, patience is wearing thin. Agriculture needs certainty, not more tariffs."
A trade war with America's biggest agricultural buyer? More trade breakdowns with Canada, Europe and Mexico? Lower prices for crops, but higher costs for durable goods like trucks, tractors and aluminum for silos? It can't be what farmers thought they were signing up for in 2016, when rural voters were Trump's most reliable supporters in the election.
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With a red swath from North Carolina to Texas and up through the Midwest to North Dakota and Idaho, Trump won 70% of the vote in counties with no metropolitan or suburban population and often lots and lots of farms.
Some of those states gave the president a massive victory, like Alabama (62%), North Dakota (63%), South Dakota (62%), and Kansas (56%). Even in states where he just cleared 50%, he still won by a solid margin. In Iowa, he won with 51%, but still beat Hillary Clinton by 10 points. In Georgia, Trump won just 50%, but was still 5 points better than the former secretary of state.
You'd think that the pain that farmers have felt since Trump came into office might leave an opening for Democrats to move into in 2020, but they'll have to do more than Clinton did in 2016, when her rural policy pitch mostly ignored crop prices, but focused on environmental sustainability, broadband access and clean energy.
The president clearly knows that he's putting farm country in a terrible bind with more tariffs, so he's got more promises like the ones he made in 2016, including $15 billion in subsidies to somehow replace the Chinese market until a deal is worked out. "[Farmers] will be planting. They'll be able to sell for less, and they'll make the same kind of money until such time as it's all straightened out," he said from the White House Monday.
It seems like a tall order, since planting season has already begun and government checks are famously slow to come. But Trump can only hope that the way he makes farmers feel will be more important than the policies he delivered. It worked once before.
"We love our farmers, we take care of our farmers," he said as U.S. markets tumbled. "Our farmers will be very well taken care of."