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Trump’s trade war with China is hurting farmers, but they won’t abandon him — yet

Farmers have been getting financial aid. Will that be enough?

Participants at a Trump rally hold “Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” signs.
Supporters attend a campaign rally with US President Donald Trump at the Mid-America Center on October 9, 2018, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. 
Scott Olson/Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa farmers are decidedly anxious about the trade war with China. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to ditch Trump over it.

“The trade war is something we can’t control; we have to tighten our belts and get through it,” Tim Couser, a 32-year-old corn and soybean farmer in Nevada, Iowa, told me in early August.

“I like what he is doing, I like his business approach,” Tim’s father, Bill Couser, who runs the farm’s cattle operation, said. Both, speaking highly of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, agreed, “the farmer today is ready for [Trump] to finish the job,” Bill said.

Trump’s administration has been escalating the trade war with China since early 2018. In early August, China said it would stop purchasing American agricultural products altogether. Over the past year and a half, the Trump’s administration has relied on two financial packages amounting to roughly $28 billion in aid to help farmers who have been adversely impacted by the trade war.

American farmers have a tagline: They want “free trade, not aid,” said Angela Hofmann, the co-director of Farmers for Free Trade, who has been touring rural America advocating for the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal — President Donald Trump’s renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

Under Trump, farmers have been getting aid, not trade, yet they are still largely standing by the president. A straw poll of 1,153 farmers showed 71 percent of them approved of Trump in office in August, according to surveys conducted by the Farm Journal (it should be noted that these results are not weighted). In the October 2018 Farm Journal survey of 921 farmers, 62 percent said they supported Trump going into the midterm elections, and by December 2018 77 percent of 1,199 farmers said they approved of Trump’s presidency.

That said, Trump’s strength has been waning in largely rural states overall. In Iowa, Trump’s approval rating is nine points underwater as of August. Despite losing the governor’s race to Republican Kim Reynolds, Democrats were able to flip two Republican House seats in 2018, electing Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer. They’re going after the last remaining Republican-held seat in the state — Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) — in 2020. But with the support of Big Agriculture, Trump has an inherent advantage in rural America.

That doesn’t mean farmers aren’t paying a price. Last year, farms in the Midwest were filing for bankruptcy at more than double the rate they were just five years ago.

“I think farmers are perennial optimists,” Hofmann said. “I do think where there is frustration — it’s not clear there is an endgame. There is so much uncertainty. There is uncertainty when to harvest, there is uncertainty with their bankers. There are a lot of folks just getting out of business.”

That uncertainty hasn’t led to a breaking point, at least not yet.

Farmers know they are taking the hit. So does Trump.

Farmers know what’s going on. Low commodity prices and low demand world-wide has hit American farmers hard. The trade war has only exacerbated the turmoil. China has said it will stop buying US agricultural products.

Agriculture has incredibly low barriers to trade, making the industry an easy target for retaliatory tariffs. Already, Mexico, China, and Canada have retaliated to the United States’ newly placed steel and aluminum tariffs with tariffs of their own.

The US has about $140 billion of agricultural exports a year. Canada and Mexico are major trade partners, together importing about $39 billion. China, Japan, and South Korea import around $39 billion, and Europe makes up around a $12 billion share of agricultural imports. But tensions are high across the board.

Trump is well aware of how his trade wars hit rural America. And he’s been explicit that he’s doing it anyway.

Trump told reporters, “whether it’s good or bad, the short term is irrelevant. We have to solve the problem with China because they’re taking out $500 billion a year plus. And that doesn’t include intellectual property theft and other things. And also, national security, so I am doing this whether it’s good or bad for your statement about, ‘Oh, will we fall into a recession for two months?”

Trump continued: “The fact is, somebody had to take China on. My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t take China on. But I like doing it because I have to do it. And we’re getting great help. China’s had the worst year they’ve had in 27 years, and a lot of people saying the worst year they’ve had in 54 years, OK?”

For now, farmers, who historically vote Republican and swung hard for Trump in 2016 — continue to believe Trump when he says he’s going to equalize the playing field.

“I think it’s going very slow — it’s harder than [Trump] anticipated it to be,” an Iowa corn and soybean farmer, who did not wish to be identified by name, said at the Iowa State Fair. “[The trade war] hurt us some on the market side. But [Trump’s] taking care of us. He’s giving us payments for the damage he’s done, so we can hang in there until he gets it done. We’re not making money but we’re all in it together.”

In July 2018, Trump’s administration used a Depression-era program, which allowed them to draw funds from the Treasury Department without congressional approval, to give farmers $12 billion in emergency aid to cope with the fallout from the tariffs. In May 2019, the administration announced an additional $16 billion for farmers. Roughly $14.5 billion of that fund goes to direct payments to farmers, and there’s an additional $1.5 billion toward buying up surplus crop for food banks and schools and working toward developing new export markets.

Prominent Republican lawmakers in agricultural states like Iowa aren’t getting enough pushback from farmers to fully rebuke the president.

”Farmers know that China has been cheating on international trade ever since they entered the World Trade Organization,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told reporters at the Iowa State Fair in early August, noting that he hadn’t talked to any farmers that wanted Trump to stop escalating tensions. He himself, a farm owner, took the aid money from the government.

Democrats see an opportunity in rural America. But trade is complicated.

Democrats rolling through America’s agriculture centers mention trade in vague terms. They decry Trump’s “trade by tweet” policy, as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) put it on the stage at the Iowa state fair, to a mixture of applause and laughter from the crowd.

But Democrats are notably all over the map on trade, trying to balance the manufacturing industry’s needs with the agricultural industry’s.

There’s a contingent of vocal trade skeptics, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are making the case that Trump — despite all his tough talk on trade — has not been aggressive enough to protect American workers and failed to live up to his promises. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he would remove all tariffs on China on his first day in office. Stuck between are the likes of Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.

Candidates across the board have unveiled their plans for rural America. Warren and Sanders have both proposed breaking up big agribusiness. Former Vice President Joe Biden wants to expand a micro-loan program. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is calling for higher subsidies for crop insurance. Whether their pitch can break through partisanship remains an open question.

“Pretty much out in farm country, we’re all Trump supporters,” Daryl Nelson, 66, a farmer in Adair County, Iowa, told Vox. “Not us, but we were few and far between. They were all supportive, but now it’s getting somewhat questionable.”

“Well, when the creditors start telling people we can’t give you any more, they might change their minds,” Nelson’s wife Janna said as the two of them left a Warren campaign event.

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