I first mentioned Donald Trump in a Lancaster Farming column almost four years ago, in July 2015.
Trump had been a Republican presidential candidate for less than two months, and I wondered if I was too late, that Trump was being cast to the wayside as I typed.
Surely, no one who dismissed whole nationalities as criminal could be given access to the nuclear codes.
No one who gloated over his gold-encrusted skyscraper could win the hearts of people who came home sweaty and smelling of diesel fuel.
How wrong I was.
With his plain-spoken, even crass, style, Trump convinced millions of working-class people — including quite a few farmers — that he was their best hope.
Even last year, when he ignited a trade war that cost farmers millions of dollars in exports, farmers largely stuck with him despite their displeasure with the short-term effects of his policy.
I think that’s because Trump’s appeal goes far beyond economics.
He’s a cultural symbol of the strong, chest-thumping America — a land of manifest destiny with a divine right to prosperity, and no need to be too nice about insisting on it.
In Trump’s view, the citizens of the nation that defeated Hitler, Saddam and the Soviets deserve to keep what they earn — not see it divvied up among vast government programs, environmental groups and poor foreigners who just got here.
If Trump often seems overconfident and inexact, many voters see him as at least a refreshing departure from Barack Obama, maligned as hand-wringing and aloof.
While I underestimated Trump’s appeal in 2015, I did get one thing right.
Trump’s harshness toward Latin American immigrants has distracted from farmers’ efforts to improve the ag worker visa system.
Admittedly, that was an easy guess to make. Farm labor has long taken a back seat to violent-crime concerns in the immigration debate.
Of course, the recent, unmanageable rise in Central American asylum seekers would have pre-empted all other immigration priorities even if Trump had spent the past three years passing out candy to children in Tijuana.
While labor and trade have been predictable frustrations, Trump has made progress on other farmer priorities, such as replacing the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule and ensuring USDA has a hand in regulating lab-grown meat.
And while many farmers are struggling, the broader economy is doing well at the moment.
Add in the Mueller report, which has proved far less damaging to the president than Democrats had hoped, and Trump is well positioned to win a second term in 2020.
His challengers have their own liabilities to overcome.
Front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are career politicians in their mid- to late 70s — not exactly fresh faces.
As a former prosecutor, Kamala Harris is an awkward fit in the Democratic Party, which has not traditionally borne the law-and-order mantle.
And Elizabeth Warren’s signature issue, consumer protection, just doesn’t get much attention.
The dozen other candidates will struggle simply to get noticed in a crowded field.
To win, Trump will have to repeat his narrow and unexpected wins in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. That’s no sure thing.
But with many Democratic candidates pushing leftward, it’s also not clear that their message will resonate with farmers and rural people.
They might be a little rough around the edges. They might smell a bit like manure. But as Trump well knows, farm-country voters still matter.