Donald Trump sold himself to American farmers in part by promising new trade arrangements that favored the United States.
As president, he’s made some progress toward those goals, but after his bruising trade wars slashed ag exports in the near term, will farmers back Trump for a second term this fall?
Republicans say their man has done right by farmers despite some setbacks, while Democrats say Trump has utterly failed them.
“This guy has no credibility. Everything he says, it’s almost like he’s in his own world,” Rick Telesz, a farmer from Volant, Pennsylvania, said in a June 23 call with reporters organized by the Democratic National Committee.
Telesz, who has won a number of grain yield awards in western Pennsylvania, said the trade wars have undermined relationships that American agribusinesses have cultivated with foreign buyers over decades.
He fears that many of those buyers will decide to get their grain from Brazil and Argentina rather than rekindle their connections to the U.S.
“Our product isn’t any different than South America’s product, so it basically boils down to a trust and a supply. And I feel that we lost the trust of our customers,” Telesz said.
Though farmers make up only 1% of the U.S. population, they are widely seen as a key Trump constituency.
The president has certainly courted ag votes, speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting three years in a row and giving shout-outs to the farm sector on Twitter.
Still, Trump’s strategy for renegotiating trade deals — mountains of tariffs, pushy rhetoric and threats to simply tear up existing agreements — has been controversial all along.
Many observers cringed as Trump picked fights with key allies and trading partners, which heaped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods.
The president’s optimistic claim that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” has become one of his most-mocked lines.
And oddly, Trump pulled the nation out of the nearly finished Trans-Pacific Partnership during his first week in office, only to later float the possibility of rejoining.
Through it all, analysts and reporters have kept wondering if Trump would lose the support of farmers. It’s been a little hard to tell.
Farm Journal’s well-known surveys have returned astronomical approval ratings for Trump — 80% in May — that have been touted by conservative opinion sites and Trump himself.
But that texting-based survey is conducted unscientifically and therefore may not carry much weight, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in late December found mixed reviews for Trump in farm country.
Of respondents who worked in the ag industry or had an immediate family member who did, 49% approved of the way Trump was handling American farming, while 40% disapproved.
And Trump’s disapproval numbers had actually topped his positive reviews among farmers before the president inked the Phase One trade deal with China earlier that month.
Farm groups have not always agreed on Trump’s actions either.
Farm Bureau had hoped the Trans-Pacific Partnership would boost net farm income by $4.4 billion, but the National Farmers Union said the agreement would merely have continued policies that hurt jobs and wages in rural America.
The China deal is still being implemented, but the Trump administration is billing it as a win.
By late May, USDA said, the agreement had expanded the list of U.S. meatpackers that can ship to China, increased export opportunities for dairy and forage products, and opened China to U.S. blueberries, avocados and processing barley.
Mike Firestine, chairman of the Pennsylvania Ag Republicans, said Trump was right to renegotiate trade agreements that had become antiquated and one-sided.
Yes, the Chinese retaliated against Trump’s tariffs with levies of their own, Firestine said, but Trump took care of farmers, offsetting their trade losses with billions of dollars in direct payments.
“Quite frankly, the trade deficit should have been addressed long before Donald Trump became president,” said Firestine, a farmer who also works as an ag lender.
Nonetheless, Democrats are portraying the China trade deal as a botch job.
A new campaign ad shows Trump with a smiling Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and says, “We can’t afford four more years of losing.” The spot will be targeted to swing states including Pennsylvania.
Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the agreement has failed to bring exports back to where they were before the trade war, and that Trump chose his negotiation tactics poorly.
“His go-at-it-alone tariffs inflicted pain on American workers, not China,” Perez said.
Perez also dinged the Trump administration for falling short of its boast that, under the agreement, China would buy $40 billion in U.S. farm goods.
That number was widely questioned when it was announced because China had never topped $26 billion, The Associated Press reported.
USDA projections have the U.S. exporting $13 billion in agricultural goods to China in the 2020 fiscal year.
Firestine argued that trade would have been much more robust without the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the outbreak, he said, ag exports were growing, and China was on track to buy $36.6 billion by the end of 2021.
The pandemic has weakened the economies of both China and the United States, and farm commodity prices have fallen.
But once again, Firestine said, Trump has come to the aid of farmers, who are expected to get more than $20 billion in stimulus payments.
The Democrats’ messaging also sidesteps one of Trump’s biggest trade achievements, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
The Trump-instigated update to the North American Free Trade Agreement could increase ag exports to two of the country’s biggest trading partners by $2 billion, according to Farm Bureau.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said USMCA has paved the way for more favorable trade agreements with China, Japan and the European Union.
“Finalizing these trade agreements will provide Pennsylvania’s farmers with greater opportunities and allow them to compete on an even playing field globally,” said Thompson, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.
If Democrats hope to lure farmers away from Trump, they will need to make the case for their presumptive candidate, Joe Biden.
The former vice president has signaled disdain for the trade wars and has proposed confronting China on trade in concert with allies.
In Tuesday’s call, former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said Biden would oppose China’s persecution of the Uighur minority, whereas Trump has shied away from mentioning human rights abuses during trade talks.
Otherwise, Buttigieg said that Biden plans to invest in U.S. competitiveness and engage with trading partners in a way that puts American farmers and workers first.
“In a Biden presidency, we’ll have somebody who actually knows what he’s doing when he confronts China,” Buttigieg said.
Biden and Trump have four months left to make their case to the country, and to farmers.