Trump may be betting too much on the farm



Farmers supported Trump in 2016 and 2020. This year, former president Donald Trump expressed having more confrontation with China on a series of tariffs and new trade policies. Some farmers are now rethinking their support of the former president.

Ed Tibbetts, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Editor’s note: This story was originally published March 17, 2023 by Iowa Capital Dispatch.

So, Donald Trump thinks playing the farm card is his ace in the hole in Iowa.

He might want to rethink that hand.

At the Adler Theatre in Davenport this week, Trump targeted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for opposing ethanol and the former president claimed to be the savior of the American farm.

“How could a farmer vote against me,” Trump asked?

It’s true farmers backed Trump in 2016 and 2020 – against Democrats. But that may not be the case against a Republican.

They, like other Republicans, want to win in 2024. And while Trump may portray his record as an unadulterated success for American agriculture, the real record is quite different.

How many farmers really want to go back to the days when agriculture was at the tip of the spear in the ex-president’s trade war with China?

Yet, a second Trump term is headed that way.

Last month, Trump unveiled a new trade policy that is much the same as the old trade policy.

Tariffs. Revoking China’s most favored nation trade status. Restricting its imports. More conflict.

Republicans, farmers included, don’t care for China. But Politico reported this month the Trump plan isn’t rating raves from farm state lawmakers. Quite the opposite.The plan, is “raising hackles,” according to the article, as lawmakers worry it would “inflict new harm on the U.S. agricultural economy, which relies on exports to its biggest market: China.”

From Politico:

“There are serious trade disparities that should rightfully be raised, but we should be honest about the potential economic impact to rural America,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).

“Another farm state Republican lawmaker was more blunt when asked about how Trump’s new trade proposal could impact the U.S. agriculture economy, calling it ‘f—ing suicide’ for rural communities.”

It’s unlikely DeSantis will urge a softer approach to China and risk looking weak. He’s already doing that when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. Still, when a fellow Republican says your trade plan is “f—ing suicide” for rural America, it’s usually not a recipe for political success in Iowa.

But then, Trump’s old record in rural America isn’t necessarily anything to brag about – although that’s exactly what Trump did in Davenport.

The ex-president claimed he’d rained money down on America’s farmers.

“We handed checks to the farmers for $28 billion,” Trump boasted. “Did anybody get a check in this room?”

What Trump didn’t mention was that he was paying farmers for the exports they’d lost after he launched first-strike tariffs against China (and even some of our allies) which China then responded to with retaliatory tariffs on farm products.

We saw what happened.

Exports plummeted, especially soybeans. And that $28 billion – contrary to what Trump claims – didn’t come from China. It came from the U.S. treasury. And the tariff revenues – again, contrary to Trump’s claims – didn’t come from China. That false claim has been debunked repeatedly. Tariff revenues flowing into the U.S. treasury came from duties paid by American importers, some of it passed on to consumers in this country.

Trump should have asked people in the Adler: “Did anybody in this room get the bill for my tariffs?”

Trump may think Iowa farmers won’t mind going back to 2020, when almost 40% of their net income came from U.S. government checks. But I don’t think that’s what they want. And I don’t think Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who was sitting up front for Trump’s speech, wants that, either. In 2018, she said “nobody wins in a trade war.”

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said in 2019 that Iowa farmers want “trade, not aid.” Those words were echoed by the Iowa Farm Bureau president.

I think that’s still the sentiment.

So, DeSantis has some ammunition of his own. And not just on trade, but ethanol policy. It was Trump’s EPA that repeatedly and generously handed out “small refinery” exemptions to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.

Farmers remember that.

DeSantis could have some exposure on ethanol if he runs for president. He co-sponsored a bill when he was in Congress to eliminate the RFS. But Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said candidates can start campaigning in Iowa with a “blank slate” when it comes to ethanol, according to Radio Iowa. “We’re not going to hold too much to what they might have done six or seven years ago when they had a different role, a different perspective,” he said.

What is important, Shaw said, is candidates should have a national energy policy, and it should include ethanol.

It would be good to remember, too, that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz opposed ethanol subsidies, and despite Trump hammering him for it, Cruz won the Iowa caucuses in 2016.

As for Trump’s trade war, was it worth it?

An economist at the Tax Foundation wrote last year, “the economic literature shows that the U.S. import tariffs and subsequent retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other countries on U.S. agricultural exports have hurt the U.S. agricultural industry and could impact future production, further raising food prices.”

Even Trump’s “Phase One” deal with China that called for China to buy $200 billion in additional goods and services in 2020 and 2021 didn’t work out like he planned. Trump blames Biden, but in February 2021, just after Biden took office, the Petersen Institute for International Economics was already calling Phase One a “flop.”

Based on 2020 results, it said, “China was never on pace to meet that commitment,” with the pandemic “only partly to blame.”

Trade tends not to be a big topic in presidential elections. But I hope 2024 is an exception. Iowa’s economy depends a lot on foreign trade. And Biden, who has kept Trump’s tariffs on China in place, is in the midst of his own get-tough-on-China approach that some analysts say is even harsher than Trump’s.

We haven’t yet heard DeSantis talk about his own trade ideas. But, as far as the Iowa caucuses are concerned, if Trump is banking on his record with farmers to lift him up here, his story isn’t as rosy as he claims. And even though polls say rural Iowa tends to still like Trump, I suspect they aren’t eager to go back to the turmoil of his trade wars.

Not when they can choose another Republican.

At the least, the idea will probably get a lot more skeptical look in rural America than it got Monday at the Adler Theatre.