When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appeared at a fair in rural Minnesota yesterday, he probably expected a few questions about the Trump administration’s struggling trade agenda. He probably didn’t expect the reception he actually received.
As Bloomberg News reported, farmers’ “discontent” over Donald Trump’s trade war “erupted into the open” at the event.
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, drew applause as he leveled criticism of the administration’s trade policy at a forum with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in front of thousands of farmers gathered in a metal barn for a panel discussion.
American farmers took a fresh financial hit from Trump’s trade war over the weekend as China announced a halt to all U.S. agricultural imports after the president threatened Beijing with another tariff increase.
Wertish criticized Trump’s “go-it-alone approach” and the trade dispute’s “devastating damage not only to rural communities.” He expressed fears Trump’s $28 billion in trade aid will undermine public support for federal farm subsidies, saying the assistance is already being pilloried “as a welfare program, as bailouts.”
The same Bloomberg News article noted comments from Brian Thalmann, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, who noted the president’s recent assertion that farmers are doing “great” again.
“We are not starting to do great again,” Thalmann told the Agriculture secretary. “We are starting to go down very quickly.”
What strikes me as amazing is not that these farmers, nervous about their future, are making their frustrations known, but rather, that the president has convinced himself that these concerns don’t exist.
As recently as May, the president said he’d “never heard … any of the farmers speak badly” about his trade agenda. As recently as last week, a reporter told Trump about a conversation with a soybean farmer who said the administration’s tariffs had created a “crisis” for his business.
“Well,’ Trump replied, “you interviewed the wrong farmer.”
The Republican’s perspective appears to be shaped by political perceptions: the president knows he won overwhelming victories in rural areas, which leads him to assume farmers are on his side, which also leads him to assume farmers don’t mind paying the price for his trade war.
As regular readers know, Trump has been rather explicit on this point, conceding last year that his plan would cause “pain” for some farmers, but adding that he assumed they were willing to take one for the team. “I tell you, our farmers are great patriots. These are great patriots,” the president said last spring. “They understand that they’re doing this for the country.”
In context, “this” seemed to refer to putting their livelihoods on the line as the amateur president pursues a trade war he doesn’t fully understand and hasn’t fully thought through.
If Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s reception in Minnesota was any indication, the farmers’ capacity for “understanding” Trump’s tactics is running low.