Trump Doesn’t Give A Damn About Rural Voters
Donald Trump won the Presidency primarily with support of disaffected rural and Rust Belt voters based on promises to revive their flagging fortunes. Yet, at almost every turn, Trump has enacted policies that actively hurt those voters, especially rural ones, both now and in the near future. Of course, that does not mean that those voters won’t still stick with the President in 2020 but it may dampen his support in those areas and provide openings for Democrats.
The greatest damage Trump has inflicted is primarily on farmers due to his extended trade wars with China, Canada, and Mexico that has exacerbated already existing adverse conditions. Farm income has fallen to lows not seen in 15 years and farm bankruptcies are exploding to levels not seen since the Great Recession. Many farms were already under pressure due to overproduction both here in the US and overseas and resulting low commodity prices, such as the dairy farms in Wisconsin which had already seen 1,200 bankruptcies from 2016 to 2018. According to the USDA, median farm income in 2018 was actual negative, about $1,500 in the red, and farm debt has risen to levels last seen in the disastrous 1980s. Servicing that increased debt has become even more burdensome as interest rates have also risen since Trump’s inauguration.
Trump’s trade wars have done nothing to improve the situation for farmers. Mexico and China retaliated against Trump’s tariffs with their own restrictions on American cheese, yet another hit for those dairy farmers, and pork. Those retaliatory tariffs have limited US hog farmers’ ability to fully exploit the decimation of the Chinese pork industry and associated higher prices due to an epidemic of African swine fever in China.
One group especially adversely effected are soybean farmers. Exports to China, which normally account for 60% of the total US soybean supply, have virtually dried up. Last fall, grain elevators were so full of supply that could not be moved that farmers were forced to plow portions of their crop under. And the worry for soybean farmers is that, even if they manage to survive the current conditions and the trade war with China ends, that market may not fully return, as China has already found other markets from which to buy their soybeans. China has been importing record amounts of soybeans from Brazil and recently tripled its purchases from Russia, although that tripling still amounts to less than 1% of all Chinese soybean imports. Those increased purchases are prompting increased soybean production in eastern Russia, where the transportation costs of export to China would be minimal.
As if things weren’t bad enough for farmers, particularly because of China’s retaliatory tariffs, they are also being crushed by the “Chinese hoax”, namely climate change. The 12 month period between May, 2018 and April, 2019 have been the wettest in the mainland United States since records began being kept in 1895. According to the USDA, just 49% of the corn crop has been planted compared to around 80% in a normal year. It’s even worse for soybeans where just 17% has been planted compared to the normal 47% at this time. Flooding on the Mississippi is restricting barge traffic, probably resulting in fertilizer deliveries not reaching their destinations until well after planting season is over and slowing the processing and sales of last fall’s harvest as well.
Farmers took another hit yesterday when Trump announced his intentions to impose a 5% tariff on all Mexican goods until the Mexican government eliminates the surge of Central American emigrants to the US. These tariffs, issued once again under the President’s abuse of emergency powers, will escalate over time until such time when the flow of emigrants is stopped or the tariffs reach 25%. Mexico has already promised retaliatory tariffs, which were only just lifted when Trump removed the 25% tariff on Mexican steel and aluminum. Those tariffs effected US pork and potato exports to Mexico. The assumption is that Mexico would reimplement those tariffs and perhaps even add additional agricultural products as well. Like China, Mexico will start looking for other suppliers of those agricultural products and the market for American products may remain diminished in Mexico even after the tariffs are eventually lifted.
In order to offset the disasters that Trump’s trade wars have created for farmers, the administration has already passed one $12 billion package of emergency aid and has just announced a new package of $16 billion. But, as is typical of the Trump administration which values show over substance, the delivery of that aid has been poorly managed and was largely insufficient to deal with the problem. For many farmers, the aid they received was more like a slap in the face, with some Iowa farmers getting less than $25. The average payment was just over $7,200 which comes nowhere near enough to offset the losses incurred by these farmers. One corn farmer declared “The corn payments are a joke”. As might be expected in a country where income inequality is rampant, the Environmental Working Group reports that 10% of the recipients received nearly 70% of the aid.
There is some good news, however, for those farmers who are unable to survive low commodity prices, rising debt, poor crop yields due to climate change, and Trump’s trade wars. Foreign buyers are ready to snatch up the land that their families have probably lived on for generations when they declare bankruptcy or decide to sell up. At present, foreigners own about 12% of prime US farmland and that number is growing rapidly. In fact, China has an existing policy to try to expand their overseas agricultural holdings as a way to exert some control over their own grain imports. The amount of foreign-owned land is actually controlled by each state, with states like Ohio and Texas having no restrictions, and Iowa, for example, allowing no foreign ownership at all. Other climate change vulture capitalists are actually paying a premium for farmland in drought-stricken areas simply to get access to the land’s water rights and the aquifer below. In both cases, whatever profits that come from the land are far less likely to be reinvested in the local community, instead flowing back to outside investors, in another blow to rural life.
Rural communities are being adversely in other ways by Trump and Republican policies, specifically because their obsession with eliminating the ACA has paralyzed any action on improving the health care system at all. According to a recent report, nearly one quarter of America’s rural hospitals are in danger of closing and nearly one hundred rural hospitals have already closed since 2010. It is just part of the death spiral in some rural communities. With a declining population, hospital admissions fall and the remaining population is more likely to be on government-assisted health care, all of which contributes to economic losses for the hospital. When the hospital closes, another major economic driver for the community goes away, resulting in further income losses and unemployment.
One solution to cut costs for these rural hospitals and hopefully keep them open is to create a new Medicare classification that would allow some of them to offer emergency and outpatient care only and abandoning in-patient care entirely. Other neighboring hospitals would then primarily focus on in-patient care, thereby providing a somewhat larger area with all the services it had had previously across a range of hospitals. Such a bill, the Rural Emergency Acute Care Hospital Act, was introduced in 2015 by Chuck Grassley but has gone nowhere, even with total Republican control of Congress and the White House, at least partly because of the Republicans’ obsession with dismantling the ACA.
Another possible salve for rural hospitals would be an increase in the availability of telemedicine. But the implementation of remote medical advice and care is limited by reimbursement issues and the disastrous state of rural broadband. The broadband issue is going to be made even worse with Trump’s decision to bar US telecom networks from using equipment from Huawei and other Chinese firms. Most rural broadband providers are only able to offer their service because they rely on cheaper products offered by Huawei and ZTE, for instance. The Rural Broadband Coalition estimates that many rural broadband providers will be forced into bankruptcy when the ban finally begins in less than three months. So, rather than improving the dismal state of rural broadband, Trump’s trade policies are directly threatening the very existence of rural broadband in some areas. The poor quality and the potential loss of broadband services will also effect farmers who rely on technology to micromanage their irrigation needs.
And just to illustrate just how little Trump and Republicans really care about rural voters and farmers in particular, the $19 billion emergency aid bill that would at least start to provide relief for those flooded Midwesterners has been held up by two lone Republican House members who had the nerve to complain about the “fiscal irresponsibility” of the bill and the fact that it did not include funding for the border wall. When the House comes back into full session next week, the bill will finally get passed. But neither Trump nor the House Republican leadership has lifted a finger to stop this petty delay.
Trump’s trade policies have hit US farmers hard, reducing exports to China and Mexico, the second and third largest importers of American agricultural products after Canada. As opposed to their compatriots in the manufacturing sector who are still largely supportive of Trump’s trade wars and who can replace Chinese products in their supply chain with material from other South Asian countries, there is no replacement export market in the world that will fill the void of China and Mexico.
While rural voters are probably culturally oriented to vote Republican, Trump’s policies have at least created an opening for Democrats to make inroads in rural communities, both locally and nationally. Elizabeth Warren’s and Amy Klobuchar’s focus on breaking up the big agricultural oligopolies struck a chord with Iowa farmers fearful of even further consolidation. Similarly, farmers, better than anyone, see the effects of climate change and the Republican’s obstinance in acknowledging its very existence, much less doing anything about it. In 2020, Democrats may finally be able to break the GOP stranglehold on rural voters by showing they care about and have policies to address rural problems. Trump, on the other hand, has shown he really doesn’t give a damn about those voters.