Red Myths, Rural Realities

Paul Krugman recently looked at the effects of Trump’s policies on rural America, and found–to no sentient person’s surprise–that the effects have been disastrous.

Economists, reports Politico, are fleeing the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Six of them resigned on a single day last month. The reason? They are feeling persecuted for publishing reports that shed an unflattering light on Trump policies.

But these reports are just reflecting reality (which has a well-known anti-Trump bias). Rural America is a key part of Donald Trump’s base. In fact, rural areas are the only parts of the countryin which Trump has a net positive approval rating. But they’re also the biggest losers under his policies.

As Krugman points out, whatever Trump’s campaign rhetoric might have promised, his actual policies have been aligned with (okay, dictated by) Congressional Republican priorities–what Krugman calls “G.O.P. standard”: big tax cuts for corporations and rich people, accompanied by cuts to the social safety net.

The only real deviation from GOP orthodoxy has been the tariffs, and Trump’s evident belief that trade wars are “easy to win.” Even the farmers who have been a reliable part of Trump’s base are beginning to recognize that they will bear the brunt of the substantial injuries caused by those wars.

As for the tax and social safety net cuts…

The Trump tax cut largely passes farmers by, because they aren’t corporations and few of them are rich. One of the studies by Agriculture Department economists that raised Trumpian ire showed that to the extent that farmers saw tax reductions, most of the benefits went to the richest 10 percent, while poor farmers actually saw a slight tax increase.

At the same time, the assault on the safety net is especially harmful to rural America, which relies heavily on safety-net programs. Of the 100 counties with the highest percentage of their population receiving food stamps, 85 are rural, and most of the rest are in small metropolitan areas. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which Trump keeps trying to kill, had its biggest positive impact on rural areas.

It is fair to suggest that many rural Americans are unaware of the variety of ways in which Medicaid expansion and other social programs support farm country; some of those benefits are indirect (which doesn’t mean they aren’t critically important). The impact of the tariffs, however, is hard to miss.

What about protectionism? The U.S. farm sector is hugely dependent on access to world markets, much more so than the economy as a whole. American soybean growers export half of what they produce; wheat farmers export 46 percent of their crop. China, in particular, has become a key marketfor U.S. farm products. That’s why Trump’s recent rage-tweeting over trade, which raised the prospect of an expanded trade war, sent grain markets to a 42-year low.

If Trump succeeds in plunging us into a full-blown trade war, which certainly seems more likely than not, Krugman says American imports and exports will both shrink — and since farmers rely disproportionately on exporting, they will be the biggest losers.

The harm being done to rural America by Trump leads to that perennial question: why do so many of the people bearing the brunt of his ignorance continue to support him?

Krugman delicately suggests that it has to do with “cultural factors”–by which he means hostility to immigrants and resentment of coastal elites they believe look down on rural America. (What Krugman calls hostility to immigrants is, if the research is to be believed, part of a much larger and more ingrained hostility to non-whites and non-Christians.)

Krugman thinks that rural America’s support for Trump may start to crack as the negative effects of his policies become too obvious to miss. I’m less sanguine.

When we so-called “elitists” talk about “voting ones interests,” we are almost always referring to economic interests. When I listen to Trump supporters–when they post angry diatribes on Facebook or are interviewed for a new program–what I hear is a very different view of what constitutes their interests.

Economic reality be damned. Trump voters are defending their vision of America, and that vision is white, heterosexual, and fundamentalist Christian. So long as they believe Trump is hurting people who fall outside that narrow category, he’s their guy.


  1. The ride yesterday through farmland to my son’s home passed through acre after acre of unplowed fields of mud. Add Trump’s removal of EPA regulations (most ignored by all corporations and political administrations) to his current tariff brainless-storm in addition to his corporate tax cuts and the outcome can only be more devastation to farmers throughout the nation. He promises them millions of tax dollars to compensate but he is “robbing Peter to pay Paul” at levels never before seen in this country. For Paul it may be a temporary (this planting season) measure of assistance; but what about the losses to Peter who is paying for Trump’s trade war to punish China.

    Old Russian proverb from my old Russian friend; “Do not stir shit with stick; it will cause stink.” Will someone please take that stick away from Trump before we all perish from his stirring!!!

    “The harm being done to rural America by Trump leads to that perennial question: why do so many of the people bearing the brunt of his ignorance continue to support him?”

    Finding the answer to that question should be the Democratic campaign foundation for whoever of the escalating number of presidential wannabes is decided.

  2. We too drove south on 65 which is lined by farm fields, none had been touched. This is a trip we have been making for close to 40 years, even in other wet Springs some of the fields had at least been turned over. This year the stubble from last seasons crops are sitting untouched. What will this mean for Indiana’s economy?

  3. In addition to feeling persecuted for publishing true reports, the economists in the Ag Dept’s Research Service are leaving because their dept will soon be divided up and they will be moved to rural state universities with ag departments. Mitch Daniels at Purdue has bid on getting some of them to come to West Lafayette.

    The theory is that they will do a much better job of understanding the economies they report on if they live within the rural areas that they study. Those career federal government employees are not happy about being forced to leave their DC metropolitan lives to be ‘farmed’ out to the green acres they study.

    I don’t have an opinion about whether this is a good idea or if it will actually make their statistics any more accurate or not. It is just another reason long term economists are leaving their jobs.

  4. Wayne; please! The added impossibility to plow mud, plus Trump’s tariffs and the environmental crisis in addition to Trump’s tax cuts…is the point to Jane and I calling attention to the fact that farmers cannot even plow their fields this late in the year.

  5. I was going to suggest the Stockholm Syndrome, but racism and nationalism seem more logical.

  6. Something people who live in large or larger cities may not realize about rural people and farmers is this:

    Farmers and the farming community are completely disconnected from the poor people in the small rural towns. Farmers are typically only connected to people from town through either church or some type of social club like the Elks or Lions. Other than that, there rarely is a way for farmers to connect with off-farm people, including middle class and lower middle class.

    So, people in rural communities who are fortunate enough to have jobs that pay a living wage with benefits view people that need any type of social safety net support as lazy bottom feeders. Those with jobs are conditioned to hate those on food stamps or any type of ‘welfare’ and the reason that they pay such high taxes. If those people would just go out and get jobs and work then everyone else’s taxes wouldn’t be so high.

    Of course, these idiots have drank the GOP kool aid propaganda for decades and it is so ingrained in their heads that they don’t even stop to think that their tax problem is under taxation of the wealthy and a lack of living wage jobs.

    I am sure by now, if you have read this far, you realize these are also the people who tune into one network for all of their fake news.

  7. JoAnn,

    Actually there is still plenty of time to plant the crops. When I was growing up we never got into the fields before May. If the ground is given a few days to dry out the farmers can accomplish amazing feats with today’s
    equipment. There is still time.

    Getting the crops in the field does not address the tariff and price issue.

    On NBC news the other evening I saw a farmer from either Nebraska or Iowa being interviewed who still supported Trump in spite of the tariffs hurting him. He said this should have been done 15-20 years ago. Hmmm, that would have been when another GOP prez would have been in office. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wonder what his neighboring farmers think. He looked to be in his early to mid forties. Obviously, unlike many farmers, he is not in the position to be concerned that the bank is going to foreclose on him.

  8. Well, the departing truth reporters is typical of fascist regimes throughout history. Trump can only stand those who agree with him. Everyone else is his enemy.

    All that everyone has said today about rural America, and their vision of a white, heterosexual, Christian nation is true. It’s who THEY are and they are VERY uncomfortable with anything else. Why? Churches have an inordinate amount of influence on rural communities. They are a bloc that resists reason and promotes their own narrow agenda. Those folks have been drilled on this stuff since the moment they could understand words. After all, most of their homes will have a picture of that sandal-wearing, long-haired, socialist hippie hanging on their walls without understanding the irony … or the book of Matthew.

    SO….. Democrats have to campaign in fly-over country just as they would the West coast and the swing states. Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy STILL makes the most sense. Democrats MUST get as many of those votes as possible, especially in the local elections. Imagine flipping one or two U.S. Senate seats in the red bloc. They might not vote for a Democratic President, but they might improve the House majority and return the Senate to Constitutional sanity.

  9. The Republican party still runs strong because it saved the country during the Civil War.
    Now, thanks to a political ‘Southern Strategy’, many member of it proudly fly the Confederate battle flag.
    If that doesn’t make sense, you don’t know how rural people think.
    Try ignoring both economic and cultural (except one) factors, and go back to find out how their Great-great-great Grandpa voted and you will see why today’s great. . . . . . . .grandchildren vote.
    I know how this works. While never having enough money to keep me in jr. high school band, my folks voted straight Republican because Grandpa had. (and that’s the exception noted above)

  10. Just the facts.
    Total population: 122,775,046; farm population: 30,455,350; farmers 21% of labor force; Number of farms: 6,295,000; average acres: 157.

    Total population: 151,132,000; farm population: 25,058,000; farmers 12.2% of labor force; Number of farms: 5,388,000; average acres: 216.

    Total population: 261,423,000; farm population: 2,987,552; farmers 2.6% of labor force; Number of farms: 2,143,150; average acres: 461

    From 1999–2009, roughly 50% of hired crop farm workers in the U.S. were non citizens working without legal authorization. Source: USDA Economic Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture.

    In 2000, there were more than 2.16 million farms in the United States. In 2016, the amount of farms in the U.S. decreased to 2,060,000. 2017 the average farm size is 444 acres.

    Krugman offers no solutions.
    So the Democrats want to win Rural America over.
    Other than President Agent Orange is bad, what is the Democratic Party doing to win these voters?? OK, what is the program or platform issues that will accomplish this??? Maybe I missed it but, I cannot find it.

  11. The farming practices I witnessed in Southern Illinois taught me that “small farmers” were a dying breed to be sure. The large corporate farms had eaten them all and in doing so had destroyed the small towns nearby. Those working on the land for the corporate farmers were the local school drop outs trying to stay on a small piece of land living in a trailer or living on the edge of a dying town. Part time minimum wage with no benefits was all that there was left for them in the wake of the big farm’s take over of the land. Now with Trump’s tariffs in place, for a second year, those corporate mega farms are finding that the market for their beans and corn has gone elsewhere from which it is doubtful it will return any time soon.
    It was greed, folks. Just greed! It was the banks, the politicians, and ruthless men wanting to own all of the land, their neighbors be damn.

  12. They love him because he tells it like it is(n’t)! That won’t change.

  13. The Imperial Presidency has been a fixture in our political system since at least the early 1960’s. Mostly this Imperial Presidency has expressed itself with various military aggression’s both covert and overt and Congress has with regularity approved these adventures.

    What surprises me the most is the latitude that Congress has given the President in terms of sanctions, and tariffs. It seems President Agent Orange can impose tariffs and sanctions on countries he does not like on a whim, with no oversight by Congress. There is also the “National Emergencies” presidents can declare at will.

  14. Some still argue that the explosion in better farm equipment in the 1920s which caused a surge of unemployed farm workers into the cities was the root cause of The Great Depression, an argument I have rejected in favor of the more conventional view that it was the total lack of regulation of Wall Street financiers under Harding-Coolidge-Hoover administrations with their laissez faire views during the so-called “Roaring Twenties” that brought us to near failed state status, perhaps aided by farm unemployment.

    Whatever, we have a big problem these days what with a huge chunk of corn, wheat and beans raised for export and a politician at the helm who is playing politics with his trade wars, featuring hit and miss tariffs that cry out for selective counter tariffs by other importing countries (notably China) which adversely affect American farmers whether corporate or individual. So how does our sainted leader who tells us that tariffs are “easy” panaceas that win trade wars respond? That’s “easy,” too. Just put 12 billion dollars of taxpayer money together to pay the soybean farmers adversely affected by his tariffs so that our taxes go up in tandem with thousands of farmers on the brink of bankruptcy. Brilliant!

    Now socialism for the rich is spooned out to farmers as well, thus trashing the traditional Republican gospel of “free trade” and placing Trump in the position of trade dictator who can distribute such taxpayer monies by whim, and all this against a background of American complaints that our trading parties are subsidizing their exports to us? Physician, heal thyself. I don’t know how the political consequences of such utter ignorance will play out, but I do know how they should.

  15. Back in the day there where first world countries and third world countries. The difference was largely the distribution of wealth. First world countries had opportunity for everyone not to just do, but do well with bright futures and happy endings. Third world countries accepted that as long as the wealthy were getting wealthier the workers didn’t count. They were virtual slaves kept in poverty no matter how hard they worked.

    Many of us assumed that progress meant a continuous move of countries from third world status to first world status but totalitarian governments have reversed that trend. The USSR’s collapse back to Russia was a harbinger of that change. Putin installed Trump here to bring about the same magic in the US.

    The aristocracy, which we all thought had been defeated in the Revolutions, American, French, Russian and European in general have reasserted their claim on the world.

    Can this re-revolutionary trend be halted here? Maybe. If so it will be done in 2020 and it will be done by ending the rein of the party of oligarchy, the party of aristocracy, the Republican Party. If we fail at that we choose the return of the situation that our ancestors faced in the mid 18th century. Give me liberty or give me death.

  16. I think it’s a good point that Nancy and Theresa made: Don’t conflate farmers with the larger rural population – they aren’t one and the same. Many of the smaller farmers / family farms are gone. Most are now large agri-businesses or someone who owns 100 acres, for example, and has turned the farming over to someone else because it’s too small to mess with by itself.

    The reality is that people who live in small towns and rural areas have been devastated for decades. Jobs are non-existent and the opioid crisis has hit rural America hard. Much like de-industrialization, the mechanization of farming means that those jobs aren’t there anymore for rural residents. In the mid-west, factory work often supplemented – or was the backup plan — for agricultural workers. They have lost both sources of income. The insular nature of these communities also works to their disadvantage.

    Monotonous Languor makes a point: Democrats need to offer something besides “Trump = bad”. But how much energy do you spend on a group that culturally is just not likely to vote for any Democrat. Period.

    I don’t disagree with Trump about the need to reform trade with China. I do disagree on how it’s been done. I also see that Farmers are going to be increasingly effected by global warming. The pictures of un-sold full grain bins in Iowa – that were then flooded and burst are a double whammy.

    Farmers are huge recipients of government welfare – from ethanol subsidies to market supports, to the SNAP program – the farm bill is about $ 900 billion dollars over 10 years. But of course they don’t see it that way – the way they see it welfare recipients are poor, lazy and usually non-white.

  17. Kurt – great points!

    Regarding ethanol subsidies, those really cushioned the bank accounts of farmers starting back in 2007 and that lasted for many years. It was even more of a gift to the corporate ethanol processors like POET Biorefining Corp in South Dakota. They became crazy wealthy from lobbying Congress to legislate ethanol be included in our gasoline. They have been hard at work trying to demand at least 15% ethanol/gallon of gas. I don’t think that has passed yet because the automakers say it would ruin many older engines.

  18. My question to Kurt above isn’t argumentative but from searching for other opinions about global trade. In my life global economics have evolved from manufacturing being US/European centric due to automation to China centric due to low labor costs and the now global knowledge about how to automate. To me it’s a condition reflecting the reality of the capabilities around the world.

    Trade barriers are typically only effective when temporary conditions create a temporary trade imbalance that needs government help to correct until it corrects itself.

    I see nothing temporary about China’s manufacturing capability relative to ours so trade restrictions addressing it are artificial market barriers requiring our country to ignore free market realities and just pay more for manufactured goods than necessary, forever.

  19. Pete:
    I do believe that China is stealing technology and IP.
    I also believe they are manipulating their currency and that their markets are not open – requiring a local partner as a condition of many business deals — mostly so they can learn what they need and then dispense with their business partners.

    On a more strategic level, I take them at their word when they describe a plan to be a dominate world economic power in their 30 year plan. We should not take that lightly and we should have been much more aggressive 10-20 years ago.

    We should have been much more aggressive at diversifying our agricultural markets so that we weren’t so beholden to this single customer – who we know is problematic.

  20. Kurt, thanks. Well put. Do you believe that a trade tariff war has a chance to change any of those those conditions in ways that offer a return on our investment in paying for the tariffs?

  21. To the idea that China is stealing our IP: there’s no question that we gave a lot of it away to them but I know for the company that I worked for it was entirely voluntary due to the enticement of Chinese markets.

    I also know that both we and they steal national security knowledge at every opportunity and that is illegal in both countries.

  22. As to being a dominate economic world power in the next 30 years: that’s been the US plan since WWII and we have a remarkable record of achieving it until lately. Now it seem unlikely that we will continue our success.

    My reasoning says that the slip comes from not adapting to the real world inevitably coming but rather trying to hang on to the ever receding past that entitled some of us (full disclosure: it entitled me too).

    Politically we need to elect leaders who are from the real world.

  23. Pete,
    I am not suggesting that tariffs are some permanent solution to, say, bring manufacturing back to the US – if that’s what you are suggesting.

    Tariffs may be a short-term strategy to bring about better trade terms than we currently have. But given the strategic importance to China (acquiring technology, for example) I don’t expect China to change quickly. This is a bigger fight than cheep footwear.

    I generally believe that the US respects international IP and doesn’t steal it (I might be naive).
    Separately, I’m not in a position to independently evaluate the Huawei claims… but I think we would be foolish to not be very circumspect of technology suppliers.

  24. I grew up on a farm, and my father was one of the few Democrats in the community. (Those who didn’t farm worked in auto plants within an hour’s drive). Dad warned against corporate farms which would grow larger and larger, force out competition, and ultimately have our food supply (and us) by the throat.

    Dad was fiercely independent but also supported those politicians who would vote for price supports for farms. Farming is a bigger gamble than Las Vegas gaming tables. Even the best researched and most efficient and productive farmers can be bankrupted by weather, disease epidemics in crops and/or livestock, and government policies. And the costs of farm implements and land continue to climb. One modern combine to harvest wheat and soybeans can cost $600,000. Government supports provide a baseline to protect farmers and the food supply from erratic ups and downs.

    Farm bankruptcies are up dramatically under Trump’s tariffs. Generations of political loyalty are now being challenged by the loss of farmily farms which have been a family’s generational identity. The loss of any home is difficult, but losing the farm that’s been in one’s family for generations is devastating and guilt-inducing. It makes farmers feel they’ve been orphaned by their own inadequacy (even when factors outside the farmer’s control are at fault) with a heavy dose of disrespect to one’s ancestors who built the farm these farmers inherited.

    Farmers are not to blame for Trump’s tariffs, but they’ll pay a life-changing and in some instances a life-ending price for them. Trump will lose some of his farm base as a result. If the bankruptcies continue at the present rate, we may see a sea-change in farmers’ political loyalty. It’s clear that loyalty has come at too high a price.

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