The Texas Observer

Rural Texans Supported Trump, but They’ve Yet to Reap the Rewards

A tumbleweed rolls through downtown Morton, Texas.

Rural Texans Supported Trump, but They’ve Yet to Reap the Rewards

Voters in parts of the country’s deep red regions are finally starting to reap slight rewards for sending Donald Trump to the White House, but those benefits haven’t been extended to the rural Texans who helped him beat Hillary Clinton in all but 27 Texas counties in 2016. So while small towns in other states are getting funds for much-needed railway projects and road repairs, rural Texans must stand by as Trump takes credit for amending the estate tax (helping very few Texas ranchers in the process), rolls back water pollution rules protecting farming communities and threatens to leave international trade deals that are an economic boon for farmers and ranchers.

After the president placed tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese electronics and other products on Tuesday, the Chinese government struck back, placing its own tariffs on U.S. pork, wine and other products. China has threatened to add beef, wheat, corn, cotton and sorghum to the list — all dominant Texas agricultural commodities. The Texas beef cattle industry, which accounts for half of the state’s $20 billion in agricultural receipts, is on edge. Bill Hyman, executive director of the trade group Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, said that ranchers started ringing early Tuesday morning, shortly after China’s announcement. “Bad news travels fast,” he told the Observer. Bobby McKnight, president of Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association, said, “We are working closely with federal trade officials in hopes of bringing a swift end to increased tariffs.”

Texas cotton exports to China valued at $450 million annually and sorghum exports valued at $209 million annually could be the biggest casualties in the tariff tit-for-tat.

On a similar note, the president has ramped up threats this week to leave NAFTA. About 400,000 Texas jobs and $125 billion in state exports hang in the balance. On Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott pleaded with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to leave in place NAFTA protections for businesses that do business with member countries.

President Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona in 2016.  Flickr/Gage Skidmore

But in rural areas outside of Texas, some communities are finally seeing a small pay-off for helping to put the president in office.

In March, the Trump administration more than tripled the amount of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) funds it awarded to rural areas for transportation infrastructure. Through the program, a Kentucky town of 27,000 will get $8 million to improve sidewalks and roads near an elementary school in a poor part of Frankfort. In the battleground state of Iowa, the city of Burlington (population 25,000) will get $17 million to upgrade streets and docks and help low-income people access services downtown.

Of the $500 million in TIGER grant awards in 2017, 64 percent went to rural communities, triple the amount required to be spent on such projects, the Wall Street Journal reports. California Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat, told the newspaper that the grants were “driven by political retribution” — that rural Americans put Trump in office, and now they’re being given preferential treatment. But that argument doesn’t hold water in Texas, which despite having the largest rural population of any state (3.8 million), received no rural transportation funding through the program. Trump previously proposed nixing TIGER altogether, along with slashing funding for other crucial programs that prop up public infrastructure for rural Texans.  

The money is sorely needed here. In its 2017 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s road infrastructure a “D” grade, noting specifically that “rural highways in Texas have exceeded their design life and most do not meet current design standards.” The state’s drinking water infrastructure also received a dismal grade, a problem expected to worsen with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt taking aim at the Obama-era regulations meant to reduce chemical runoff into streams. Small Texas water providers already struggle to provide clean drinking water to residents.     

Despite all this, Texas Republican voters are by and large sticking by their man in the White House. Justin Gest, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, told the Observer that white working class voters are placing ideological considerations over practical ones. “From an ideological standpoint, Trump engages an authoritarian, nationalist sentiment in American politics that resonates with a lot of Americans who feel that the country has grown to be out of their control,” he said.

Ideology aside, Texas Trump supporters still might start to curse the president once they blow a truck tire on a pothole that could’ve been fixed with money from a federal grant, or once foreign markets for commodity crops dry up. As a Trump supporter in Brownwood told the Houston Chronicle in January, “He hasn’t necessarily improved my life, but he hasn’t screwed it up, either.”