Donald Trump flew down to Austin on Sunday evening to commune with the sunburned, work-weary farmers and ranchers who comprise one of his most prized voting blocs.
Trump used his speech at the annual American Farm Bureau Federation convention to assure agricultural producers that he’s toiled hard for them since taking office—reworking “unfair” trade deals and slashing burdensome environmental regulations that cut into farmers’ bottom lines. Though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Trump does not always act in the interest of farmers or rural communities, he told the crowd that he loves “hardworking, loyal, fiercely patriotic” farmers. And judging by the response of those who showed up, who clapped and whooped at his proclamations of progress, they love him right back.
It was the third time that the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest trade group representing farmers, invited Trump to be the keynote speaker at its annual conference. The talk was the latest chapter in Trump’s love affair with residents of rural America, whom he rightfully sees as important contributors to his political success. Farming communities across the nation voted upwards of 80 percent for Trump in 2016; in Texas, some deep-red counties went more than 90 percent for the president.
But so far, it doesn’t seem like their support has gotten them much. Trump has repeatedly mucked around with international trade agreements, causing supplies of some commodity crops to swell and prices to bottom out. He enhanced immigration enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, slowing the flow of immigrant workers to farms, where crops rotted in the fields with no one to harvest them. He proposed federal budgets that would have cut funding for infrastructure and subsidized housing in rural communities.
Farmers and ranchers, or at least the ones in Austin on Sunday, don’t seem to mind. They stood and applauded when Trump took the stage. They laughed as he took jabs at his political rivals. The crowd jeered, on cue, when the president complained of “fake news” propagated by journalists—such as those covering the event. “I’ve had confidence in him since the very beginning,” said Betty Rogers, who grows vegetables and raises dairy heifers near Haverhill, Massachusetts. “He’s making America great.”
“Trump is loyal to farmers,” said Larry Thomas, a self-identified Democrat who grows corn and soybeans and raises cattle in Kentucky. “In all fairness, he’s done what he said he was gonna do,” he said, referring to overhauled trade agreements and rolled-back regulations.
On its face, farmers’ unwavering and near-universal support for a Yankee in an expensive suit seems absurd. Trump has never grown a plant from a seed; he has never fixed a fence with bailing wire or changed a tractor tire; he has never lived an hour away from the nearest hospital or city water lines. As far as I know, he has never looked out onto the land—at the sky that gives rain and the soil that gives crops—and ached at the simple majesty of it all.
The farmers I talked to brushed off the apparent contradiction. Most said that farming is a business, and Trump is a businessman—his knowledge of the vagaries of agriculture isn’t important. (Nevermind that Trump’s business ventures have failed spectacularly.) They like that he speaks his mind, and that he says what’s on their minds, too. “He says stuff you just think in private,” said Bob Watson, a corn, soybean, wheat, and cattle farmer in Kentucky.
Watson said he’s not bothered that Trump has no background in farming. He pointed out that Jimmy Carter, the last farmer elected president, is largely blamed for creating the 1980s farm crisis, when lenders foreclosed on farms at historic rates and a wave of farmer suicides gripped the heartland. “That didn’t work out too well for us,” Watson said.
Despite his spotty record of supporting agriculture, however, he has delivered one gift that farmers have been clamoring for since before he took office: a rollback of the Waters of the United States rule, Obama’s signature law that would have expanded the federal government’s authority to regulate small bodies of water on private land. It was meant to reduce the amount of pollutants draining into rivers and lakes, but farmers predictably saw the rule as an affront to their property rights. The American Farm Bureau called it “illegal” and pushed for its repeal. In October, the group got what it wanted; Trump’s EPA and Army Corps of Engineers published a final rule revoking the action.
“There are no better stewards of our precious natural resources than the American farmers who depend on the land for their very livelihood,” Trump told the crowd. “You’re going to take care of your land. You don’t need some bureaucrat in Washington telling everybody what the hell to do with your land.”
Trump also took a chance on Sunday to brag about his own re-election prospects. Trump asked Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who had front-row seats to the event, about polling figures that purportedly show even stronger support for him in Texas now than in 2016. Trump waived around a copy of a Wall Street Journal article trumpeting his 83 percent approval rating among farmers. Then he asked the audience, “Who the hell are the 17 percent? Anybody in here from the 17 percent? Don’t raise your hand; it may be dangerous.”
None of the half-dozen farmers and ranchers I spoke with expressed interest in any other 2020 presidential candidate. It appears that in farm country, Donald Trump has only green pastures ahead.
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