Farmers keep asking why Donald Trump is hurting them on trade when they helped elect him. The better question is: Why did they help elect him?
Candidate Trump promised a trade war, and he delivered. No hidden agenda there.
Farmers and ranchers had a choice between trade-friendly Hillary Clinton and a man threatening their precious foreign markets. Hillary as a person didn’t translate well in the heartland. We understand that. But it’s hard to imagine those in another industry, say finance, supporting a candidate shouting plans sure to devastate their bottom line because they liked his style.
Almost every economist predicted that if Trump slapped tariffs on Chinese products, China would slap tariffs on American products. Trump did, and sure enough, Chinese leader Xi Jinping immediately went after U.S. soybeans and other American exports. When Trump upped the ante, Xi upped his.
The U.S. does have valid complaints regarding trade with China, but they can’t be effectively addressed through bluster and going it alone. That’s Trump’s way. His approach is exploding in many of our faces. So much winning — for the Chinese, who also seem amused.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to let the United States write the global rules for trade with China. Barry Flinchbaugh, agricultural economist at Kansas State, had called TPP the best deal for farmers in his lifetime.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of TPP his first week in office. Anyone surprised? He never really familiarized himself with the details, evidently thinking China was involved in the writing. As a candidate, he called TPP “a rape of our country.”
Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan and seven other countries have remained in TPP. Canadian Cattlemen magazine recently ran a piece titled “TPP seen critical for beef sales growth in Japan.” By contrast, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a U.S. group, issued a deflated understatement that “withdrawing from TPP was a missed opportunity for the United States to gain greater access to some of the world’s most vibrant and growing markets.”
Obeisance to Trump has reached masochistic levels among some farm state Republicans. Running for Congress in Minnesota, Jim Hagedorn has urged farmers to retain “trust” in Trump to look out for their interests.
Problem is, even if Trump executed one of his spin-arounds — saying, “I didn’t really mean it; this was just a negotiating tactic” — damage has already been done. “It’s a whole lot easier not to wreck the car in the first place than it is to think about what a repair might look like,” a spokesman for the American Soybean Association remarked.
“China still needs our product,” a Wisconsin farmer told The Washington Post, hope in his heart. “China still needs soybeans.”
That’s true, and Brazil and Argentina have soybeans to sell. Mexican pork producers, meanwhile, are looking to grab more of the Chinese market.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has made noises about our returning to TPP, but even if that were attempted, the U.S. wouldn’t simply return to square one. We would go to square minus one. Other countries are not going to jump at helping the U.S. rejoin, given the administration’s ugly theatrics in efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
On that front, Mexico is the biggest foreign market for U.S. corn. Corn producers in South America are already taking big chunks of that business, establishing new trading relationships.
I’m not going to innumerate Trump’s many character flaws here. His history with workers, lenders and wives flashes “don’t trust” in red neon. But here’s a case where Trump actually did what he said he would do. Others may explain many voters’ expectation that he would not keep his campaign promises.
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist. Follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached by email at: [email protected]