On May 23, just two weeks after slapping China with $200 billion in tariffs, President Donald Trump held a party in the White House for America’s farmers and ranchers. Speaking from the Roosevelt Room, Trump sang the praises of the small farmers who played such a pivotal role in his unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton.
“It’s a great honor to be here with some of the most incredible people in our country,” Trump said. “People that have been with me from the beginning and I’ve been with them from the absolute beginning. The relationship has been very good!”
What a difference six months makes.
Family farms have borne the brunt of Trump’s trade war with Beijing. American soybean exports have collapsed as China levied its own punishing taxes on U.S. crops — total soybean exports are now only a third what they were in 2018.
Unable to sell their produce, small farmers have been forced to take on mountains of debt just to keep their land in growing condition. Smallholders now face the worst levels of farm debt since the doldrums of the 1980s. Across the country, farm incomes are held down by nearly half a trillion dollars in avoidable debt.
Farmers aren’t to blame for their current struggles. After all, Trump boasted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win!” As more and more farmers face the ugly choice of adding debt or selling their ancestral lands, Trump’s speechwriters have wisely left that arrogant bumper sticker phrase out of his recent speeches.
Trump has tried to staunch the bleeding in rural America by abandoning any pretense that the Republican Party stands for fiscal conservatism. Instead, Trump is leaning on one of the few tools he knows: bribery. In a move that unnerved White House legal staff, Trump announced that farmers would receive emergency cash payments totaling nearly $30 billion.
Trump, once a vocal opponent of (Obama-led) bailouts, now presides over the largest agricultural bailout since the prolonged Farm Crisis of the 1980s, when record production and an embargo against the Soviet Union led to deflated crop prices and a shortage of export markets.
What Trump fails to understand is that money isn’t everything, and a one-time bailout does little to help small farmers restore business relationships torn asunder by the trade war. China has shifted a lot of its soybean purchases from the United States to Brazil, establishing new relationships. Even if the trade war ended tomorrow, some of those customers won’t be coming back.
In a darker development, Washington Post reporter Annie Gowen recently reported on a sharp spike in suicides among small farmers — caused in large part by an inability to bridge the gaps imposed by Trump’s sweeping disruption of foreign trade.
You read that right — the same farmers Trump crowed were “with him from the absolute beginning” are now so desperate in the face of Trump-inflicted harm that some are choosing to kill themselves rather than face losing their livelihood.
Calls to suicide hotlines in American farm country have grown under Trump. The crisis has become so acute that the Trump administration created new federal programs to better monitor and care for the mental health of American farmers. It’s not nothing, but it’s not nearly enough.
In a White House known for hostility to new federal programs, creating the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is a tacit admission that abstract things like trade policy can have a real and damaging impact on the welfare of the American people.
In South Dakota, AgWeek reports, the rural suicide epidemic has become so acute that the state recently launched a hotline and support services for farmers in psychiatric crisis. Suicides, already more prevalent in rural communities than in big cities, become a larger problem when farm sector profits are hovering near their lowest level in two decades.
To be clear: some of the challenges facing farmers are unrelated to Trump’s trade war. AgWeek cites the rising cost of health care for rural families as one of the other reasons farm communities are facing financial challenges.
“It’s really, really getting bad out here,” North Dakota farmer Bob Kuylen told CNBC in August, before the latest round of trade hostilities plunged farmers further into economic peril. “There’s no incentive to keep farming, except that I’ve invested everything I have in farming, and it’s hard to walk away.”
“It’s killing us,” soybean farmer Mark Watne told CNBC. The mounting evidence shows Watne isn’t speaking metaphorically. Rural America is crying out for help from a Trump administration that has so far provided only piecemeal financial and mental health support for underserved farm communities. Policymakers in Congress ignore their pleas for help at their own political and moral peril.
The dire warnings Trump disregarded as liberal fear-mongering have now come true, and his most loyal supporters are paying the price. There are already warning signs that reliably Republican agriculture workers in key states like Ohio are regretting their votes for Trump. It’s unclear if culture war issues will be enough to keep them on board.
As Trump’s trade war worsens with no sign of relief, it could be American farmers who send the president packing in November 2020. That would be a strong first step toward repairing the damage Trump’s misguided trade policies have wrought on America’s heartland. But it won’t bring back family members lost to the despair of broken promises.
This crisis was avoidable, the product of hubris and ignorance on the part of Donald Trump and those in his administration who enabled his catastrophic bravado.
Trump often notes that farmers have been “with me since the beginning.” If only America’s farm communities could say the same about Donald Trump.
If you feel unsafe with yourself or need someone to talk to, please call The Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or text ‘HOME’ to Crisis Text Line at 741741 (text 686868 in Canada).