The 2020 election is going to be a base election. Donald Trump has already made that choice over the last three years by making virtually no effort to expand his core electorate and putting on a show of doing everything in his power to appeal to that base. The reality is that Trump has largely failed his base and continues to repeatedly betray them.
While the betrayal of the Kurds is an epic foreign policy disaster and a deadly moral failure, one of the less notable but domestically important aspects of that decision is how it has shaken Trump’s evangelical base, the core of his support among white men. While the Kurds may be primarily Sunni, religious diversity and tolerance has always been a feature of the Kurdish people and the territory they control. The Kurds have provided protection and freedom for Christians in Syria and Iraq and those areas have become a focal point for Christian evangelical work. For example, Franklin Graham, a critical evangelical Trump supporter, runs a ministry, Samaritan’s purse, that is active in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.
For some Christians, Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds is a betrayal of Christians in the Middle East in general. As one pastor active with churches in the Middle East states, “But of course, that [Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in northern Syria] empties the area of any Christian witness, at least theoretically or on a human level. It leaves the place without a witness for Christ. Even those who support the President were disappointed with that because the view in the Middle East is always that America protects Christians”. Certainly, all Kurds, Christian of otherwise, whether in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere, will look on Trump’s actions as a betrayal. Whether and how that might effect the evangelical efforts of American Christians in the region remains to be seen.
In addition, the Kurds have always been staunch allies of Israel, fighting on the Israeli’s side in conflicts over the years and especially in the recent battle against ISIS. Some Israelis, rather than considering the greenlighting of the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds as license to treat the Palestinians similarly, see the betrayal of the Kurds as a prelude to Trump’s eventual betrayal of Israel. As one analyst surmised, “While betraying the Kurds, the president also gave a sign of what might be his next betrayal — when he concluded by saying that the Kurds and Turkey were like Israel and the Palestinians. In other words, a bunch of Middle Eastern nuisances, ungrateful egoists waging tribal wars and sucking American taxpayers’ money.” Trump’s decision in Syria further empowers Israel’s enemies Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. For many evangelicals in America, anything that weakens Israel will make the restoration of the boundaries that God promised the Israelites less likely and therefore delay the Rapture.
Trump has tried to portray the abandonment of the Kurds as a fulfillment of the campaign promise to “bring the troops home”. But that is another lie as the troops withdrawn from Syria are simply being redeployed to western Iraq in order to fight the ISIS forces that Trump’s decision has allowed to be reconstituted.
To show just how badly the evangelical community has been shaken by Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, it is certainly no coincidence that, after Trump’s announcement that US troops would not stand in Erdogan’s way, Bill Barr made a most unusual speech for an Attorney General at the University of Notre Dame where he decried “secularists” and “progressives” and declared “This is not decay. This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion & traditional values.” Nor is it a coincidence that the State Department’s homepage promoted Mike Pompeo’s speech to the American Association of Christian Counselors on “Being A Christian Leader”, a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Nor is it a coincidence that Pompeo and Pence both talked about the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds from the region dressed up as a “cease fire” as a way to protect religious minorities, with Pence especially mentioning the “hundreds of millions of dollars” that America has spent to help “Christian, Yazidi, and other religious minorities in the region”.
While Trump’s betrayal may be a surprise to Trump’s evangelical supporters, it is nothing new for a big part of Trump’s rural base, namely farmers. Trump’s “easy to win” trade war with China has hit certain areas of the agricultural Midwest especially hard. That is especially true of soybean farmers, from whom China bought the least amount of soybeans in over a decade, barely a quarter of their pre-trade war totals. So it must have been a relief to those struggling farmers when Trump announced that the latest round of tariffs would not go into effect and that China had agreed to an initial deal that would increase its agricultural purchases to anywhere between $40 and $50 billion in “less than two years”. That would be a more than four-fold increase over the $9 billion China purchased last year and more than double what China had purchased before the trade war began.
Needless to say, it seems that Trump’s announcement was premature, at best. China appears to have only agreed to buy US agricultural products based on demand and market conditions. In addition, it also appears that they want some guarantee that not only will Trump’s threatened December tariffs not go into effect but that the tariffs already in place will be reduced. At present, there is not even any written agreement laying out the details of what Trump’s reported agreement contains, much less any indication that China is prepared to sign it at this time. Basically, Trump lied when he declared “The deal I just made with China is, by far, the greatest and biggest deal ever made for our Great Patriot Farmers in the history of our Country”, simply because no deal with China had actually be made.
The reported China trade deal was not the only time that the Trump administration has deliberately misled farmers. Corn growers were upset with the Trump administration for supplying over eighty exemptions for refineries blending ethanol into the gasoline they produce. Those exemptions essentially eliminated 4 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol and created a corresponding reduction in the market for corn. Ethanol production accounts for nearly 40% of the market for US corn producers. After months of lobbying against these exemptions by corn farmers and their representatives, Trump finally announced earlier this month that not only would those exemptions be discontinued but that the refiners would be forced to replace the 4 billion gallons of ethanol that were previously not produced over the next three years.
Once again, however, it appears that Trump has mischaracterized the agreement that was reached. Corn growers were outraged when the details of the agreement were released this week that showed that the ethanol to be replaced was only about half of what had been promised by Trump. The head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association has apparently just learned what most of the country already knew when he plaintively asked, “I thought a deal was a deal. When Donald Trump makes a deal isn’t it a deal?” Another Iowa farmer declared in frustration, “My personal perspective is that President Trump has lost a lot of support. Pretty much everyone I have talked to that’s involved in agriculture and the biofuels industry have really lost trust and are really frustrated”. This attitude might explain why Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst’s approval rating plummeted 9 points in the last quarter and makes her extremely vulnerable in 2020.
Both the US and China are suffering from the trade war. Trump’s announcement of this supposed deal was clearly a face-saving maneuver to avoid implementing 30% tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods that was scheduled to go into effect on October 15th. China, too, is hurting. GDP growth in the 3rd quarter was the lowest the country has recorded in over a quarter of a century. In addition, a swine flu epidemic has devastated the Chinese hog industry and raised the price of pork for consumers. Under these conditions, one would think both sides would be interested in de-escalating the trade war. But it seems probable that the Chinese think it would be in their longer term best interest, which is their usual mode of thinking, to endure the current pain, keep the pressure on the US agricultural sector, and ensure that Trump does not get re-elected.
Meanwhile, struggling dairy farmers in Wisconsin, who have lost over 1,500 farms over the last three years, were basically told by Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to sell the farms that may have been in the family for generations and become sharecroppers for the Big Ag monopolies. Said Perdue, “It’s very difficult on an economy of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, or 60 or even 100 cows…In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability”. One dairy farmer summarized Perdue’s message for him as “there’s no place for me”.
Lastly, farmers, more than most, see the effects of climate change and feel those changes directly in their pocket books. For growers in the Midwest, the massive rains and flooding this spring disrupted supply chains and delayed spring plantings for corn and other grains while destroying some earlier plantings and leaving an area equivalent to the state of South Carolina unable to be planted. In California, pistachio growers have been devastated by warmer winters which has created a situation where male trees are not producing pollen when the female trees need it. Farmers know they need to adapt to climate change whether it is man-made or not.
Right now, the USDA spends just 0.3% of its over $140 billion budget on helping farmers deal with climate change. As with most of the federal government under Trump’s control, climate change does not exist. Virtually no help is provided in identifying the increased risks that climate change poses for each region of the country nor for aiding farmers in identifying other crops that might be better suited to the new environment. There are a few below the radar projects within the agency that are at least compiling this kind of information but farmers awareness of these programs is virtually nil, simply because the agency is not allowed to promote them or the information is simply suppressed. The USDA twitter account, with over 640,000 followers, has not mentioned the word “climate” in two years. Instead, the agency still relies on conservation and soil health programs and provides crop insurance for those years, like this one, when the changing climate wipes out plantings.
None of this makes sense to at least some farmers who see the climate changing with their very eyes. As Politico notes, “The logic for such silence makes little sense to farmers like Oswald: Most believe that the climate is changing, though only a small share believe it’s primarily driven by human activities. But the department doesn’t have to dive into the debate about what’s causing climate change to help farmers prepare and adapt”. Instead, farmers are largely left on their own to figure out how to deal with the vicissitudes of climate change.
As I’ve written before, Democrats have an opportunity to make inroads with rural voters, especially farmers. Antitrust reform and breaking up the Big Ag monopolies that squeeze farmers on both the supply and demand side is a message that has some resonance. And rather than focusing the climate change message on the sea-level rise and its effects on the coasts, Democrats should also be promising to invest in helping farmers adapt to the changing climate. There are tangential issues as well for Democrats to carry a message of reform, such as the collapse of rural hospitals. Unfortunately, House Democrats have done virtually nothing to highlight the plight of farmers, the abuses of the agricultural monopolies, and the deleterious effects of Trump’s tariff and agricultural policies on small farmers. They apparently seem content to let the Democratic nominee, whomever that may be, carry that message alone. Of course, this wasted opportunity in Congress will only make it harder for Democrats to gain real credibility in rural communities and suggests that farm state Democrats are in the pocket of Big Ag just as much as their GOP colleagues.
Are evangelicals and rural voters going to leave Trump in droves because of these betrayals? Of course not. But Trump has built his re-election around running a base election. Just losing a tiny percentage of these constituencies could spell trouble for the President who, remember, won three states by less than 100,000 votes. Trump has not revived the coal industry. US manufacturing has not recovered, as we can see from the apparent settlement in the UAW strike which includes the closing of three large production facilities. Outside of immigrant bashing and the culture war issues, which are admittedly important to his supporters, he has largely failed his base. That is not a good place to be in a base election.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on October 22, 2019.