As the risks of his trade war become apparent in key electoral battlegrounds, his low-yield summits with the leaders of Russia and North Korea are lampooned and the Russia investigation threatens, the President is trying to do what he does best — bend political reality.
“Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” the President said in a speech in Kansas City, Missouri, on Tuesday, amid signs that the antennae that sensed political forces in the 2016 election that no one else detected are quivering with potential trouble ahead.
In an implicit suggestion of vulnerability, Trump pleaded with his voters to “stick with us, folks,” and warned that it would take time for his high-risk strategy of sticking it to some of America’s biggest trade partners to pay off.
“They’re all aiming at anybody that likes me,” Trump said, but he argued he had no choice but to take advantage of the economy’s strength to pick a fight with trade powers that he said had been “ripping us off for decades.”
“The President is starting to get a sense that these tariffs are starting to have an impact and they are getting to be more of a problem than he anticipated,” said Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, a state where the fallout from the trade war is already being felt.
If Trump is to stave off a Democratic blue wave in November, two things will be crucial: a continued economic spurt that gives him the capacity to argue that he’s ushered in a new era of national prosperity, and bumper turnout among GOP voters in key congressional races.
So any perception that everything is not going well, or that Trump’s trade war will have victims as well as victors, could damage GOP candidates, as Democrats hope for a blue wave that could help them with the House and severely curtail the President’s freedom to maneuver.
That’s one reason why Trump renewed his attacks on the media on Tuesday.
“Just stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” he said in Missouri.
Trump pleads for patience
Many Trump voters are predisposed to reject the media’s interpretation of political reality — and sincerely believe that the President speaks directly to their concerns in a way news organizations fail to understand.
But it is also not clear that voters will heed Trump’s plea to avert their eyes from pain they perceive on the prairies. The White House seems to be admitting as much by unveiling the farm aid package.
While Trump can justifiably argue that he is following through on his promises to disrupt a global trade system that many Americans feel has transferred prosperity from industrialized areas in the US to low-wage economies in the developing world, there are also clear losers from his approach.
He is taking a gamble — that his supporters are so angry at foes like China and American friends like the EU over trade that they are willing to take a hit in the hope the President can turn the tables in the long term.
Trump reached the White House because his trade message resonated in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania, where Rust Belt industries were hammered by globalization.
But some of those states are now feeling blowback from foreign efforts to target commodities like corn, pork, soybeans and other agricultural goods in order to avenge the billions of dollars in tariffs the President has imposed.
Trump has often worried publicly that his voters may not show up in November without him on the ballot. If the trade conflict hits economic growth, or Americans start to chafe at more expensive imports, and rural areas are pummeled by an agricultural slump, his nightmare could come closer to reality.
With that in mind, Trump urged his people not to lose faith.
“We’re opening up markets,” he said Tuesday. “You watch what’s going to happen. Just be a little patient.”
But collateral damage in the farming industry is already testing the bond of loyalty between the President and some grass-roots backers.
“To be blunt, it seems pretty political and seems like they want to shore up some midterm support,” Petefish said.
“Twelve billion as a standalone figure sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at the impacts of this trade war, $12 billion doesn’t scratch the surface. … Our problems are much bigger than $12 billion,” Petefish told CNN’s Dan Merica.
A Hawkeye test
Trump is likely to reinforce his support for farmers when he travels to Iowa on Thursday because the state offers a test case for the sentiment of grass-roots voters in the fall.
In a sign that the administration is worried about trade blowback in the Hawkeye State especially, Vice President Mike Pence is just back from a visit and offering a promise: “Under President’s Trump’s leadership we are always going to stand with American farmers.”
Iowa’s political significance to Trump’s political future cannot be doubted.
If Democrats flip the state in 2020 and add its neighbor, Wisconsin, and Florida, they have a path to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Before then, Democrats are targeting several races that they believe could help them recapture the House this year.
“The biggest fan may very well be the evangelicals. They wanted that built,” Trump noted Monday, in another sign that he is watching his electoral coalition like a hawk.
And while there was a cautious welcome for the farm aid package on Tuesday, many Republicans warned that it was just a short-term solution.
“Many US products face market barriers abroad. I don’t fault the President for trying to get a better deal for Americans, but it’s not fair to expect farmers to bear the brunt of retaliation for the entire country in the meantime,” said Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley.
“What farmers in Iowa and throughout rural America need in the long term are markets and opportunity, not government handouts,” Grassley said.
There was also evidence of an ideological divide between Republicans and their President. Bailing out farmers to mitigate the consequences of a tariff-raising strategy runs directly counter to generations of GOP economic orthodoxy.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who is often loath to criticize Trump, said: “I just don’t think the tariff route is the smart way to go.”
There were grumbles about the farm aid package from inside the weekly caucus meeting of Republican senators.
One GOP senator wouldn’t name names, but said on condition of anonymity that members from agricultural states reported general frustration with the President.
“It was people from farm country saying, ‘Things have changed,’ (a) lot fewer MAGA hats around,” the senator said.
CNN’s Lauren Fox contributed to this story.