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President Donald Trump and his allies are appealing to nationalism in the trade war with China, calling on Americans to make “patriotic” sacrifices in language reminiscent of national crises and even wars.
Under the “Make America Great Again” banner, Trump has sought to make patriotism cool again — and as he extends his showdown with Beijing, he is targeting the message to the farmers who bear much of the burden of Chinese tariffs.
“Our great Patriot Farmers,” the president wrote in a series of tweets on Tuesday, “will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now.” Trump’s claim followed China’s announcement that it plans to retaliate against his latest tariffs with increased duties on $60 billion in U.S. goods, in an escalating showdown with no end in sight.
Trump has often made political appeals to patriotism, as when he urged NFL executives to ban player during the national anthem. But the China trade is the first case where he has called for Americans — in this case farmers and other workers, including “ranchers and industrial workers” hit by tariffs — to sacrifice in the name of a long-term greater national good.
It also mirrors, albeit in milder terms, the message that Chinese state media has employed in recent days as the country attempts to brace its own people for a painful trade fight with the U.S.
“Farmers are patriotic and understand that someone had to finally call China to account,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s 2020 campaign, said in a statement, adding that farmers “understand the long game, because long-term planning is what they do.”
The appeal to patriotism underscores the degree to which Trump is casting his showdown with China in terms that go beyond free markets and trade deficits. The president and his advisers speak of China as a threat to American interests and values in a global competition to define the 21st century, claiming that a little sacrifice from everyone will help extinguish the threat.
Few modern presidents have issued bold calls for patriotic sacrifice. Calling a 1977 energy crisis “the moral equivalent of war,” Jimmy Carter urged Americans to drive slowly, carpool, and even turn down their thermostats to conserve oil.
One prominent historian pointed back to the Second World War as a precedent.
“Obviously this was one of the central themes of Franklin Roosevelt during World War II — that we are all in this together. That the war is not only being fought by soldiers abroad, but by patriotic Americans at home who are paying the price through price controls and rationing to make the war effort successful,” said Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also invoked a comparison to war during an appearance on CBS over the weekend. “There will be some sacrifices on the part of Americans, I grant you that,” Cotton said, adding that sacrifices American farmers have been forced to make as a result of the president’s protectionist trade agenda have been “pretty minimal” compared to those made by U.S. troops overseas.
For farmers across America’s rural communities — particularly those struggling to keep their businesses afloat — Trump’s latest appeal risks sounding ill-timed and redundant. Six months ago, shortly before the U.S. and China agreed to a temporary ceasefire that avoided new tariffs for 90 days, American farmers were assured that relief was imminent.
“There was a sense that this was going to be a short-term fight and the mantra we constantly heard was, ‘short-term pain for long-term gain,’” said Brian Kuehl. Co-executive director of Farmers for Free Trade.
But in the months since, the pain that farmers were supposed to endure temporarily has stretched on and on. And in many cases, the condition of certain agricultural regions has become increasingly difficult to reverse.
Midwest farm bankruptcies are rising, agricultural producers are seeing the sharpest decline in their personal income since 2016, debt across the industry has grown to $427 billion and mental health concerns are mounting as farmers grapple with a depressed agricultural economy and a seemingless endless trade war with China.
“I think you can see very clearly that farmers are more frustrated now than they were six months ago. We heard there’s a deal that’s imminent, then it’s not. We heard this was all going to be wrapped up quickly, then it wasn’t. A lot of farmers just want to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Kuehl said.
For now, though, any light at the end of the tunnel seems far off.
Conflicting statements about the scope of a trade agreement and the effectiveness of tariffs have cast doubt on whether the administration has a clear strategy, and those following the talks closely have said recently that the two sides remain in a standoff over several major components. Trump on Monday said it could take “three or four weeks” for the contours of a final deal to emerge, while also suggesting that he’s not in any rush.
“I love the position we’re in,” the president told reporters.
One reason for this, according to a Trump campaign official, is that Trump sees his trade war with China as an opportunity to showcase the character of the American people, and the sacrifices that some are willing to make to bring about long-term prosperity for all — especially in an election cycle where he’s chosen to make patriotism a central pillar of his campaign.
What the president has managed to do is “politics 101,” Graham Allison, a Harvard University professor and foreign policy strategist who has warned that war with China may be inevitable, wrote in an email.
“Blaming China for whatever — much of which it deserves blame for — sounds a responsive chord that no Democrat dares to challenge,” Allison wrote, adding that the direct payments to farmers through the Department of Agriculture’s Market Facilitation Program, “plus applauding patriotism and showing strength, leaves Democrats with no alternative but to support” Trump’s position.
There are still skeptics, of course. Many agricultural producers who are likely to back Trump’s reelection have trouble believing that the economic strain they’re facing is “worth it,” according to Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs.
“How is it worth it? Are we so desperate that we will sacrifice our basic livelihoods to move forward?” Hladik, whose parents still operate a family farm, told POLITICO.
Trump critics also say it’s immensely hypocritical for him to be calling on American farmers to make sacrifices when he allegedly fabricated an injury to avoid serving in Vietnam. “There’s a gap here between the message and the messenger,” said Lichtman.
Trump “is right that farmers are patriots,” said Dale Moore, executive vice president at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“But it’s hard for farmers to take patriotism to their banker to ask for a loan,” he added.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine