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Covering the dairy-farm crisis in Wisconsin and Minnesota over the past few months has given me a chance to do something I don’t do often enough—to get outside the liberal university town where I live, and visit people who inhabit a very different political and cultural environment.

Among the dozen or so dairy farmers I have interviewed over the last few months, most voted for Donald Trump. Most also rely on undocumented Mexican workers to do a lot of the work on their farms.

Trump’s attacks on Mexicans, his insistence on building a wall on the Southern border, as well as trade wars and tariffs that hit Midwestern farmers particularly hard, have given rural people plenty of reasons to be disillusioned with the current administration.

So, have rural voters changed their minds about Trump? I’ve been asked that question a lot lately.

The short answer is no.

If you are waiting for Trump supporters in hard-hit rural America to see the error of their ways, don’t hold your breath.

The same Trump news cycle that drives outrage among liberals and progressives doesn’t faze the farmers I’ve met. It’s not that they embrace Trump’s racist rhetoric. They have a strong sense of kinship and respect for their Mexican workers. Their Midwestern values do not include the aggressive displays of rudeness practiced by Trump. They simply see the drama and theater of politics as far away and they take it with a big grain of salt.

If you are waiting for Trump supporters in hard-hit rural America to see the error of their ways, don’t hold your breath.

While liberals decry the destruction of democratic institutions and American values, farmers see that neither political party has done much to stop massive consolidation in agriculture, a race to the bottom in prices that is killing dairy farms, or a general sense of being looked down on and forgotten.

If Trump is obnoxious, some rural voters figure, well, at least he is throwing a rock at the system on behalf of the “forgotten men and women of this country” he promised to represent.

Dana Allen-Tully, who runs the Gar-Lin Dairy in Caledonia, Minnesota, describes the Mexican workers who crossed the border to milk her cows as “incredibly brave.” They have a “a great work ethic,” she says. When she hears Trump calling immigrants criminals, she says, she wants to tell him, “just stop talking.”

But, Allen-Tully adds, “I’m disgusted with both parties, and the only one I see who wants to fix something is him.”

Maybe the standoff over the Wall is a blessing in disguise, Allen-Tully suggests, since it focuses attention on the immigration issue. She believes Trump might be willing to make a deal on border security that would include a legal visa program for her Mexican workers.

“I expect he’s putting out options. And if the other side came to the table, they could make a deal,” she says. “Our country needs to deal with the issue.”


The rural voters I’ve met who are skeptical about government generally and politicians of all political stripes, seem inclined to wave away Trump’s outrageous statements as hyperbole and drama. Some still hold out hope he will shake things up in a way that will do some good.

“It’s OK if he wants to upset the apple cart,” says Mike Ingvalson, the owner of Ingvalson Hilltop Dairy in Minnesota, near the Wisconsin border. “It’s not moving fast enough. The parties are the ones that need to be spanked. They haven’t made things any better than twenty years ago. Maybe he did this to speed things up. He’s looking for a compromise: Come to us and let’s start a viable process.”

Trump seemed to reinforce the idea that he would do something to make it easier for farmers to bring in foreign workers last May he issued a joint statement with the USDA promising to streamline the farmworker visa process.

The details of the program are still fuzzy. It remains to be seen, for example, whether it would involve a national E-verify system, which farmers, who know their workers are currently using false documents, are reluctant to use.

So far, Trump’s policies haven’t worked out that well for rural people. But neither Democrats nor Republicans have done much to address their problems. NAFTA, which Bill Clinton signed and Trump hung around Hillary Clinton’s neck, accelerated the problems of consolidation and low prices that are at the heart of the current farm crisis, and the 1996 Farm Bill moved away from supply management and toward the “get big or get out” model that has pushed small, family farms to the brink of extinction.

Wisconsin lost a record-breaking 638 dairy farms in 2018, the same year prices hit a record low, and the trade war with Mexico led to retaliatory tariffs on cheese that left Wisconsin farmers reeling.

“Even though [Trump’s tariffs] really hurt us, we’re optimistic it’s going to change,” Minnesota dairy farmer Mark Johnson told me.

Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA agreement forces Canada to drop its own supply-management rules, so that American dairy farmers can send their milk oversupply to that country. This could help dairy farmers here sell more milk, but Canadian farmers worry they are being sucked into the overproduction problem at the heart of the U.S. farm crisis.

“We could open our borders and not milk any cows in Canada, and the U.S. would still have too much milk,” Canadian dairy farmer Daniel Sargent told reporters. “There are more cows in the state of Wisconsin than in . . . all of Canada. It’s just kind of, you feel like everything just gets kind of tighter, you know. You feel the walls kind of closing in a bit.”

“The Democrats sold rural people a sack of BS when they said international trade would benefit everyone,” says Joel Rogers, founder of the progressive policy group Center on Wisconsin Strategy. “They have to offer rural people something to recover from that.”

“The Democrats sold rural people a sack of BS when they said international trade would benefit everyone . . .”

Liberals and progressives who live in cities, vote Democratic, and enjoy watching late-night comedians mocking Trump, don’t understand why people voted for Trump in the first place, and how they can possibly continue to support him.

But for people who are living through the farm crisis and the attendant spike in bankruptcies and suicides, Trump’s antics don’t seem like an existential crisis for the country. Losing your income, your family’s land, and your way of life is an existential crisis. Trump is just a loudmouth. A lot of farmers I’ve spoken with acknowledge that Trump is a rough character, but for now, they don’t see a better option.

“If I’d had a better choice, I wouldn’t have voted for either of the candidates,” says Johnson. “I took the better evil [by voting for Trump.] He’s awful radical, but at least he’s trying to make things happen. He’s not sitting on his thumbs. He’s getting people talking.”

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