The 2020 election is upon us, President Trump said at his rally in New Hampshire last week, "and it's about one thing. You know what the one thing is? You. It's about you. It's about your family; it's about your future."
Whomever the Democratic Party selects as his opponent, Trump continued, will set the country on track to abject socialist ruin. "You see what happened to Venezuela with socialism?" he said. "No matter what label they use, a vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream." And a vote for Trump, he added, is a vote for "work," "independence," and "prosperity."
Railing against socialism — which in Trump's mouth is less a specific economic system than an all-purpose epithet — is probably sound campaign strategy for the president. It's also wildly duplicitous, as his administration's own attempts to ameliorate the damage of his trade war are themselves the sort of redistribution critics of socialism decry. They are politically convenient redistribution, too, subsidizing Trump-friendly territories at other Americans' expense.
I don't blame the subsidy recipients for this arrangement. Many American farmers both individually and via professional organizations have opposed the president's trade war and the bailout Trump has offered to band-aid the damage. Nor do I think the subsidized populations are really coming out ahead here. If anything, the opposite is true: Federal funds may enable them to stay afloat in the short term, but the long-term disruption of trade patterns Trump has inflicted will be felt for years to come. "Imagine someone destroys your car and then says, 'I'll give you a ride to the next place you need to go,'" one Minnesota farmer said last year, when the trade war was in its early days. "Well gee, thanks."
Still, data collected by the Environmental Working Group using a Freedom of Information Act inquiry finds the agricultural subsidies Trump is using to compensate farmers for their trade war losses overwhelmingly funnels money to counties that went for the president in 2016. In fact, some $7.6 billion of the $8.4 billion distributed in 2018 and 2019 went to Trump counties, and just $700 million to counties that backed his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton. And it's not just that more Trump counties than Clinton counties got money; they also on average got more money, and 41 of the 50 counties with the largest subsidies were red.
This is not some grand conspiracy. There are more rural than urban counties in America, and rural counties are both more likely to have supported Trump and more likely to have farmers, so it is not surprising to find coincidence between these subsidies and Trump support. But that doesn't negate the fact that this is a clear case of Washington redistributing wealth from one group to another, and that the beneficiaries are symbolically important to the ruling party's core constituency.
Trump's trade war is doing the opposite of what his stump speech promises. It's making America more socialist, not less. By upending farmers' trade relations, he is keeping them from the work they'd like to do. The subsidies are "substantial, but we cannot overstate the dire consequences that farmers and ranchers are facing in relation to lost export markets," Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation said when the redistribution program was announced. Instead of payouts, Duvall insisted, farmers would prefer an "end to the trade war" and "restor[ed] markets."
The "independence" Trump touted in New Hampshire is under fire from his trade policies, too. Granted, the agricultural sector has long been in bed with Washington, but this fresh manipulation is a step toward greater dependence, not away from it. And it is a move away from Trump's claimed encouragement of "prosperity," too, making most Americans poorer while helping a few, at best, temporarily stanch their losses.
The president has demonstrated his utter ignorance of all things trade from the get-go. He demonstrably cannot grasp how trade can be mutually beneficial and seems equally at a loss as to how tariffs actually work. He is constantly self-contradictory, going back and forth on whether trade wars are "easy to win" and vacillating in the span of two sentences on Thursday as to whether his standoff with China should be long or short.
In pairing slams on socialism with this policy of redistribution, he either adds another count of appalling ignorance to that list or engages in a rank and politically convenient hypocrisy. I'm not sure which is worse.