From Pierre, South Dakota - A trip through the Plains over the past two weeks showcased some of the electoral strengths - and possible weaknesses - for President Donald Trump, as he was cast as a hero by thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts, while the President's trade fight with China continued to draw intense concerns among farmers and agricultural leaders, threatening to cast a shadow in Red states on the President's 2020 re-election bid.
"Agriculture exports to China dropped by 50% last year," the National Farmers Union said on Monday, as concerns continue to grow among farmers that Mr. Trump's tariffs on Chinese imports - and the retaliation by the Chinese government against U.S. agriculture - could spell further economic troubles for farmers nationwide.
But while farmers worried about their sales, those going to a major motorcycle rally in South Dakota last weekend had an array of Trump t-shirts to buy, reflecting the strong support in Red states for the President.
"IN TRUMP WE TRUST," read one shirt on sale in Custer, South Dakota.
Here's some of what I saw during my break from Washington, D.C.
1. Trump wasn't there, but he was a star of Sturgis.
You don't have to be a political scientist to understand that most of those riding their motorcycles to the big rally in Sturgis, South Dakota this past weekend would tend to be Trump supporters. That was obvious in the shirts they were wearing, and what was on sale on the Main Street of towns in South Dakota and Wyoming. Shirts depicting the President as Captain America. "WELCOME TO AMERICA," bellowed another t-shirt which sported a drawing of President Trump riding a Harley with high handlebars. "NOW SPEAK ENGLISH OR GET THE F*CK OUT," the shirt said. Another shirt with a similar Trump-in-motorcycle-leather said, "FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS!" And then there was one shirt which poked fun at what LBGTQ stands for.
2. Support for Trump being tested in Farm Country.
The corn is growing tall in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. Soybeans are doing well. The cows look well fed and there is absolutely no shortage of grass to eat. In fact, there has been so much rain that the fields are an uncommon color of deep green in the middle of August for hundreds of miles, and there is little in the way of drought. That should be something good for Farm Country. But the news over the last week for farmers in the Plains was not positive, as the Chinese announced they would not buy any American agricultural products so long as President Trump was levying new tariffs on goods imported from Beijing. The Trump Administration has already unveiled two different bailouts for farmers hurt by trade retaliation - and there could be billions of dollars more needed if this U.S.-China trade fight goes on. It's being noticed by some of the bigger players in agriculture.
BREAKING: American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall: “China’s announcement that it will not buy any agricultural products from the United States is a body blow to thousands of farmers and ranchers who are already struggling to get by."— Mike Dorning (@MikeDorning) August 5, 2019
3. Growth remains uneven in Trump areas. In my five state trek, I only was in two counties which voted for Hillary Clinton - everything else was for President Trump in 2016. Economically, the strongest towns in rural America continue to rely on either tourism, or colleges and hospitals - but most areas don't have that, as many of the towns which fall in between are struggling. The two lane roads of the Plains showcased way too many faded signs - and dreams - which couldn't survive. Despite the President's constant declarations that the economy is the best ever, it's not apparent that things are changing dramatically in rural areas, especially with trade troubles being encountered by American farmers. Where was the biggest growth occurring? That's an easy answer - it was in a Blue area around Minneapolis - where renovations were underway for numerous old buildings in the city, along with all sorts of highway construction in the region. Democrats won two House seats from the GOP in 2018 in greater Minneapolis, and it's yet another state further dividing along rural-urban lines, with the showdown in the suburbs and exurbs of the state's cities.
4. The cry for less government rings hollow at times.
As you go through much of the Plains and the West, you find a lot of aggravation with the federal government. And yet - Washington does so much to keep these areas going, from the national parks which provide a vital economic boost via tourism, the government subsidies for farmers which help all sorts of agricultural operations, to the Army Corps of Engineers, which gives so many communities a life line along the Mississippi, Missouri, and other rivers. As I watched the sun set on the Missouri in the capital of South Dakota this past week, I couldn't help but think about how the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation made it easier for the people out fishing late that evening, and others playing on the river. It was a fresh reminder of how reliant many Red states are on the federal government.
5. Energy industry remains strong - both fossil and green. My hotel in Dickinson, North Dakota could well have just been an office for workers at Halliburton, who filled the breakfast room and hallways with their work talk. Driving along miles and miles of dirt road across into Montana, we not only took in some great scenery, but also saw a large amount of construction work on an oil pipeline. It was a reminder of the ongoing energy boom in the Dakotas and Wyoming. But there was also evidence of continuing growth in a different arena - green energy - as giant trucks were on the interstates to deliver huge blades for wind turbines, and we saw repeated examples of entire fields sprouting solar panels, instead of corn, wheat, hay, or soybeans.
6. The debate over guns remains the same. Over twenty years ago, the guy who lived next to my grandparents in Wyoming had a favorite name for a buffalo-shaped target at his gun range - "The Schumer" he called it - referring to the New York Senator, and his push for gun controls. After the latest mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, there was no evidence that anything was changing out West when it comes to Second Amendment issues. One conversation stopped me in my tracks outside Bismarck, North Dakota, where I listened as three men talked about how they thought those mass shootings - along with the attack on an outdoor music concert in Las Vegas in 2017 - were probably orchestrated by the federal government in order to press for gun controls. "I love this country, but I don't trust the government," one man said to the nodding approval of the others, as they embraced what can only be described as a classic conspiracy theory. There will be more debate about guns when the Congress returns to work after Labor Day. Whether anything happens legislatively is another story entirely.
In the wake of the tragic events in #ElPaso and #Dayton, a bipartisan group of 214 mayors from across the country are calling on the Senate to return to Washington and take immediate action on bipartisan gun safety legislation. #MayorsDemandAction https://t.co/lkG4lSFQbF— U.S. Mayors (@usmayors) August 8, 2019
7. The only hope for unity may be the Prairie Dog.
If there was one thing that seemed to appeal to everyone we saw on our trip, it was an appreciation for the prairie dog. It didn't matter if you were a grizzled motorcycle rider, a family from overseas, or a bunch of kids from Back East who have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that the Washington, D.C. area has more people than North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming combined. Little kids loved the prairie dogs. Pot-bellied bikers with no shirts loved the prairie dogs. Maybe there is hope that we can bridge the political gap in America. Prairie Dog 2020.
8. Checking off a few more state capitol buildings. I may work in the U.S. Capitol on a daily basis, but there's nothing I love more than going to see state capitols all around the country. This past week, the Dupree Family trekked to St. Paul, Minnesota, Bismarck, North Dakota, and Pierre, South Dakota. All three capitols had their good points, but if I had to pick one of them, then the South Dakota Capitol would rate the highest on my list. Every single one tells a different story. Every capitol is a reminder that we don't call it the United States of America for nothing.
My last piece of advice - get on the road and see the country. You might pick up a few things, and you might realize that no one gets everything they want in politics.
Or in life.