U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was fielding questions at a farm show in Decatur, Ill., in late August when his boss rang his cellphone. Perdue put the call on speaker and placed it next to the microphone so the crowd could hear Donald Trump speak. During the almost seven-minute call the president defended his handling of the trade conflict with China, which has cut off American farmers from one of their most important export markets. Yet he was quick to remind them that he’s tried to salve their pain. “I sometimes see where these horrible dishonest reporters will say that ‘oh jeez, the farmers are upset.’ Well, they can’t be too upset, because I gave them $12 billion and I gave them $16 billion this year,” said Trump, who then added, “I hope you like me even better than you did in ’16.”
A couple of years ago, a pep talk from Trump might have drawn raucous applause from one of the president’s key constituencies. This time the crowd was subdued. “The aid package that has come in is a relief, and it softens the landing, but it’s not a solution, it’s a Band-Aid,” says Stan Born, a farmer who attended the event. When asked if the payments make him whole, Born, who grows 500 acres of soybeans near Decatur, responds, “Of course not.” He’d rather have free trade, he says.