Many Democrats still wonder how folks in the Midwest can believe what they hear from Donald Trump. The answer: Often, they don’t.
In Trump Country, people have learned to take a wait-and-see approach to the president’s extreme and categorical statements, and they keep the salt shaker handy when reading the tweets of @realDonaldTrump. They’ve noticed that the United States has not quit NATO; that NAFTA was not torn up on Day One (or any other day); that Jeff Sessions is still the attorney general; that North Korea has been visited with neither fire nor fury; that the government has not been eviscerated. In fact, spending is going up, up, up.
That Trump also causes blood pressures to spike on “Morning Joe” and CNN only adds to the amusement in the flyover states as Trump exaggerates, fulminates and blusters. My Midwestern neighbors have figured out that these are the tools of a huckster salesman. And a lot of them like what the huckster is selling.
I believe this explains the low-key response so far to the threat of a trade war with China among the farmers who stand to lose the most. Tit-for-tat tariffs would be a disaster for American agriculture, which finds hungry markets in China. Yet on the prairie, the presidential salvos elicit little more than arched eyebrows. “Potentially calamitous,” said Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst of China’s threat to retaliate by jacking up levies on soybeans, hogs and cattle. But the key word was “potentially.” Hurst hastened to add: “It is important to remember that the actions announced by both China and the U.S. don’t take effect immediately.” There’s still time for “a negotiated peace,” he said, “one that can bring great benefits to our citizens, but one that is fraught with danger.”
This distinction between the president’s words and his deeds might seem to cut against the Midwestern mythos of straight-talking folks who say what they mean and mean what they say. But there is another kind of mythical Midwesterner, the sort that Meredith Willson celebrated in “The Music Man,” whose flinty exteriors cloak a soft spot for fast-talking flim-flammers. Trump entertains them and, besides, they never really expected a marching band.
Trump’s overstated opening gambits create a lot of room for him to maneuver in search of his self-proclaimed victories. Perhaps you remember his big, beautiful wall, for instance, the transparent marvel covered with solar panels and paid for by Mexico. The other day, he proclaimed that construction has begun — “we’ve started building the wall,” he tweeted — and offered as proof pictures from an ongoing fence-building project that began more than a decade ago. It’s called winning, in Trump’s vernacular: Whoever names it, claims it.
There is every reason to believe that China will tweak its trade policies in some way or another before Trump’s threatened tariffs take effect, which will allow the president to claim credit without triggering a mercantile Armageddon. Beijing doesn’t want Trump to fail — not quickly, anyway. The disruptive mayhem at the top of the Western alliance plays nicely into China’s long game. And it won’t take much to satisfy this president. He could net a minnow and declare himself captain of the whaling fleet.
But Trump is hardly the first leader to deploy hype as a political instrument. Woodrow Wilson did not make the world safe for democracy, nor did Herbert Hoover put a chicken in every pot. Or a more recent example: News that the current administration is easing Obama-era fuel efficiency targets for the auto industry recalled just how pie-in-the-sky those targets were. In 2012 — not coincidentally an election year — the Obama White House posted a goal of 54.5 miles per gallon for the average array of cars and light trucks in 2025.
As it happened, when the rollback was made public I had just finished driving a rented Toyota Prius 900 miles in California and Arizona, purchasing 20 gallons of gasoline along the way. I was impressed by the efficiency of this beautifully engineered marvel. Forty-five mpg! Did Barack Obama truly believe that the average new vehicle in 2025 will be 20 percent more fuel efficient than a Prius?
Probably not. More likely, Obama was signaling his ambitions, gesturing to his base and pointing the way to the electric-car future, all at the same time. Or exaggerating, fulminating and blustering, if you prefer. Sometimes overstatement is precisely what leadership requires. Call for 54.5 mpg, maybe you get 40. That’s a win.
Seen through that lens, the difference between Trump and more conventional leaders boils down to style. Forget finesse. He’s as subtle as an airhorn at an opera house; as impulsive as a 4-year-old at the fair. But nearly 15 months into his presidency, a significant portion of America is fine with that, and polls suggest this portion is holding steady in size — maybe even growing.
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