Melinda Henneberger

Does this Missouri town blame Trump for job-killing tariff? Hint: You know the answer

Nicole Joplin and her 4-year-old daughter, Aubrey. "A lot of people work there and I know it will be really bad," she says.
Nicole Joplin and her 4-year-old daughter, Aubrey. "A lot of people work there and I know it will be really bad," she says. The Star

If Mid Continent Nail Corporation, which according to a spokesman is “on the brink of extinction” because of President Donald Trump’s tariff on steel, does have to close, it will hit this whole town hard, according to every one of the dozens of people I talked to as they waited for the Fourth of July fireworks to start.

“That’s one of our main factories going down,” said Jimmy Champagne. He delivers the local newspaper, the Daily American Republic, where Mid Continent employees ran an ad begging the president to grant the company a waiver from the killer tariff.

Yet all but one of those I talked to here also agreed that as difficult as the closure would be for Poplar Bluff, population 17,000, down near the Arkansas line, they’d never hold the loss of those jobs against Trump.

As the U.S. raises tariffs and top trading partners retaliate, what could this mean for Missouri?

“It would be a detriment to our community,” said Carol McGee, a nurse still in her Spiderman scrubs because she’d come straight from work. “But when you look at the bigger picture, blaming him solely is not necessarily accurate.”

The company has had to hike prices by 20 percent, has lost half of its orders and shed 60 of its 500 employees since Trump's tariff went into effect last month.

"He’s the only one who hasn’t lied” about what he was going to do in office, insists Eric Turner, a chef. So although through the tariffs “he's going to drive up the cost of everything, people are still going to stand behind him" in heavily Republican Butler County.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeing beyond your own economic interest in service of some greater good. (As my friend Walter Shapiro once pointed out, in a piece headlined, “What’s the Matter with Central Park West?” the Democratic majority in New York City, where he lives, regularly votes against its own narrowly defined interests, too, in voting to pay more in taxes.) But in the case of tariffs and of mutually destructive trade wars, just what is the greater good?

“There’s going to be some short-term pain,” said nurse anesthetist Don Foust, “and I don’t like for anyone to have pain in their lives. But we’ve had unfair trade directed against the U.S. for years ... and we’ve just taken it. So some of these things are going to have to happen before some of these economic issues get hashed out.” That’s definitely Trump’s argument, though economists don’t know why that would be.

Foust’s son Sean said if his friends who work there do lose their jobs, “I don’t think it will turn them” against the president, even if “on the surface, it’s going to look bad.” Why is that?

Mostly, tribalism. “There’s nothing he could do,” the son said, to alienate Republicans. And the same holds true for Democrats, since “everyone’s so set in their ways.”

So why even hold campaigns? “That’s a good question,’’ his father said.

Nearby in the downtown parking lot, in between the train tracks and the farmers market, a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with a red, white and blue peace sign, who only gave his first name, John, said he’s “pretty worried” since two of his friends have already been laid off. But more important to him is that “there were so many illegals in the area taking jobs away.” And Trump “is better than the Muslim we had in the White House.” For him, a real threat to jobs is less frightening than an imagined one.

One of the two Democrats I ran across, an African-American man who sees the president as a proven racist, said, “I do like that he’s playing the boss game” and never backs down. And no, he won’t blame Trump.

The only one who said she would was the other Democrat, Crystal Jones, who quit Mid Continent for another job. “I just can’t see the point” of the tariffs, or of a trade war with China, which has retaliated with tariffs that are hurting soybean farmers, among others. Yet even among her old co-workers, she knows no one who agrees.

“I guess they’ll see in the long run.” If their own jobs on the line hasn’t had that effect, I’m not so sure.