The Small-Town Cost of Donald Trump’s Trade Wars
December 20, 2018
In the wake of Donald Trump’s steel tariffs, Mid-Continent Nail, the U.S.’s largest nail manufacturer, in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, lost half of its orders and had to let go of almost half its workforce.Photographs by Aaron Hardin for The New Yorker
n May, when President Trump
announced new tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Canada and Mexico, Chris Pratt, the plant manager at Mid-Continent Nail, the largest nail manufacturer in the U.S., was caught in a bind. Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Mid-Continent’s home, is a sprawling town of seventeen thousand on the eastern edge of the Ozarks, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of St. Louis. It’s a quiet place and notably conservative. Flags are everywhere, including on the boxes Mid-Continent uses to ship its nails. When a local lawyer recently started a public radio station, in the basement of a dentist’s office, he chose not to air any NPR programming, in part to avoid offending the station’s board members. In 2016, nearly eighty per cent of the county went for Trump. “Did I like the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’?” Pratt said to me. “I sure did.”
And yet the President’s shoot-first, ask-questions-later economic policies have already cost the town hundreds of jobs. Since the tariffs were implemented, in June, the price of imported steel has risen by twenty-five per cent. Mid-Continent, which had to raise its prices on nails nearly as much, soon lost half of its orders and had to let go of almost half its workforce. If they don’t get any relief, Pratt has said, the factory will likely close. “It’s been devastating,” he told me. “Never did I think when Trump campaigned on ‘Make America Great Again’ we’d have to lay off all these people.”
Mid-Continent’s unexpected role in Trump’s trade wars highlights the tangled knots of the global economy. Before 2012, the firm was owned by two local brothers, who sold it to Deacero, a Mexican steel manufacturer (also owned by brothers), which now supplies Mid-Continent with the wire needed to make nails. When Pratt learned of the sale, he worried that the Mexican firm would close the Poplar Bluff factory and move the jobs there south of the border. But the new owners made a commitment to continue making nails in the U.S. In the next six years, the number of employees at Mid-Continent more than doubled, from two hundred and forty-seven to five hundred and seven. Last December, at the factory’s Christmas party, Pratt was feeling so optimistic about the future that he announced hopes to grow to a thousand employees. Matthew Slaughter, the dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, told me, “It belies the simple narrative that there are American companies and there are foreign companies, that someone wins and someone loses.”
Pratt’s effort to save his company—and the jobs of his employees, many of whom are friends—has prompted appearances on NPR, Fox News, and other media outlets. In July, he told a reporter for the Washington Post, “We’re in a situation where we’re fighting against our own country.” He has also met with members of Congress, U.S. senators, and even the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross. Pratt—who’s fifty-two, wears his hair in a bowl cut, and usually comes to work in jeans and a company polo shirt—describes himself as “a small-town country boy.” He is easygoing and speaks in a southern twang, without guile, which I suspect leads some to underestimate him. The company’s publicist, James Glassman, who is based in Washington, D.C., confided that, when he learned that Pratt would be the point person in talking with Ross, “I was concerned.”
Ross has stood firmly behind Trump’s belief that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” In March, Ross appeared on CNBC holding a can of Campbell’s soup, a prop he used to suggest that the tariffs would not have a deleterious effect on American manufacturing. “What I’d like to do,” Ross said into the camera, “is to emphasize again the limited impact. This is a can of Campbell’s soup. In the can of Campbell’s soup, there’s about 2.6 cents’—2.6 pennies’—worth of steel. So, if that goes up by twenty-five per cent, that’s about six-tenths of one cent on the price of a can of Campbell’s soup. . . . Well, I just bought this can today, at a 7-Eleven down here, and the price was $1.99. So who in the world is going be bothered by six-tenths of a cent?” Two months later, Campbell’s declared that the tariffs would directly affect their bottom line, and announced that they expected a profit decline of between five and six per cent in the upcoming year.
Of course, for a nail manufacturer like Mid-Continent, steel is everything. As a last-ditch effort, in June, Mid-Continent submitted a request to the Department of Commerce to be excluded from Trump’s tariffs. It’s not the only company to do so. Christine McDaniel, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, at George Mason University, said the Commerce Department estimated that it would receive roughly forty-five hundred exclusion requests from companies that import steel; instead, it has been deluged with more than thirty-five thousand applications, from nearly eight hundred firms. (Companies file individual requests for different types of steel.)
The outlook for these companies is not good. Among other things, in the past, if a steel company opposed another company’s request for an exemption, usually because the opposing company claimed that it could make the needed steel, the exemption was automatically denied. Pratt, who told me that he was nervous going into his meeting with Ross, urged the Commerce Secretary to reconsider this part of the application process. Ross disclosed plans to allow companies like Mid-Continent to submit rebuttals to any opposition to their exemption application. It’s as if one part of the Administration is trying piecemeal to repair the damage done by another. “The glimmer of hope is that we did everything the Commerce Department asked us to,” Pratt said.
There may also be hope in the new trade agreement
that Trump negotiated with Canada and Mexico. But, in light of Trump’s recent proclamation that he’s “Tariff man,” and his apparent willingness to renege on his deal with China, no one seems certain about what lies ahead. “We’re still waiting on our exclusions,” Pratt told me the other day. “Soon is not soon enough.”
On a Thursday morning last month, Pratt walked me through the factory’s main building—there are three in total—demonstrating the prosaic manufacturing process of Mid-Continent’s most profitable product: Paper Tape Strip Nails, a row of thirty-three nails held together by paper, made to be used in nail guns. Pay here is modest, from $11.50 an hour for new hires to twenty-five dollars an hour for those with engineering skills, but Pratt clearly pays attention to what’s going on in the lives of his employees. When he was eight years old, in Puxico, Missouri, a rural town of fewer than a thousand people, his mother suffered a ruptured aneurysm and spent months in a St. Louis hospital. His father, who repaired furnaces for a living, remained at her side; his father’s boss invited Pratt and his two sisters to stay with his family, and paid Pratt’s dad even while he wasn’t working. Pratt, the first in his family to attend college, studied accounting at Southeastern Missouri State University and received a job offer from a Big Eight accounting firm after graduation. But, rather than moving to St. Louis, he married his high-school sweetheart, settled in Puxico, just a mile from his childhood home, and began work at Mid-Continent. He started as an accountant and eventually worked his way to plant manager. He never forgot the act of generosity that his father received from his employer.
In the machine shop, Pratt introduced me to Jimmie Coffer, a bear of a man—six feet four and three hundred and ten pounds—with “Harley-Davidson” tattooed in big, loping letters along his left arm. (He told me that the letters on his shirt, “FJ,” stand for Fat Jimmy.) Last year, Coffer’s brother was wounded by gunfire in the Las Vegas massacre. Pratt purchased Coffer a plane ticket, gave him a fistful of cash, and told him to take off as much time as he needed. When Coffer tried to pay the money back, he told me, Pratt refused to accept it.
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Like others here, Coffer’s support for President Trump is unwavering—even though the President may cost him his livelihood. “People think I’m a dumb hick white boy who voted for Trump, and that I’ll get what I deserve,” Coffer told me. “But I’m not some redneck hick.” He believes that Trump is using the tariff as a bargaining chip for the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. “There are going to be some jobs lost,” Coffer said, “but, still, factories are opening.”
Chris Pratt, Mid-Continent’s plant manager, said that, should Mid-Continent shut its doors, it would be tough for its workers to find new jobs in town. “That weighs on me every day,” he said.
Pratt has walked a thin line with his employees, acknowledging that the company might close but also urging them to stay. As I sat with Pratt in his windowless office—he gave all the offices with windows to others—an employee, Philip Bennett, poked his head in. Pratt asked him to join us. Both Bennett and his wife work at Mid-Continent. Not long ago, they came by Pratt’s office for advice. Bennett wanted to stay at his job; his wife thought that the company was likely to fail. “I can’t guarantee you that we’re all going to have jobs here,” Pratt told them. “But I’m going to fight every day. Please, don’t jump off the boat.”
They both decided to stay, but they’re struggling more than most. They have a six-year-old daughter who has a congenital heart condition, and she’s had to be airlifted to a hospital in St. Louis four times. Pratt and workers in the plant raised money for Bennett and his wife, to tide them over while they sat at their daughter’s side. “It’s like a family here,” Bennett told me. “Chris has done things no one else would’ve done.” But Bennett has lost patience with Trump. “He doesn’t care to help us,” he told me. “At first, maybe he didn’t realize the tariffs would affect me and companies like this. But by now he knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t know why I should continue to vote for him.”
Bennett is the only person I met who has lost conviction in the man he helped elect. Another worker, Cassandra Puckett, told me, “We don’t think Trump intended to hurt us. . . . I will vote for him again. I’m not going to hold this against him.” Indeed, in this year’s midterm elections, Josh Hawley, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and a close ally of Trump, won seventy-six per cent of the vote in Butler County, home to Poplar Bluff. Hawley visited the Mid-Continent plant during the campaign, and, afterward, Pratt, hoping to put some pressure on the candidate, told a reporter, “Right now, we’re counting on Josh Hawley, who says he has a good relationship with President Trump, to save the five hundred jobs in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.”
Pratt is also concerned about the wider impact that layoffs could have on the town. This past summer, Briggs & Stratton, a manufacturing company that is the area’s largest employer, cut two hundred employees. Many of Mid-Continent’s workers have been there for more than a decade (Pratt has been with the company for twenty-nine years); should Mid-Continent shut its doors, it would be tough for these workers to find new jobs in town. “That weighs on me every day,” Pratt said. “It would be devastating.”
On my last day in Poplar Bluff, Pratt and I had lunch at Colton’s Steak House & Grill, an upscale chain. The restaurant’s co-owner, Herman Styles, stopped by to say hello and ask how things were going at the plant. Pratt told him that they were doing the best they could. I asked Styles, who had attended a Trump rally a few weeks earlier, in Springfield, whether, from his perspective, the layoffs and potential closings had an impact on how people in the town view the President. He smiled. “I think the support for Trump is even stronger,” he said.
At the end of our meal, Pratt started to rise from the booth but froze midway, his face contorted in pain. Since last spring, he’s had terrible hip problems, and his doctor has told him he needs a replacement. He sits back down for a few minutes, and then tries rising again, grimacing, waiting for his hip to lock into place. He tells me that he’s putting off hip surgery until things are settled at Mid-Continent. “It feels like we’re a victim of a mistake,” he said. “I’m at a point where I’m disappointed that the mistake hasn’t been rectified, an unintended consequence [of the trade wars]. I’m not at a point where I’m going to lose faith—faith in the company, faith in Trump. I won’t lose that faith until I have to flip that switch.”
, who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the author of four books, including, most recently, “An American Summer
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