VIDEO: As Elections Loom, Workers In Trump Country Reckon With Tariffs Fallout President Trump's steel tariffs may force America's largest nail manufacturer out of business. Despite an uncertain future, many factory workers there say they still support the president.
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VIDEO: As Elections Loom, Workers In Trump Country Reckon With Tariffs Fallout

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VIDEO: As Elections Loom, Workers In Trump Country Reckon With Tariffs Fallout

VIDEO: As Elections Loom, Workers In Trump Country Reckon With Tariffs Fallout

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/660721888/662009681" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are one week away from the midterm elections. There are going to be a lot of congressional races with different candidates, though President Trump has been telling voters this is really about him.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A vote for Marsha is really a vote for me and everything that we stand for.

A vote for Morrisey is a vote for me.

And a vote for Cindy is a vote for me.

A vote for Steve is a vote for me.

Remember this - a vote for David is a vote for me and our agenda to make America great again.

GREENE: Of course, it's really not only about him because at the end of the day, politics is personal. And that's what we're calling our series this week. Some of the big decisions and national movements of the past two years have had real effects on lives, and today we're visiting a place that was impacted in a big way by President Trump's policies on tariffs.

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TRUMP: We will have a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel.

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PETER NAVARRO: We're going to be rolling in steel.

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TRUMP: Steel is steel. You don't have steel, you don't have a country.

We want our workers to be protected.

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DAVID BURRITT: We want a level playing field. And when we get this right, it will be great for the United States of America.

GREENE: Welcome to Poplar Bluff, Mo. This is a town of 17,000 or so people, many of them happy to show a stranger around. There is an aging downtown. There a few miles of fast-food restaurants and chain stores. And there are several factories, including this one, Mid Continent Nail, the largest nail manufacturer in the United States. Although, these days, the company is feeling pretty small.

Is it hard to see all the machines not working?

CHRIS PRATT: It's devastating to the look down through here and see all these machines not running.

GREENE: I was standing on the factory floor with the operations manager, Chris Pratt. He is used to this place being a whole lot louder. A big area of the factory, maybe about the size of a basketball court, had machines that were just sitting there.

PRATT: This is one of our most efficient areas of the plant, and we basically have no orders for the product.

GREENE: And you've never had to look at something like this?

PRATT: No, no. In my 29 years, I would've never dreamed that this company would be in the state that it's in today.

GREENE: It's a pretty dismal state. The company has laid off more than a quarter of its 500 or so workers, and it's been on the verge of closing down entirely. Mid Cont, as they call it here, was getting much of its raw steel from Mexico, and when Trump imposed steel tariffs on Mexico, that's when the trouble began. Trump's tariffs have helped other companies. Like, ones in the U.S. that produce raw steel have gotten a boost. But Mid Cont took a direct hit.

And so how do people feel about that?

PRATT: You're probably not going to find many people out there that are going to say, no, I didn't vote for President Trump. So to them, when he was saying, let's make America great, let's keep American jobs, they were all thinking, hey, he's going to help us. He's going to help us fight the battle against those imports, and he's going to keep our jobs. And in reality, right now we're fighting a battle against our own country.

GREENE: But not everyone feels that way. We spent time getting to know some of the employees at the factory, like Michelle Spurgeon, Jimmie Coffer and Phillip Bennett. They talked about what their jobs here mean to them. And these are their voices. Michelle came to this company for a fresh start.

MICHELLE STURGEON: My ex-husband and I went through a separation, and it was really hard on me. So I needed to move away to be able to get my life back in order.

GREENE: You like the job?

JIMMIE COFFER: I love it. I get to create every day. Make something new, help design something. Make our machines run a little better. I've been a mechanic, welder, pipe bender. I've been holding wrenches for 20-plus years. I love it. I can build anything, fix anything.

PHILLIP BENNETT: This is my family. You can't work for a better place. You know, I went through a rough patch where I couldn't pay my bills. I actually went five days without electricity before I even said anything or asked 'cause I was ashamed. I was, like, $500 behind in my electric bill. And the company paid and got my electric turned back home for me. Wal-Mart never did that. Construction never did that.

GREENE: After everything that has happened to this factory, all three of them have strong emotions towards the president. Michelle supports him more than ever. She feels like she's making the sacrifice he called on her to make. So why would she turn against him?

STURGEON: No. It's hard right now. I mean, a lot of times when things are hard, they're going to get harder until they start getting better. That's just the fact of life. But I think his ultimate goal is to bring everything here so that way we're not having to ship overseas. I get it. I do understand.

BENNETT: I mean, we've been fighting and fighting and fighting, and it's like he didn't care. Pretty sure I wouldn't vote for him again.

COFFER: I just like his style. I just like the way he does things. He's blunt. He's not going to sugarcoat anything. I'm the same way. You know, I tell people, you don't like looking at me, don't look at me. Period. I'm not going to change.

GREENE: And this is a big part of Trump's appeal. We heard people talk about how when they're rooting for the president they're really rooting for themselves.

ALEX COLLINS: Him being just as human as us, the fact that he failed how many times before he finally succeeded? You know? And I guess one of those tries finally worked out for him and he worked his way up.

GREENE: That is the voice of Alex Collins. He's 24 years old, and he works the overnight shift at the nail factory. He and his fiancee, Paige Spencer (ph), they're living a life you just know so many Americans relate to. They're almost never together.

On a Tuesday night recently, they were cuddled on the couch together watching TV. This is the only hour of the day when they get to hang out. Then it's out the door. Paige drives Alex to work.

PAIGE SPENCER: I love you.

COLLINS: I love you.

SPENCER: Have a good night, baby.

COLLINS: Be safe getting home.

SPENCER: I will.

COLLINS: See you.

GREENE: Then it's on to her personal routine.

SPENCER: Drop him off. Say, bye, love you. And I come home, sit down and watch TV, have a couple beers. Depending on how the house looks, I'll start cleaning or doing laundry. And then I usually am in bed anytime between, like, 10:30 and 1:00 a.m.

GREENE: At 5 a.m. for Paige, it's off to work at the restaurant. She leaves Alex a list of chores, their honey-do list. He walks in the door around 7:00 a.m., and he gets to work on it.

COLLINS: The honey-do list. And then once I get through all that, it's just time to wind down. I mean, watch a little TV, mess around on my phone. Come right around noon, 1 o'clock, it's time for bed. I lay down, set my alarms. God, I wish I slept more.

GREENE: When he wakes up, he gets that magical hour with Paige, and then the cycle starts again. As for politics, Alex and Paige don't always agree. She voted for Bernie Sanders last time. Alex went for Donald Trump. He has always leaned conservative, partly because of his faith. He's been a foster child, homeless, he fought a heroin addiction. And, in a way, religion found him.

COLLINS: I didn't really believe in it too much up until the sixth or seventh foster home I ended up in. One of my foster brothers actually stopped me one night. He asked me some questions, you know, what I thought about God. And he worked with me from there on and eventually got me to the point where, you know, I was going to church every Sunday.

GREENE: But his vote for Trump wasn't about religion or party. Again, it was about this deep personal belief that Trump could make everything right for him, this young man, making $10.25 an hour and trying to build a life with his partner. Two years later, he is starting to feel some doubts.

COLLINS: I kind of question myself a little bit on that decision that I made on voting for him. I mean, I'm not really seeing the results yet. Things started getting a little bit more expensive. I mean, I'm surprised how much milk went up. That was a big one for me. God, I love milk. I like chocolate milk. I drink it all the time. And prices on things started going up. And it's like, why is that happening?

GREENE: In fact, milk prices have largely gone down in Missouri since Trump became president. But if Alex is paying more at his store and he uses that as a measure of this president, it goes to show the kind of expectations he has.

COLLINS: You know, this man was supposed to be able to fix everything, make everything get better. Make prices go down, you know, quantity go up, quality go up. And we're not really seeing the results from that.

GREENE: And the tariff decision that hit your workplace, did that affect what you think of him?

COLLINS: Yeah. It kind of did. Whatever his reasoning for trying it then the timing was bad. I feel like it ended up doing more damage to the economy and to America as a whole than it did for anything. I mean, 200 people lost their jobs. That's a big blow to a small town like this.

GREENE: You sound like you're open-minded, like you're giving him these two more years to kind of see what happens.

COLLINS: I mean, if he can show results and make things happen then he'll have my support again. But until then I mean, it's yet to be seen.

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GREENE: A small Missouri town where Donald Trump is absolutely getting his wish. This political moment is very much about him, one way or another.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So David, given how important Missouri is in the midterms, what does the president's support there mean for people who are actually on the ballot this fall?

GREENE: I mean, he's looming large everywhere, Steve. I think we're all hearing that as we travel the country. There's voters out there who are paying attention to specific local issues, but they bring up the president so quickly. And I think candidates know that. There's this tight Senate race in Missouri.

You've got Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill really vulnerable, fighting for her job. And I want you to just listen to this ad because it highlights her support from the National Border Patrol Council, which is a labor union.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: We endorse President Trump and Claire McCaskill because of their records on border security. Take it from us. No senator is tougher on securing the border than Claire McCaskill.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I'm Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.

GREENE: A Democrat, Steve, trying to appeal to voters by saying, look, my record on border security is strong just like President Trump's is. I mean, that's one of the political realities here with the president so much in focus.

INSKEEP: So where does your series take us next, David?

GREENE: Well, we're going to Texas tomorrow. You know, the president's role in the larger culture war in our country, we're going to hear about that and how that war has drawn in residents of this small community in Texas in incredibly personal ways.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The issue with the kneeling is that it's disrespectful to those men and women who serve. First of all, disrespectful to your country. 'Cause you live in the greatest country on the face of the earth.

GREENE: That's a voice of a Texas pastor there who also happens to be a football coach, and we're going to hear from him tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Looking forward to that. Thanks.

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