It is time for a smoke break at the Harley-Davidson power-train facility in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, and the talk is all about tariffs.
The men and women who build these famous American motorcycles are weighing the latest unintended consequence of Donald Trump’s presidency: the possibility they could lose their jobs because of a tit-for-tat trade war that has caught the Harley in its crossfire.
The century-old Wisconsin company that Mr Trump has called “an American icon” — and which he has praised as a symbol of stubborn survival against the decline of the American Rust Belt — said on Monday that it would have to move some US production overseas to avoid EU tariffs. The motorcycle maker was the first US manufacturer to scale down domestic production in response to the levies, which were imposed as retaliation for US steel and aluminium duties.
The workers gathered outside the factory gate could end up as collateral damage, but most are sticking by their man regardless. Wearing earphones draped around their necks and safety blinders on their glasses, most happily volunteer that they voted for Mr Trump and would do so again — tariffs or no tariffs.
“He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman,” said one Harley employee whose name is embroidered on his work shirt — though he asks not to be quoted by name.
“I think he’s playing poker: I’ll hit you with this, you’ll hit us with that, I think this will bring them to the table — unless he’s completely crazy,” chimed in another, who also declined to be quoted on the grounds that he could get into trouble with the company for speaking out.
Asked whether they blame the president or the EU for causing Harley’s offshoring decision, most say emphatically that they blame only the Europeans. “The president was just trying to save the US aluminium and steel industry”, said one approvingly.
Harley-Davidson said on Monday that it maintained a “strong commitment to US-based manufacturing”, but that its facilities in India, Brazil and Thailand would increase production to avoid paying the EU tariffs that would have cost it as much as $100m.
One worker, who gave his name only as Tod, when asked whether the latest news could make him vote against Mr Trump if he runs for a second term in 2020, said: “No, I don’t think so. It’s going to take a little bit more than that. He’s doing good things. We’ll just have to see who runs on the other side, that might change my vote”.
Mark, another Harley worker sitting astride his motorbike during the afternoon shift change at this plant that employs about 1,000 workers, said: “I think Harley is just using it as an excuse” to move more production overseas, after a recent decision to close the company’s Kansas City plant. “They will just blame it on Trump.”
Mr Trump later appeared to echo that argument, castigating the company for using the tariffs as a pretext. “Surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the White Flag,” he tweeted, highlighting the irony that such a symbol of made-in-the-USA greatness would be one of the first casualties in his trade battle.
Several workers said they thought they could find other employment if they lost their Harley jobs — partly because the US economy is booming.
Still, these are the last people that Mr Trump would want to hurt with his trade manoeuvring. He won the presidency in 2016 largely by winning swing states such as Wisconsin — which had not voted Republican in a presidential election in over 30 years. And that was largely because blue-collar voters like these chose him and his promise to revive American manufacturing.
He and his party cannot afford to lose their support just ahead of midterm congressional elections that are likely to see the Democratic party working hard to get more voters to the polls.
Scott Dunn, president of ACV, a hydraulic repair company located just outside the Harley-Davidson plant, probably speaks for many Trump supporters in this area when he said: “I think he’s right to confront the issue” of unfair trade.
Mr Trump’s backing, especially in the Midwest, has so far proved remarkably resilient. Even those who might be directly hurt by his policies are not rushing to abandon him. “He’s making changes, trying to get the country back where it needs to be,” said one Harley worker, grinding a cigarette butt into the pavement before returning to work.
The details of how he does so may matter less than the mere idea that Mr Trump is trying to “make America great again”.
More from the Financial Times: