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The moment usually comes during Greg Petras’s commute through the rolling hills and cornfields of southern Wisconsin. Somewhere between his home near Madison and the factory he runs on the edge of the small town of Brodhead, the news will turn to the trade wars and Donald Trump will again claim that China is bearing the cost of his tariffs. That’s when Petras loses it.
“It’s just an outright lie, and he knows it,” says Petras, president of Kuhn North America, which employs some 600 people at its farm-equipment factory in Wisconsin. For Kuhn, Trump’s trade war has produced a toxic mix of rising costs and falling revenues. “You’re slamming your fist on the steering wheel and saying ‘Why would you tell people this?’”
About 250 Kuhn employees spent the Labor Day holiday caught in a two-week furlough, and they’re facing another in early October. A shrinking order book means Kuhn is cutting costs and slashing production as Petras and his managers peer out at a U.S. economy that looks far bleaker from the swing-state heartland than it does in either the White House or on Wall Street.
In 22 states—including electorally important ones like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—the number of people working in factories actually fell in the first seven months of this year, according to figures compiled by the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank.