Less than two weeks after President Trump was inaugurated, he hosted Harley-Davidson’s executives at the White House and thanked the company for building their motorcycles in the US. "Harley-Davidson is a true American icon, one of the greats," Trump said, as he praised the 115-year-old company for being an exemplary US manufacturer.
But in his second year in office, Trump has directly and repeatedly criticized Harley-Davidson for announcing plans to build some motorcycles overseas, and even tweeted that a boycott of the company would be “great.” From Trump’s perspective, the company’s decision meant they had given up. He tweeted he was "surprised that Harley-Davidson, of all companies, would be the first to wave the white flag," and that if the firm moves out of the country, "it will be the beginning of the end -- they surrendered, they quit!"
The dramatic change in tone ultimately stems from Trump's own economic policies. In June, he imposed 25 percent tariffs on steel from the European Union, which retaliated by announcing that it would raise levies on American motorcycles to 31 percent. That would have increased the price of every new Harley-Davidson sold in Europe by roughly US$2,000. So instead of losing potential customers from its largest overseas market, Harley-Davidson decided to move the production of motorcycles to be sold in Europe outside the US.
To gauge the reaction of the company’s loyal fanbase, I headed to the Harley-Davidson headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of riders paraded through the city to celebrate the company's 115th anniversary.
I have ridden many motorcycles before, but never anything as big, heavy, or loud as a Harley-Davidson, so I took advantage of this opportunity and rode one. Both the appearance of a Harley-Davidson and the sound of its engine can be a little intimidating to a new rider, but the wide appeal was apparent to me the instant I accelerated. The ride itself was smooth, stable, and comfortable, but most of all, it was a whole lot of fun.
After the ride, I asked many devoted Harley-Davidson fans for their thoughts on what the president said about their favorite company, and heard a wide range of opinions.
One self-described long-time Republican was furious. "I am a lifelong conservative," he said. "But I can't get over the tariff imposed by President Trump. The 'America First' policy has failed to protect 'Made in America' products. The tariff that led Harley-Davidson to move production overseas is a prime example."
Another man who works at a Harley-Davidson factory in the city expressed mixed feelings. "I don't blame the company's management, although I have no idea what will happen to my job," he said. "I believe the decision to move production was a difficult one that had to be taken for the sake of the firm. It would be far more painful if the company went bankrupt."
But the majority of riders I spoke to were republicans who actually sided with the president. While many were critical of the Trump administration for failing to safeguard American manufacturing to some degree, many more approved of Trump’s performance overall and weren’t deterred by his criticism of Harley-Davidson.
The man kind enough to let me ride one of his five Harleys, Jason Timm, is one such person. To Timm, the company is the soul of America, and he is one of many riders who believe that it should keep production exclusively in the US.
Timm believes Harley Davidson used the tariffs as an excuse to go through with a pre-existing strategy to open foreign factories. "Harley-Davidson had disclosed plans to move some production," he said. "The company has been losing its uniqueness as it tries to broaden the appeal of its bikes by scrapping some of their traditional features."
Timm also said he thinks the economy has been improving thanks to President Trump's tax cuts. "I want Trump to stick with his policies, which he believes will enrich Americans even more. I want Harley-Davidson to remember its 'Made in America' spirit to regain its former glory.
One thing the riders I met in Milwaukee all had in common was that they all want Harley-Davidson to remain an iconic American brand and to continue building motorcycles in the US. Although I thought that would mean riders would be less supportive of the president and his trade policies overall, I found that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Trade policy has consistently been a theme at Trump’s rallies leading up to the midterm elections, and we will see the results of that strategy soon. But if his spat with Harley-Davidson is any indication, then the president and republicans are in good shape. Plenty of his supporters have enjoyed the ride so far, and they don’t seem to mind a few bumps in the road.