Harley-Davidson, Trump & Tariffs: Milwaukee Riders Weigh In

Jul 5, 2018

President Donald Trump continues to show his displeasure with Harley-Davidson. Last week, the Milwaukee-based motorcycle company announced it will move more production overseas in response to retaliatory tariffs from the European Union. Several days in a row, Trump posted tweets criticizing the company for its decision.

Trump said the company's customers aren't happy with its move, and said it could be the beginning of the end for Harley. Then this week, Trump tweeted that his administration may work with Harley-Davidson's competitors to bring production into the U.S.

Devoted Harley riders have mixed reactions to the company's plans to move some production, and to Trump's response.

67-year-old Tom Stultz of Waukesha has been riding a motorcycle for most of his life, and usually it’s been a Harley. Today, he's riding his 2007 Road King, and he's taking a refreshment break in the Harley parking lot of the Summerfest grounds.

Stultz is retired from the metal stamping and fabrication industry and now delivers used auto parts part-time. He says he’s heard the news about the European Union’s tariffs in response to tariffs President Trump imposed on aluminum and steel, earlier this year. "I think President Trump has done a great job, in how he has addressed the issue of how things are not fair," he says. "And knee-jerk reactions sometimes are not the best ones. I agree with what’s going on right now, and I think it’s going to level the playing field."

Stultz says he’s sympathetic to Harley and will always love the company's product. He says choosing between Harley-Davidson and President Trump’s policies would put him in a tough position. "Because I’ve always supported Harley, and I always will support them, but if it comes down to making that choice, I would choose with what President Trump has done."

Down the lot, another group of riders pulls in. One of them is Scott Burleson from Waukegan, Illinois. He’s a retired police officer who teaches for Columbia College. Burleson says he originally rode Suzuki and Kawasaki motorcycles, but bought his first Harley in 2003. "Cuz I can afford it now," he laughs. "Back in the day, I pretty much couldn’t.

Burleson says despite President Trump's attacks on Harley, he remains loyal to the brand. "I think they’re a company that has to do what they need to do to survive. I’m really disappointed that we’re throwing up all these tariffs, taking away free trade. There’s going to be a lot of retaliation and a lot of American companies are going to be hurt, as well as our farmers."

When he's asked who's to blame for that, he doesn't hesitate. "Ohhh, Donald Trump, absolutely, dump the Trump, that’s what I’m all about."

When it comes to trade policy, Burleson says that the U.S. needs to be as much of a free trade nation as possible. "We export a lot of stuff, and our farmers are going to get killed because of this. Now we’re fighting with Mexico and Canada? Come on, these are people who have been our friends forever. Maybe we should negotiate some better deals with them, but this is crazy!"

But, Mark LaPorte of Milwaukee thinks the drama between Trump and Harley is not a big deal in the long run. LaPorte is the head of sales for a medical equipment company. He rode his 2018 Heritage Classic Harley to Summerfest. He calls the dispute "a little turbulence" that will be resolved in a few months.

"Ultimately I think the administration is doing the right thing by engaging and renegotiating trade deals that were not good in the first place," he says. "Take for example Canada. Canada has certain tariffs on dairy goods that are over 200%. So, while Trump is bombastic, and he’s abrasive, in the big picture, he’s doing the right thing by negotiating trade agreements."

LaPorte adds that there are other factors at play when it comes to Harley-Davidson's future. He says the company's challenges go beyond how Harley responds to the retaliatory tariffs in the European Union.

"The bigger issue for Harley is getting younger riders, getting minority riders and getting female riders," LaPorte says. The company needs to stay competitive in Asian markets where other manufacturers can hire low-wage workers to make motorcycles, he adds.