Another Man’s Liberator: Hopeless Votes for Trump in West Virginia
Joe Halstead Goes Home to Coal Country
There was once a little gravel plant not far from where I grew up in West Virginia. It was a small site that probably employed fifty or so people, a stark silhouette against a cold sky. Picture Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone working third shift there and you’ll get the idea. I’ve left West Virginia and come back so many times now that I’ve lost count, but every time I visit or return, it’s like a spiritual “taboo” place: I go to that gravel plant. Desperately seeking epiphany for this article, I visited West Virginia last month. My wife and sister joined me for the drive up the road to the gravel plant. It’s possibly the worst road in the world, with potholes and declivities so deep you’d think the car would just disappear into them, a crumbling wooden bridge, pools of stagnant water from June’s biblical flooding, and, of course, the usual: abandoned trailers, Confederate flags, and mangy dogs chained to posts.
I parked the car and my wife kept glancing in the rearview mirror, remarking that it was a “scary place… scary place,” even though we hadn’t seen a soul. She could just sense it. My sister kept laughing. We were on the dark side of the county—in the middle of nowhere—and I, with an evil cackle, said, “Yeah, you never know who you might run into.” We got out and then walked down a back road, ignoring a cold mist of rain. “It’s this way,” I said.
There were hoppers, conveyor belts, hydraulic pumps, and mountains of raw gravel, but when we finally arrived at the plant, they appeared to have long ago been dismantled.
“It’s gone,” I said, disappointed. “Looks like they tore it down.”
I stood there, a thin curtain of rain hissing against the hardscrabble, looking at this empty field, yearning for… something. I looked back at my wife, hoping to explain why I’d come, but she was already headed back to the car. She’s scared, I realized. Really scared. Even though she had nothing to be afraid of, I understood why—there’s a certain psychogeography of West Virginia that is deeply embedded in the minds of Americans. To see it is, in the words of William Blake, “to see a world”: A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate / Predicts the ruin of the State. It’s the nation’s festering underbelly, with its socio-political dysfunction, a region that, these days, has been reduced to a series of clichés about hillbillies and coal miners. There’s some part of me that’s still connected to it. It gives me a sense of belonging, and a strange sense of discomfort.
Growing up, I had an attraction to this idea, as a writer, of a person searching for his or her place in the world, so I moved to New York City. However, I still felt connected to the perfectly-crafted-but-ultimately-false idea of West Virginia, this sort of wholesome existence that’s not real. So, after living in New York City, I decided to return, to look for the “good” in West Virginia, and it was a revelation to return to what I thought I knew, when it was no longer the center of my world. For me, that was a very painful thing. So, is it wrong to now suggest that there might not be any good left, especially after the election of Donald Trump?
Mount Lookout, West Virginia is a blip on the radar, little more than a collection of families, a few modest doublewide trailers, and a post office. To get to my parents’ house, you have to break off from US Route 19 and take East Mount Lookout Road, driving through a collection of trailers scattered through the hills, past big-ass trucks resting in driveways like content, fattened grizzly bears. That night, I sat in the living room with my mom and dad, watching the nation break down over Trump on live TV. My dad sat to my left, slightly in front of me, my new nephew, Joshua, bouncing on his knee. Every once in a while my dad turned around and looked at me, to make sure I was still there and that I was having a good time. He said he’d like to go kill a deer. I said I’d like that, too. Understand this about me: I’ve done this for most of my life. It’s simply part of who I am. It’s part of who you are, too. Pull back the curtain of civilization and what you see is the quasi-medieval zombie world, or a Lord of the Flies, in all of us. It’s just the modern world that keeps a lid on it. I’m tempted to indict it, but my complicity makes such a critique feel self-righteous and hypocritical.
On TV, they were debating whether Trump is a total climate-change denier or if he merely denies that human activity has contributed to climate change.
“Don’t ever be one of them environmentalists, Joey,” my dad said. His gaze turned elsewhere when he added, “First they take your job, then they take everything you got.”
My dad is one of the ex-miners who lost everything when the falling prices of renewables, coupled with tightening EPA regulations, razed the coal industry. I didn’t want to offer the kind of social documentary sermon that you get from liberalism, one that criticizes but does little to change the conditions in which he lives, so I just said, “I know.”
We watched the news for a bit longer, programs that seemed to be obsessed with Donald Trump. I asked my parents what they thought his election meant for West Virginia.
“It don’t make a difference,” my dad said. “Hillary said it out of mouth that she was going to put coal miners out of work. Trump said he was for the coal miners. They’re both liars. The politicians don’t know. One time, Shelly Moore Capito came down and was riding around with the bosses and they drove around to the old side of the job and she asked, ‘When are you all gonna start mining this?’ But it was already done and reclaimed. It was already done. She didn’t have a clue. She was a big phony. Hell, this place might look like a zombie state in ten years. People on meth will lose their skin and teeth and they’ll be wandering the streets. Look at Huntington and Richwood. It will become a zombie state, like it already is.”
“I always go back to this,” my mom said, “trust in God, not in Trump. This started back in 2009, when President Obama, through the EPA, caused a slowdown. It made it look like the coal mines were shutting down, but what it was, they couldn’t get their permits.”
Yeah, I know—“Thanks, Obama.” Because West Virginia’s racial composition is almost entirely white, racism is the most powerful and insidious force in the state. There’s a numb acceptance of it, and thus it shapes civic trajectories in policy on a larger scale. There’s no denying this. These are people who thought President Obama was a bad guy simply because he was black. In many ways, these people waited for Donald Trump—no, they created Donald Trump. What they believed came to inform his candidacy with a basis of racial and class-based discrimination. As Elijah Anderson (in The Cosmopolitan Canopy) and others have described, the more threatening we find “others” in our territory, the harder we will work to create social distance from those individuals. Trump is the result of this depraved hard work, to show the “others” that “justice” shall be delivered. The white miners chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” on TV have simply arrived at this: Now “they” know that “we” still matter. Certainly racism exists in the state and acts as a filter on social and economic opportunity, but that alone is of limited value for understanding how West Virginia got to where it is today.
My mom continued, “Things might be different under Trump, but [West Virginia]’s going to get worse. It’s going to look barren. It’s going to be a wasteland. Still, where would you rather live, the US or China? Their cities are so badly polluted they have to call an emergency in the air. Since the coal mines have gone out in West Virginia, they’re now filling orders for China. So the coal is being shipped over there. And look—it’s so polluted.”
I was tempted to draw a link between her experience and China’s until I realized her view was a bit more complicated. She wasn’t a part of either side of the conflict. Instead, she was a part of both sides, caught in the middle. The broader responses to the decline of coal are similarly stuck in paradox. Despite having some of the lowest turnover and highest productivity rates in the nation, the state has been stifling efforts to lift it out of dependency, choosing instead to worship its oppressors, the billionaire president and the billionaire governor.
I wanted to speak with someone in my parents’ shoes who supported Donald Trump, so I opened the Facebook app on my iPhone and made a post, calling on any underemployed coal miners who voted for Donald Trump to get in touch with me. A few hours later, I got a message from Jackie Scott, a resident of Beckley, WV. Jackie and I used to work twelve-hour shifts together at an urgent care, and her husband, Chuck, like my father, is an out-of-work coal miner. She’s open, only a little cynical, and, I might add, the spitting image of Red from Orange is the New Black. Since it was fresh in my mind, I thought I’d begin by asking what she thought West Virginia would look like after Donald Trump’s tenure.
“People, including the politicians, don’t want to change and bring in new industry [to West Virginia],” she said. “They want rafting, skiing—tourism—to be our economy, but those are low-paying jobs. I see the population declining. Coal won’t come back like it was, so there will be no jobs. Everyone will be leaving to finds jobs with a future. West Virginia will be a great place to visit, just not a great place to live.”
In Jackie’s view, to question Donald Trump is a betrayal of West Virginia’s values, and if you don’t like him, you should leave. But to hear her speak so negatively of West Virginia’s future, even under Trump, made it seem like her vote for Trump was just a middle finger to the status quo. Or, could it be a middle finger to privileged liberals in the media who mocked and delegitimized the struggles of working class whites in Appalachia?
“The media has promoted that West Virginians are uneducated and dumb people,” she explained. “Now we’re known as Pillbillies. It’s sad. Americans don’t think [of the miners who risked their lives to make electricity]—they just turn on the switch. But coal miners, and family, when they turn on the switch, they think, ‘We do this. We keep the lights on for America.’”
In West Virginia and greater Appalachia, families are living in chronic cyclical poverty. They can’t seem to afford food like most Americans can. They can’t seem to pay every bill, or even stay afloat, because their representative industry, coal, is dying. They’ve been grievously wounded by opioid addiction, and there’s a devastating out-migration of talent. When the media keeps these issues at arm’s length, or even openly mocks them, I kind of get it. So, what is West Virginia’s problem? Few other places in America are experiencing this kind of cultural and economic depression. Things are not going well, and everything, from the food on the table, to the hearts and minds of future generations, seems to hang in the balance.
I asked Jackie what she thought.
“The problem is low-paying, part-time jobs are all you can get due to the government mandate with the [Affordable Care Act],” she said. “Government is choking the life out of West Virginia. If things don’t change, the only people left here will be retired or on Medicaid.”
Now, whether or not you agree that the benefits of the Affordable Care Act outweigh its effect on businesses in the region, she almost has a point. But the elephant in the room is corporate responsibility. What Jackie was referring to is the “employer mandate,” which is the requirement that businesses with 50 or more full-time employees provide health insurance to 95 percent of those employees and dependents up to age 26, or pay a fine. However, these requirements don’t apply to employees who are within 60 to 90 days of their hire date. This convenient loophole is utilized by coal companies to effectively circumvent the employer mandate. My dad, for instance, suffered months-long periods of unemployment in which my family was stripped of their health insurance. It’s worth quoting my mom here, who said, “Whenever it first started [our insurance] was an 80/20 deal, and then [CONSOL Energy] only paid a little and we paid the rest. That was when I got sick, when Rachel needed her medicine. But we lost all that.” Such lack of corporate responsibility has people like my family and Jackie wondering what happens to them after the coal industry collapses.
“[The coal companies] have filed for bankruptcy and that releases them from any obligations or responsibility. Sad, but true,” Jackie said. “Most companies, coal or otherwise, do not value their employees anymore. We need to care about workers, and corporations need to value their workers. Without employees, they would not have a business.”
The coal industry’s shirking of its responsibilities—from reclamation and pensions to health insurance and social costs—isn’t a new story. In 2015 it was widely reported that Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, planned to shuck some $140 million dollars in retiree benefits payments. Then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying, “[Coal miners] are people who put their own health and safety at risk for years so the rest of us could have the affordable, reliable electricity we take for granted. They are entitled to the benefits they’ve earned.” And yet, during the election, no one mentioned this quote to West Virginians when they talked about Clinton and coal. Nor were West Virginians interested in hearing it. Instead, they gravitated toward the promises made by the Republican nominee, a man who doesn’t seem to care much for the idea of corporate responsibility. When you look at how Trump and the rest of the owners of Trump International Hotel Las Vegas tried to block workers from joining a union, it’s safe to say he probably doesn’t care about trade unions, even though plenty of unions and blue-collar workers backed him in the election.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, even though my parents didn’t vote for Trump, they sort of sounded like Jackie. So, if you’re from West Virginia, why Trump? This selfish decision will likely be costly to many. The issue of the coal industry taking financial hits isn’t just the problem of coal miners, or environmentalists, or Republicans: it’s everybody’s problem. The frantic acceleration toward a nationalistic, totalitarian form of government; the dismantling of the safety net created by FDR and Lyndon Johnson; the bulk of the populace giving up political action for fear of losing their jobs—all these seem to suggest a cultural backlash against the very things that West Virginians rely on for their very survival.
The next day, as I ate a Bob Evans dinner with my family, I asked my parents why they thought coal was important enough to risk everything else.
“Coal does a lot of good,” my dad said. “You look at a hole in the wall community like Clay County that don’t have anything. When the coal mines moved in, they got better schools, better roads, all the coal miners bought locally. They had a lot of charities there. When the coal companies leave, they leave the place behind. Plus, when you work with someone for twenty-some years, it’s like you got a second family. It’s sad to lose that.”
To people like my dad, West Virginia’s coal industry exists at the interstice between pride and solidarity. Miners sweated and suffered in dangerous conditions together, providing a tangible product—affordable energy—that carried not only a national significance but a personal one as well. I don’t mean to imply that coal mining is wholly a boon to West Virginia. Nor am I suggesting that it’s even morally acceptable. My claim is that people do what they have to do to provide for their families, and there’s pride in that.
“Well, what about Peabody Energy not wanting to pay out benefits to their retirees?” I asked, wanting to draw them into my “overeducated liberal” social documentary.
“This happens about every thirty years,” my mom said. “The coal mines go out and people’s pensions go away. They eventually come back again. But this isn’t a moral problem. It’s just a business decision. You could call that human nature, like, ‘I don’t want to give it to you because it’s mine.’ Sometimes people expect too much.”
My parents are the personification of fatalist Appalachian values that are representative of the region. Even when his co-workers were robbed of their pensions, my dad just shrugged, not because he didn’t care, but because that’s just how these things go. Is this, then, what it means to be part of the problem? When you’re unable to correct the failings of the state, but you’re also unwilling to abandon it?
When the check came, I broke a personal rule of mine: I asked them if they thought they’d ever leave West Virginia.
“If there ain’t no good paying jobs, people have to leave, Joey,” my dad said. “I’ve talked to a few people who went to North Carolina thinking they’d find work but they can’t. They just come right back up here and try to survive. We’d end up right back here.”
“People have to leave their homes to go places where they can take care of their families,” my mom said. “We haven’t had to do it yet. Maybe there will be a day when we will. We don’t want to because this is our home. Depending on what the future holds, maybe Joshua will grow up here. The house and the property doesn’t define the family. It’s just a place.”
We all ate and talked a bit longer. Listening to my parents discuss the old days, the mythical days “before Barack Obama,” the things they had, the things they’d accomplished, was like listening to an old, divorced couple reminisce about the good times they had raising their kids. My dad was good at what he did, he provided for his family, for a time, and, like many others, my parents became firmly-grounded in that career and that culture, in the place, and it’s hard to let go of that, especially when it’s all you know. But as Bertolt Brecht said, “You can’t build on the good old days, you have to build on the bad new days.” To do that, you have to leave nostalgia behind. West Virginians have a responsibility to let go of industries, parochial prejudices, and ideas that have worked in the past but don’t any longer.
Once again I wondered what point there was in searching for something if there wasn’t something good worth finding in the end. It was like running into an old girlfriend and thinking, What did I ever see in her? I thought about how this whole thing was a joke—the years searching for the “good” West Virginia. That’s not what I was there for at all, I realized. That’s not what I’d been searching for in the pill hollers, the empty streets, the Wal-Marts, or atop the tallest mountains. It was the stereotypical West Virginia of Americans’ fantasies I’d been searching for: darkness, depraved racism, ignorance, mired in cultural and economic depression, and I’d finally found it in the people who supported Donald Trump. But standing in the empty field where the gravel plant used to be, I sort of got it. During the campaign, Donald Trump couldn’t have been clearer about his intention to expand coal production again, to “BRING JOBS BACK.” It’s that magic potion that West Virginians still believe in. Americans were deaf to their laments. Trump wasn’t. By helping elect Trump, West Virginians weren’t trying to make history. They wanted to be liberated from the changing times and a tribal sense of alienation, and, for the most part, they turned to Trump for liberation. But Trump’s a charlatan who offered a magic potion to a bunch of desperate people. West Virginians need to understand that a magic potion is not the solution. The solution isn’t going to be any one particular thing. West Virginians have a responsibility to approach race, poverty, and renewable energy industries differently, to create new opportunity structures in the region. But Americans have a responsibility to eliminate the social distance from West Virginia, too, because West Virginia can’t get to a better world if Americans are always keeping them at arm’s length, saying, “They’re the cost of doing business. That’s how they live, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”