In the heart of Virginia coal country, the people of Buchanan County gave candidate Trump some of his biggest majorities, and they remain loyal. The big reason: a local rebound.
Mr. Trump’s voters here largely dismiss the critics. Many say that they love him even more since he took office and see the flak that he faces as evidence that he’s standing up for them against a power structure they distrust. “By his tweets and everything, he agitates people, but I think that’s good,” says Larry David Sr., 71, a retired civil engineer.
.. “Bluntness, speaking your mind is an Appalachian trait,” says Rev. Brad Napier, the minister at Buchanan First Presbyterian Church, who also heads the county’s ministerial association. “The attitude, ‘you can kiss my ass’—people admire that.”
.. In Buchanan County, the improving economy is what Trump supporters mention first. At the time of the Virginia primary, the county unemployment rate was 11.8%, and mines were closing; the number of mining jobs had fallen by about one-fifth in the previous 12 months. Since the primary, unemployment has fallen steadily to 7% in November, the latest month available. Local coal production jumped 15% by mid-2017, mirroring a national trend. Moody’s Analytics, an economic consulting firm, estimates that Buchanan’s economic output expanded in 2017 for the first time since 2010.
.. Buchanan’s median income is just $30,000, roughly half the national average. The population has shrunk by nearly half since 1980 to 22,000, and is expected to keep falling, according to University of Virginia demographers. Opioid addiction is climbing, and the county’s high death rate from the drugs put it on a federal watch list in 2016 for risk of HIV and hepatitis outbreaks.
.. They praise Mr. Trump for canceling some regulations that they say would have hobbled coal-fired plants and driven up costs for protecting streams that flow above underground mines. They say his election has given the industry confidence to invest in new operations because they can be sure that Washington won’t turn against coal again for at least the next three years.
.. “The month before the election was our lowest point,” says Jeff Taylor, a local mine operator. “We were close to our entire industry going out of business. I give all the credit to the president” for the revival.
.. Economists examining the coal turnaround say that the reasons are more complicated. A pick-up in the global economy in the summer of 2016 began to boost demand. U.S. coal exports started to recover in the last quarter of 2016—just before Mr. Trump was elected—and shot up 68% in the first six months of 2017 compared to a year earlier. Over the same period, global prices doubled for metallurgical coal, the kind used in steelmaking—and the kind that Buchanan produces.
.. deregulatory moves—in which the Supreme Court and Congress also played roles—didn’t change the economics of coal. But he did say they may have given coal operators a shot of confidence: “Psychology can’t be discounted.”
.. The American Coal Council credits “a combination” of market factors and Trump policies
.. Buchanan County was until recently heavily Democratic, a legacy of the New Deal and decades of organizing by the United Mine Workers. Al Gore carried the county handily, despite his environmentalism, as did John Kerry in 2004.
.. He liked the fact that Mr. Trump “doesn’t beat around the bush” and stands up to people like North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. “You shouldn’t let a little country like that push around the U.S.”
.. Although Buchanan is very dependent on government aid—one in four adults in the county gets Social Security disability checks—many residents are vociferously anti-government. Locals blame Washington for regulations that hurt the coal industry and for favoritism toward what they see as undeserving minorities.
.. The tax bill? Complicated, many say. But if it helps the rich the most, that’s fine with Robert Collins, a local trucker, who figures that middle-class workers will also benefit. “In order to keep jobs and provide things that employers need, the wealthy have to have breaks too,” he says.
.. Residents like to say that “Virginia ends at Roanoke,” a city 180 miles east with a trendy downtown, or “You need a passport to get to the other side of Roanoke.” They are jokes, but they underscore how separate voters in southwest Virginia feel from the rest of the state and from nearby Washington, D.C.
.. Buchanan residents believe that outsiders unfairly dismiss people from the Appalachian region as racist and that Mr. Trump gets the same treatment. They figure he was misquoted in the recent flap about Haiti and African countries. As for his comments about the march of white supremacists in Charlottesville this past summer, a number of his supporters here agree with him that there was “blame on both sides.”
.. Cultural issues weigh heavily. When President Trump talks about striking back at the so-called War on Christmas, many people here nod in affirmation.
.. They believe that’s the case in blue-state areas of America, especially coastal cities.
.. Ms. Raines, people felt they were losing their place to others who were “pro-abortion and pro every other vice.” Now she says, “you’re beginning to see the mood of the country change.” She points to public prayers at cabinet meetings, Mr. Trump’s embrace of evangelical ministers and his conservative appointments to the courts as evidence of the change.
.. Though often profane, insulting and bombastic, Mr. Trump registers here as a religious champion.
.. “I’m a Christian,” he says, “I don’t think he represents my views.” But he says that he understands how religious and cultural issues cement Mr. Trump’s support.
.. “He is a strange messenger,” says Ms. Raines, the high school teacher. “The Lord can use anybody to accomplish his purposes.”
Coal Country Is a State of Mind
For coal country isn’t really coal country anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time.
.. But the number of miners began a steep decline after World War II, and especially after 1980, even though coal production continued to rise. This was mainly because modern extraction techniques — like blowing the tops off mountains — require far less labor than old-fashioned pick-and-shovel mining. The decline accelerated about a decade ago as the rise of fracking led to competition from cheap natural gas.
.. it has been a quarter century since they accounted for as much as 5 percent of total employment.
.. Their Trump votes weren’t even about the region’s interests; they were about cultural symbolism.
.. Donald Trump successfully pandered to cultural nostalgia
How the white working class lost its patriotism
but I did know that Breathitt allegedly earned its name because the county filled its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers — the only county in the entire United States to do so.
.. Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.
.. The factories that took to the hollows of Kentucky and West Virginia to recruit my grandparents’ generation refused to hire mine, or closed down altogether.
.. Polls suggested that, unique among all subpopulations in the country, the white working class expected its children to live less prosperous lives.
.. But most of the people I know dislike Obama for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. They think of him as an alien because, compared to them, he is.
.. At my high school, ranked for a time in the bottom 10 percent of public schools in the state, none of my classmates attended an Ivy League college. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy and speaks like the law professor that he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent — clean, perfect, neutral — sounds almost foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening;
.. Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities: He is a good father while many of us struggle to pay our child support. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.
Coal Miners Are Political Canaries
If it’s Hillary Clinton on the stump, she’ll talk about job retraining, new infrastructure, and better education. But if it’s Donald Trump, the answer is simple: He promises to bring jobs back, and punish those who sent them away.
.. Trump tends to focus on what he identifies as the problem—how America has been wronged and who is to blame. Jobs went overseas? End NAFTA. Worried about terror? Ban Muslims. The solution is usually simple: Just stop doing whatever the U.S. was doing before. The community will prosper.
.. His plan is very easy to envision: You’ll have your job back, and your old lives. This is the power of Trump’s blame-based worldview. When curing a community’s malaise is as simple as getting rid of the bad actor who caused it—in this case, Obama’s environmental regulations—the rewards feel more certain, more tangible.
.. The problem is that Trump’s plan has almost no chance of success. A U.S. president has no power to stoke global demand for coal, or pump up the price of natural gas; the most Trump could do is repeal Obama’s environmental rules, and economists agree that would have a minimal effect on employment.