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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Divided America: To some, Trump is a desperate survival bid

Brenda Horvath displays a “Hillary for Prison 2016” banner on the front of her home in Logan, W.Va., on May 10. A registered Democrat who comes from a long line of coalminers, she says she’s supporting Donald Trump. (Claire Galofaro / Associated Press)
By Claire Galofaro Associated Press

LOGAN, W.Va. — Mike Kirk leans across the counter of the pawnshop where he works for $11 an hour. It’s less than half what he made in the mines, but it’s the best he can do these days.

He and two customers ponder what this city might look like in 10 years if nothing changes. Many of the storefronts on the narrow downtown streets are empty. Some of the buildings burned. Their blackened shells, “condemned” signs taped to the doors, stand as a symbol of how far they’ve fallen.

In 10 years? A ghost town, one customer offers. The other wonders if it might simply cease to exist.

There are places like this across America — poor and getting poorer, feeling left behind while the rest get richer. But nowhere has the plummet of the white working class been as merciless as here in central Appalachia. And nowhere have the cross-currents of desperation and boiling resentment that have devoured a presidential race been on such glaring display.

It used to be that young people could finish high school and get a job in the mines that would pay enough to feed their families. Now the mines are idle. The railroad tracks that used to back up traffic as coal trains barreled through town sit mostly silent, weeds growing up around the ties.

Families are fleeing. The population of Logan County is 35,000, half what it was 50 years ago. More than 96 percent of residents are white; 1 in 5 lives in poverty; few have college degrees. Drug abuse is rampant. The life expectancy for men is 68 years old; they die eight years younger than the average American man.

Even cremations are up at the funeral home down the street. People can’t afford caskets anymore.

“Look around, this town went to hell,” said Kirk, who lost his $28-an-hour job on a strip mine and his three-bedroom house with a two-car garage. He and his wife and children moved in with his mother. He took this pawn shop job because it paid a little more than the used car dealership, his only other option. His town has grown full of for-sale signs as family after family says goodbye and moves to one of those places that fared far better as Appalachia fell apart.

The unemployment rate is 11 percent, compared to less than 5 percent nationwide. Many have given up working altogether: West Virginia is the only state in America where less than half of working-aged people work. More than 12 percent of Logan County residents collect Social Security disability checks, three times the national average.

They gave up on their politicians — they elected both Republicans and Democrats and believe both failed them in favor of chasing campaign contributions from the class above them and votes from the one below, the neighbors they suspect would rather collect government welfare than get a job.

Anxiety turned to despair, said James Branscome, a retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former staff member at the Appalachian Regional Commission. And desperate people, throughout history, have turned to tough-talking populists.

And that is how, in one of America’s forgotten corners, the road was perfectly paved for the ascent of Donald Trump. He won by spectacular margins all across the coalfields. From Appalachia to the Rust Belt to the hollowing manufacturing towns in the Midwest, Trump collected his most ardent supporters in places like this.

“He offers us hope,” Kirk said, “and hope’s the one thing we have left.”

Peter Atwater, a consultant who studies the tides of consumer confidence, describes the collapse of the coalfields as a microcosm of the indignation burning across America that has come to define the 2016 campaign. Its power may determine the next president of the United States.

The average Republican is as pessimistic about the economy today as the day Lehman Brothers collapsed, eight years ago, Atwater said. That perception of decline — that the country is careening in the wrong direction — can be as politically potent as watching your hometown wither, he said.

The nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute calls such people “nostalgia voters.” Daniel Cox, the organization’s research director, said an uneven recovery from the recession lined up with societal shifts — the election of the first nonwhite president, a rising minority population, the decreasing influence of Christian values. It left many in struggling, blue-collar communities across the country feeling deserted for the sake of progress someplace else.

“Today, we’re not interested in the plan, we’re interested in the slogan,” Atwater said. “When confidence falls, it’s all too complicated to understand an elaborate plan or an articulated policy. We don’t want to wait for the details; we don’t want to read the footnotes. Just give me a powerful headline.”

Trump promised to build the wall. Create jobs. Destroy ISIS. He blamed immigrants and China and Muslims for America’s woes.

He stood on a stage in West Virginia, put on a hard hat and pantomimed shoveling coal. He promised to make them win again.

His critics warn that his red-blooded, racially tinged rants threaten to unravel the very fabric of the nation. Here, the same words translate as truth-telling.

His call caught fire so fervently that some are staking their families’ futures on whether he wins in November.

Like Ashley Kominar, a 33-year-old mother of three whose husband lost his job in the mines in Mingo County. She now knows what it means to choose whether to buy food or pay the electric bill.

Kominar is a registered Democrat, like almost everybody else here. This region was reliably Democratic for generations. Then the once-mighty United Mine Workers of America crumbled in the 1990s, and Democrats lost their grip. Last month, in a place where President Bill Clinton had been greeted like a rock star, Hillary Clinton was heckled and flipped the bird.

Kominar considers Trump a businessman: tough, a little too combative, but so different from any politician she’s seen that he just might be able to save this place. If he wins, she will stay in West Virginia. If he loses, she said, she will flee.

“I don’t know exactly what’s in his head, what his vision is for us,” she said. “But I know he has one and that’s what counts.”

The phone in Truman Chafin’s office in Mingo County rang three times before noon on a recent Thursday, and each time the friend on the line detailed their economic plight: lost jobs, missed mortgage payments, hungry children.

Chafin, a Democrat who represented this district in the state Senate for 32 years before voters ousted him in a Republican sweep of the statehouse in 2014, mocks Trump and his promise to fix it all; he even dressed up like him for a Halloween party. But he understands the drumbeat of disappointment that has led so many of his neighbors to plunk signs in their yards that read “Make America Great Again.”

“They’re looking for somebody to give them some hope and here comes this elixir salesman who says, ‘Drink this and all will be good,’” Chafin said. “He’s playing to the short-term sound bites and that’s what people want to hear.”

Chafin’s own daughter relocated to South Carolina and told him she’ll never move back. There’s nothing left for her here, she told him.

There are pockets like this across America. A think tank called the Economic Innovation Group created the Distressed Communities Index , which combines several factors for every county — poverty rate, the percentage of people without a college degree, the number of abandoned homes.

The most distressed patches stretch through Appalachia and across the deep South, cutting across swing states like North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Trump won in rich places and poor places and places in between. But an analysis shows that Trump’s strongest support among early primary Republican voters increased along with the level of economic hardship in their communities.

In Hamilton County, Florida, 29 percent of the population lives in poverty, two-thirds of adults don’t work and the median household income stands at $35,629, nearly $20,000 less than the American average. Trump collected 57 percent of the primary vote. In Columbus County, North Carolina, which suffers similar statistics, Trump won 61 percent.

Buchanan County, Virginia, is much like its West Virginia neighbors. The unemployment rate hovers higher than 10 percent. Young people are fleeing in droves. A quarter of people live in poverty and one in five rely on disability. In March, 70 percent of primary voters cast their ballot for Trump, with four other candidates still in the race.

“Americans are becoming fed up with politicians promising them the moon and delivering them far less,” said Gerald Arrington, Buchanan County’s elected county prosecutor, a 37-year-old Democrat who cast his first ballot for Bill Clinton in 1996. This time he voted for Trump.

“Everyone is so used to politician-speak. He’s refreshing,” he said. “Maybe part of it is his ego. His ego is going to make him want to be the greatest president ever. He’s a winner.”

After a recent Trump rally in West Virginia, countless news articles and academics dismissed Trump’s pledge to bring back coal as impossible, tied to market forces and geology. Chuck Keeney, a professor of political science and history at Southern Community College in Logan, often hears his students dismiss the criticism as the establishment, the very machine that ignored them for so long, beating up on Trump now, too.

“What they see in their minds is the elite that looks down on them, mocks them, makes fun of them, thinks they’re stupid,” Keeney said. “They see all those establishment groups ganging up on Donald Trump and that makes them root for him more.”

Albert Adams worked at a mine for 27 years until every day started to bring more bad news. Layoffs. Slashed hours. Cut pay. He and a friend saved their money for a year, quit their jobs and opened up Big Al’s Auto and Small Engine Repair to try to build a life after coal.

They hung a “Make America Great Again” sign over the coffee maker.

Adams doesn’t like everything Trump has to say, particularly about immigration. He imagines immigrants are a lot like West Virginians: hard workers, doomed by the place of their birth to be down on their luck, looking for a better life.

His conundrum is echoed all over these mountains. People like Trump’s delivery, the rat-a-tat-tat of promises and insults so unscripted they figure he couldn’t have given it enough forethought to be pandering. Yet they’re occasionally disturbed by the contents.

Adams’ business partner, Leslie Arthur, isn’t quite sure Trump should be trusted with the nuclear codes. Mike Honaker, who runs the local funeral home, doesn’t appreciate how he talks about women. Mike Kirk in the pawn shop cringes when he hurls schoolyard taunts.

But they agree with him more often than not and they’re willing to forgive because they believe the political machine left them with no other option.

Coalfield communities have always been poor. But life here has never felt this hopeless, Adams said. People can no longer imagine what a future might look like. Coal will never completely bounce back. There are no factories, no infrastructure to build any and no companies that want to relocate to a place cut off from the rest of America by mountains.

So piles of lawnmowers and weed-eaters grow outside Adams’ new shop. People he’s known his whole life come by often trying to sell whatever they have left to pay their rent, keep their cars running, feed their kids.

“If this town does come back, I’ll be dead and gone before we see it,” Adams said.

He and Arthur hammered a new wheel onto a Ford, a $300 job they did on credit because the out-of-work miner can’t afford it right now.

They knew opening this shop was a gamble. Maybe they’ll win and stay afloat, maybe they won’t. Maybe Trump can fix it. Maybe it can’t be fixed.

Adams doesn’t fault his friends and neighbors who left it behind.

Sometimes he thinks of packing it all up and moving himself. He figures he’d head west, where the coal seams still run thick.