The F&W, a printing shop selling everything from custom t-shirts to license plates, is one of the few stores in downtown Welch that hasn’t closed its doors. Deep in the heart of coal country, the small West Virginian town is the seat of government for McDowell County.
“This place was booming,” Frances Weaver, co-owner of the F&W said. “Welch was like New York to people that lived out here.”
“You came to Welch once a month. There’s nothing here now.”
The demise of coal production, McDowell’s main industry, hit this county hard. Unemployment is now more than double the national average, male life expectancy is on par with Ethiopia and two years ago, the county’s only large grocery store, Walmart, closed its doors.
When John F. Kennedy campaigned in McDowell in 1959, the county was one of the country’s leading exporters of coal. But Appalachia, he warned, was “caught in the backwash of economic cycles, shifting markets and automation.”
Some 60 years later, a Donald Trump presidency seemed to offer voters in McDowell a chance at prosperity not seen here in decades.
Weaver, and her business partner Fonda Walker, opened their printing shop 21 years ago. The revenue stream isn’t what is used to be, with Weaver earning just $13,000 last year. She’s hopeful Trump can turn their business around.
“You do what you can do to stay afloat. I keep hoping that the different things that he is doing, he’s trying to help,” Weaver said.
Last November, Circa was in McDowell on Election Night as people from the coal fields of southern West Virginia voted overwhelmingly for Trump, helping fuel his surprise victory. Many McDowell residents were skeptical of Trump’s promise to restore the coal economy, but cast cautiously optimistic votes anyway.
Trump’s pro-coal message helped him walk away with 91.5 percent of the primary vote in McDowell County — his largest margin during the primary season. And in the general election, Trump won every county in the state, taking 69 percent of the vote.
“We will put our miners back to work,” President Trump proclaimed in March as he signed executive orders aimed at dismantling his predecessor’s climate policies, including a ban on new coal leases on public lands. In February, Trump rolled back an Obama administration rule that blocked coal miners from dumping waste into waterways.
Junior Stacy, the part-owner of a mine that opened in March, says Trump’s deregulation has bolstered investor confidence. The day after Trump’s election, he called his future business partner and said he felt the climate was right for them to go into business. Stacy has been in the mining business for 45 years and believes this could be the start of a mining renaissance.
“If Trump hadn’t got elected, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “I took a big chance, but it’s working out.”
Between 75-100 mining jobs have been added in McDowell since January, according to McDowell County Commissioner Cecil Patterson. In a state where the average West Virginia household earns $42,019, (compared to the national median income of $55,775), coal jobs pay better than most.
“We don’t have any other industry,” Patterson said. “It puts you kind of in a box where you have to vote for the way you make your living.”
While the increase in employment is welcome news, industry analysts say it’s unlikely Trump’s policies will do much to reverse coal’s decline.
U.S. coal production reached a 30-year-low in 2015. Researchers at Columbia University found that regulations accounted for 3.5 percent of the decrease; competition from natural gas was responsible for around 49 percent.
Patterson, a coal miner, acknowledges Obama-era regulations were far from the only contributors to coal’s collapse. He says McDowell needs to diversify its economy and find ways to attract new employers.
“Everybody says, well, coal’s never going to be as big as it was. Everybody in the industry knows that through mechanization we lost jobs,” Patterson said.
At first glance, McDowell County was an unlikely win for Trump. Its political history is typical for the region, having voted Democratic in all but one presidential election from 1936 to 2008.
But Chuck Keeney, a professor of history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, says the groundwork was laid for a Republican victory as far back as 2000 when Al Gore, seen as an environmentalist whose policies would hurt the state, lost to George W. Bush. Bush won the Electoral College by 5 votes — the same number of votes held by West Virginia. In every presidential contest since, the state voted reliably red.
“They were going to go against Hillary Clinton, no matter what — even if she hadn’t made the very famous statement,” Keeney said.
The Democrat alienated much of coal country when she told a town hall audience in Columbus, Ohio “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” The comment, which came in the context of her plan to transition the country to clean energy, would haunt her campaign.
Trump, by contrast, vowed to restore coal jobs to the region. Donning a coal miner’s helmet, the billionaire real estate mogul told supporters at a May 2016 rally in Charleston, West Virginia, they would be working their “asses off” in his new administration.
Alba Coleman, a Democrat and retired miner, doesn’t buy the president’s jobs rhetoric, but understands his appeal in McDowell.
“A lot of the people here say that he sounds just like us,” Coleman said. “He says the stuff that these people want to say.”
“He’s not just like us. He’s a billionaire, and we have to work every day for what we’ve got.”
McDowell County has long leaned blue, but many Democratic voters found themselves voting for the Republican candidate last November. Patterson, a registered Democrat, was one of them.
“I’ve never towed the party line,” Patterson explained. “I vote for whoever I think is right for the country, and then whoever is right for the county, and then whoever is right for me and my family.”
Polling suggests that although President Trump’s approval rating is dipping, his base remains loyal and energized. A Monmouth University survey released in August found 6 in 10 people who approve of Trump cannot imagine him doing anything that would make them disapprove.
Many in McDowell echoed similar sentiments, dismissing the coverage of his gaffes and combativeness on Twitter as “fake news.” It’s a commonly held belief that the so-called media elites are out to get him.
“I’ve never seen a president treated like this,” Weaver said. “This man is, he is treated like trash, and he is the president of the United States. That truly bothers me, because I think he is trying his best to help.”
Keeney says much of the enthusiasm for Trump is rooted in a sort of “commonality” between how West Virginia voters believe the media treats them and Trump.
“They see the media being disgusted with them, West Virginians, culturally, but they also see the media being disgusted with Trump.”
Appalachians are well aware of how they’re perceived inside the Beltway, Keeney said. He knows from personal experience.
“Even when I leave the state, I always get an incest joke, or, ‘I’m surprised you have your teeth, or something like this.'”
In the hills of McDowell, up a winding, steep mountainous road, Polly Blankenship takes a drag of her cigarette from her porch. She’s given up on politicians altogether.
“When they get the job, they forget about the little people that voted them in,” she said.
She and her daughter Tonya Butler recently moved into one of Welch’s original coal camp houses. Butler, who is two months pregnant with her fifth child, is looking for employment but is having a hard time because she can’t read or write. She’s not alone. Unemployment in the county is more than twice the national average.
“[President Trump] needs to come and see what we’re going through,” Butler said.
The president, he don’t pay attention to the little people. People who has got money and stuff like that, he’s helping them more than he is us.”
Blankenship remembers a time when McDowell had multiple movie theaters and shopping that rivaled New York City. Today, it’s one of the poorest counties in the nation. Still, she has no intention of leaving.
“This is my home. I’ll die in these hills, and that’s my choice,” Blankenship said.