Editor’s note: This is the last in a series examining communities that supported Donald Trump.
SANDY HOOK, Ky. — The regulars amble in before dawn and claim their usual table, the one next to an old box television playing the news on mute.
Steven Whitt fires up the coffee pot and flips on the fluorescent sign in the window of the Frosty Freeze, his diner that looks about the same as it did when it opened a half-century ago.
People like it that way, he thinks. It reminds them of a time before the world seemed to stray, when coal was king and the values of the nation seemed the same as the values here, in God’s Country, in this small county isolated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Elliott County, a blue-collar union stronghold, voted for the Democrat in each and every presidential election for its 147-year existence — until Donald Trump promised to wind back the clock.
“He was the hope we were all waiting on, the guy riding up on the white horse. There was a new energy about everybody here,” says Whitt.
“I still see it.”
Despite the president’s dismal approval ratings and lethargic legislative achievements, he remains popular here, a region so battered by the collapse of coal it became the symbolic heart of Trump’s white working-class base.
The frenetic churn of the national news scrolls soundlessly across the bottom of the diner’s television screen, rarely registering. When it does, Trump doesn’t shoulder the blame — because the allegiance to him among supporters here is as emotional as it is economic. It means God, guns, patriotism. It means tearing down the political system that neglected them in favor of cities that feel a world away. On those counts, they believe Trump has delivered; he’s punching at all the people who let them down.
“One thing I hear in here a lot is that nobody’s gonna push him into a corner,” says Whitt, 35. “He’s a fighter. I think they like the bluntness of it.”
He plops down at an empty table, drops a stack of mail onto his lap and begins flipping through the envelopes.
Whitt and his wife, like many people here, cobble together a living with a couple jobs each because there aren’t many options better than minimum wage. Outside of town, roads wind past rolling farms that used to grow tobacco before that industry crumbled too, then up into the hills of Appalachia, with its spectacular natural beauty and grinding poverty that has come to define this region in the American imagination.
Whitt supported Trump because of his stand on social issues like guns and religion, and also his promise to revive the working-class economy. A third of people in Elliott County live in poverty. Just 9 percent of adults have a college degree. Once, they made up for that with backbreaking labor that workers traveled dozens of miles to neighboring counties or states to do, but those jobs are harder to find. So many rely on government assistance, and Whitt’s grown frustrated that he and his wife foot the bill and can’t get ahead, despite working 12 hours a day.
Whitt doesn’t blame Trump for failures like Republicans’ inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He blames the “brick wall” in Washington, all the politicians who have left places like this behind. And he and his neighbors cheer Trump for moves like scrapping regulations designed to curb carbon emissions, which they condemn for leading to mining’s decline.
Coal jobs have ticked up slightly since Trump took office, but industry analysts dismiss Trump’s pledges to resuscitate the industry as pie in the sky. Coal has been on the decline for decades for reasons outside of regulation: far cheaper natural gas, mechanization, thinning Appalachian seams. The region has relied on programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission and Economic Development Administration that provide money for job-training, anti-poverty efforts and beautification initiatives aimed at transitioning to a tourism economy. Trump proposed a budget that wipes out those programs.
Still, retired pipefitter Wes Lewis says he’s seeing signs that the region is coming back to life. A few months ago, he saw four brand-new coal rigs going through town. He’s noticed new trucks in driveways, which he takes as evidence that his neighbors are feeling confident.
He thinks the mines will soon roar back to life, and if they don’t, he believes they would have if Democrats and Republicans and the media — all “crooked as a barrel of fishhooks” — had gotten out of the way. Likewise, if there isn’t a wall built on the Mexico border, it won’t be because Trump didn’t try, he says.
“He’s already done enough to get my vote again, without a doubt,” he says.
Others find Trump’s promises dangerous.
Gwenda Johnson, retired after nearly 40 years in community development, says it’s time to acknowledge the painful fact that coal will never be what it was, no matter what Trump pledges.
“I fear that when they finally realize that Donald Trump is not the savior they thought he was — if they ever come to that realization — the morale in these rural areas will be so low that they will not ever put faith in anyone again,” she says.
But Lewis is sticking by him, because he feels like he has no other choice.
“Here’s the big thing,” he says, “if Trump lies to us, it won’t be anything different than what the rest of them always did.”
AP data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report. Follow Claire Galofaro on Twitter at https://twitter.com/clairegalofaro