A long way from Trump Tower.

Photographer: Francis Wilkinson

Coal Country Is Desperate for Donald Trump

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Grundy, Virginia, looks as if it fell into a crevice and got stuck. The seat of Buchanan County, Grundy snakes for miles between high Appalachian mountain walls that restrict its width in places to little more than a stone's throw. To beat recurring floods from the Levisa Fork River, and to wedge a Wal-Mart into a struggling downtown, the Army Corps of Engineers blasted 2.4 million cubic yards of rock off a mountain face. The entire project cost around $200 million, and left the town, population 1,100, without a core.

It didn't stop the walls from closing in. Like the coal industry on which it is utterly dependent, Grundy is shrinking. The population of Buchanan County has been declining. Schools consolidate as children grow scarce. In February 2006, the county unemployment rate was 5.2 percent. A decade later it's more than 12 percent, making in-migration even more improbable than ever in this remote and inaccessible hollow.

According to U.S. Census data, an astonishing one fifth of the county's residents under age 65 are on disability. The Atlantic called Grundy the sickest town in America. Diabetes, obesity and heart disease are common. So are broken men -- their bodies twisted on the outside by mine work or destroyed from the inside by the insidious effects of coal dust.

The shrill canary in this unpromising shaft turns out to be none other than Donald Trump. If Trump's national political success is a sign of distress in American conservatism, his triumph in Buchanan County -- he'll be tested in Pennsylvania coal country on Tuesday -- is indicative of an existential crisis.

In Virginia's March primary, Trump received 70 percent of the Republican vote in Buchanan, making it so far his best county in the U.S. outside of his home state of New York. The shift from 2008 was especially stark. That year, 2,494 votes were cast in the Democratic primary in the county, compared with 679 in the Republican primary. Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama 10 to 1. In 2016, voting in the Republican primary more than tripled from 2008, with Trump winning 1,586 of 2,276 votes cast. Among Democrats, Clinton prevailed, but with just a third of the total votes cast for Trump.

Buchanan County, population 23,000, is stereotypical of Trump's base. It's a masculine world, based on manual labor, 96 percent white, with fewer than 9 percent of residents possessing a bachelor's degree. Median household income is less than $30,000, and almost one quarter of the county lives in poverty.

As a candidate who meets the status quo at awkward and unexpected angles, Trump is inherently appealing. "He's a wildcat," said John Taylor, a former army combat engineer who supports Trump. "I think he has a pretty good record being a capitalist."   

For many decades, capitalism worked magic on Grundy, financing the extraction of natural resources, allocating men and machines, building wealth. Taylor's employer, Noah Horn Well Drilling, started out drilling water wells, then rode the coal boom to prosperity, expanding into coal exploration, mine degasification and oil drilling.

Noah Horn, who died in 2006, became wealthy servicing the coal industry. Company walls feature the mounted heads of big game that Horn shot on hunting trips around the world. A small conference room contains a stuffed Alaskan polar bear.

Around Grundy these days, it's people who feel like prey. Noah Horn Well Drilling had 185 employees in 2012. "Now," said the company's vice president, Leon Boyd, "we have 47."

Photographer: Francis Wilkinson

Leon Boyd

Boyd started work at the drilling firm in 1986, right out of high school. Married at 17, with a family soon on the way, Boyd's lack of higher education was no impediment to success. An able mind, fine character and strong work ethic sufficed. As vice president, he now commands men, respect and a good living.

"Not everybody's going to get a college education," Boyd said. "For all these years, there've been well-paying jobs without college." Indeed, coal miners can make $90,000 a year here. But government and the market have combined to put coal country in a vise. Notably, it's the Obama administration's "war on coal," not the equally evident disfavor of the marketplace, that fuels anger. Residents cite "regulation" as an all-purpose culprit.

It's true that construction of coal-fired power plants, with their climate-altering pollution, has ground to a halt under the Obama administration. The market, meanwhile, can't work through a global glut of the stuff. At home, cheap natural gas is making coal, with its costly externalities, a loser. Bankruptcies among coal companies and servicing industries abound.

It's no better abroad. In 2015, rising demand in India and Korea couldn't compensate for a 31 percent drop in demand -- 71 million metric tons -- from China. Bloomberg Industries projects that Chinese demand will fall an additional 33 million metric tons in 2016.

Buchanan County is especially rich in high-grade metallurgical coal, which is used in steel-making. But Australia and Russia have plenty, also. The price of metallurgical coal has fallen about 75 percent since 2011.

Boyd recently leased 11 acres just to park his company's idle equipment, which he estimates has lost a third or more of its value in just the past few years. Drilling rigs and air compressors rest in the open air alongside trucks, tractors, trailers, bulldozers and thousands of feet of unused pipe. "Each one of those blue trucks is nine jobs," he said, pointing to a row of dormant steel on wheels, "plus the other jobs that go along with it."

Photographer: Francis Wilkinson

A fortune's worth of idle equipment. 

Boyd has laid off old friends and longtime employees. The responsibility weighs on him. As the industry has declined, he has grown increasingly desperate. He and several employees devoted many man-hours talking with me in the vague hope that publicity would lead to . . . something. He is reduced to shooting distress flares in the sky.        

Desperation is also at the root of Boyd's support for Trump. In a speech earlier this year at Virginia's Radford University, Trump said, “We’re going to bring the coal industry back 100 percent.” Of the elusive promise of "clean coal" technology, Trump, never bogged down by too much research, said, “I hear it works.”

Over lunch at a local Chinese buffet, Boyd and two employees explained that Trump is pretty much all they've got. Hillary Clinton has vowed to continue killing coal. She's also said she wants to fund training and jobs for coal communities. But in a place so geographically daunting that you have to move a mountain to site a Wal-Mart, it's hard to see what could ever replace King Coal.  

Trump rings other bells. "I voted for Trump," Dave Wilson, a certified blaster with the company, announced, "because a lot of the stuff that he says needs to be said."

Trump supporters seem to have embraced this euphemism as a way of endorsing Trump's racial appeal without resorting to Trumpian incivility. "Ferguson completely got blowed out of proportion," said John Taylor, referring to Missouri's racial calamity.

But nothing can compete with coal as a conversation piece, and the topic soon fades. "What's the future of this part of Virginia without the mining, without the drilling?" Boyd asked, returning to point. The question was rhetorical. It's pretty well understood that if coal doesn't recover, Grundy won't either.

Photographer: Francis Wilkinson

Trump's claim on the local imagination, explained Brian Shortridge, Buchanan County's unofficial historian, isn't hard to fathom. "We've seen Donald Trump before," said Shortridge, a local librarian. "Smiley Ratliff was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was Donald Trump."

Arthur "Smiley" Ratliff was a rascally, late-20th century coal baron with a basic philosophy -- "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, just so long as you win" -- that Trump would instantly recognize. In a precursor to the global warming denial practiced by Trump, Ratliff blamed black lung disease in coal miners on "bleeding heart" doctors.

"If you didn't think he was great, he would tell you that he was great," Shortridge said.

Ratliff's gaudy, self-made path to riches is now foreclosed. Independent coal operators have been going under at a prodigious rate, and even some venerable companies, including Peabody Coal, have sought protection in bankruptcy.

A photograph in a 1983 issue of National Geographic shows a small-time coal operator washing his new Cadillac, which is parked next to his new Corvette. Both cars are in front of the single-wide trailer that still houses his family. His transition from poverty to wealth was so rapid that he was caught straddling the gap.

"That's what everybody feels is being pulled away," said Shortridge, gazing at the photo.

In an economically rational world, the young of Buchanan County would up and move to where the schools and jobs are. Many have. But the closer you get to the mountains, the more resistance that meets. Leon Boyd wants his two younger children to be able to live and work nearby, as their older brothers do. He wants his community intact.  

Spending $200 million to supplant Grundy's downtown with a flood-resistant Wal-Mart was a spectacular misallocation of public resources. But the folly was, in some fundamental way, linked to the yearning summoned by Trump's campaign. You only get one hometown. Some people will try anything to make it great again.

There may be no more egregious misallocation of resources in all of Buchanan County than Brian Shortridge, the librarian. A community-college graduate, Shortridge is a 37-year-old autodidact, deeply knowledgeable about coal country and a world beyond. To punctuate a conversation, he recounted telephone dialogue between Lyndon Johnson and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. 

Shortridge used to write a weekly newspaper column on cemeteries -- one of his pet interests -- and has to restrain himself from pursuing a tangential discussion on the history of American post offices. His curiosity hasn't suffered from a lack of Internet service to his home.  

Economic efficiency would dispatch Shortridge to a thriving city where his intellect and knowledge base could be rewarded with a six-figure income.  

But Shortridge, like his hometown, has other priorities. He rarely leaves the county of his birth. Once a year, he attends "Dragon Con," a comics convention, in Atlanta. He is unswayed by opportunity, or wealth, beckoning from a big city.

"Roots are very important to me," he e-mailed (from his parents' Internet-connected home). "My parents, their parents and my parents' grandparents all lived in less than a mile of each other in a small community." His great-grandfather owned several small sawmills in the area. "I'm tied to Buchanan County not only through my own experiences here but through those of my ancestors. It is a part of me and who I am."

With coal in crisis, the library where Shortridge works is likely to suffer. It was built with coal money and, like other public goods, is funded in part by the coal severance tax, which extracts revenue for every ton of coal removed. The collapse of coal has led to a collapse of revenue.

"The lights are on here because of coal," Shortridge said.

I didn't ask Shortridge for whom he had voted. I doubt that he voted for Trump. But I can understand why he might have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net