BURLINGTON, W. Va. — It’s two o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny Saturday in late September, and I’m standing in a grassy field with Dale, a white man in his late 70s.
I’m at the Apple Harvest Festival in Burlington, W. Va. To our left, a vendor is hawking T-shirts with images of Confederate flags and high-powered weapons printed on them. “Ban idiots not guns,” one shirt declares. In the background are the acoustic strums and picks of fiddles, banjos and mandolins.
But my attention is fixed on Dale, who’s holding forth on the virtues of Donald Trump.
“I’ll tell you what,” Dale says. “President Trump, and I prayed to God that he would be elected, he’s for all the right things. I mean, he was against abortion, same-sex marriages, sex changes and all that corrupt stuff that’s not biblical at all. I mean, you know, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for these homosexuals back in those days. So, it’s a sin.”
As for Hillary Clinton, “she’s the wicked witch of the west, as far as I’m concerned,” Dale says. And the Democrats? “I’ve put a new name on them—‘Demon-crats.’ A lot of them are demon possessed, I think.”
Dale, a self-described God-fearing conservative independent, thinks Trump is doing a great job nearly a year after his election win — or he would be if only the “liberal Left” would leave him alone.
“Yeah he’s a little bit outspoken in a way, you know?” he says. “I mean the profanity. Sometimes I don’t agree with that. But sometimes that’s the only language somebody understands. You know what I’m saying?”
Burlington is located just a few miles north of Grant County on the West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. Grant County has the distinction of being the Trump-iest county in the second Trump-iest state in America.
That is, 88 percent of Grant County’s voters cast their ballots for the Republican nominee in last year’s presidential election, the highest share of any of West Virginia’s 55 counties. West Virginia was the second most pro-Trump state; 68 percent of Mountain State voters supported Trump, only 0.3 points behind Wyoming.
With the anniversary of Trump’s historic victory approaching, I’m here to find out what his supporters think of his presidency so far.
Most Republicans I talked to say Trump is doing a good job. They pin any grievances they may have on other political actors—the media, Democrats, and congressional Republicans.
“I like his values. I like Trump’s values. I think he’s gonna do good for us,” said Debbie Walker, a middle-aged white woman I spoke with at the festival, “Yeah I think he’s doing well.”
A few days before meeting Dale and Debbie, I was introduced to a man named Charlie Combs at an apple butter-making event associated with the festival. With cauldrons of apples cooking all around us, Charlie explained that much of Trump’s overwhelming local support had to do with people’s aversion to Hillary Clinton. “They did this,” he said, holding his nose to suggest that many people here thought of Trump as the lesser of two evils. “The Republicans are stupid,” Combs said, “but the Democrats are godless.”
Combs, a retired forest ranger and water resource inspector, railed against America’s $20 trillion national debt, and lamented that Trump would not do much to reduce it. When I told him that Trump was pressuring House conservatives to endorse a budget that adds $1.5 trillion to the deficit, he just shook his head.
Lowering the debt and balancing the budget are moral issues for Combs. “I’m not smart, but I’m not clear stupid, either,” he said. “If I’m that much in debt, I think my first order of business is to get that in order before taking on something like healthcare reform.”
I asked Combs how he thinks Trump is performing so far. “All right,” he answered, but “I wish they’d let him do his job.” The “they,” he explained, was everyone else in politics — Democrats, Republicans, and especially the media.
The deep distrust of the media is something I have encountered again and again while reporting throughout the country for The Race To 2020. According to a recent poll, nearly half of Americans think the media make up stories about Trump. That includes nearly three-quarters of Republicans.
Both Dale and Charlie blamed Congress, not Trump, for the lack of results on healthcare, immigration, and other issues. This too conforms with how Republicans are feeling nationally. A recent CNN poll showed that 85 percent of Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing, while just 66 percent have a favorable view of the Republican Party.
Grant County is a homogenous place, not just politically but also in terms of its religiosity and racial makeup. About 98 percent of residents are white, and less than one out of 1,000 residents was born outside of the country.
Back at the Apple Harvest Festival, I managed to find a few Democrats, and all of them said they think the Trump voters in their community are happy with the job he’s doing. Barbara Henderson, a middle-aged black woman who said she thinks Trump is “taking us down a really dangerous path,” nonetheless said that most of his supporters seemed happy with him.
Sharon and Duane Nichols, a Bernie Sanders-supporting, peace-sign-necklace-wearing couple, also said most people in the area were satisfied with Trump.
Unlike much of the state, which is historically Democratic and only recently become Republican, Grant County has always been overwhelmingly Republican. In fact, the county has never given a Democratic presidential candidate as much as 40 percent of its vote since its creation in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Trump got 88 percent of the vote in 2016; Mitt Romney performed only slightly worse four years earlier, bringing in 83 percent of the vote.
A couple of weeks after the Apple Harvest Festival, I caught up with Charlie Combs again, this time at his house in the unincorporated community of Cabins, just outside Petersburg in Grant County.
We talked about politics for nearly two hours. He reiterated his belief that the Democrats are “godless” and the Republicans “stupid.” He said he wished Trump would just shut up sometimes, though he conceded that “the rednecks, for lack of a better term,” ate up Trump’s name-calling, in particular his labeling of NFL players who kneel to protest the American flag as “SOBs.”
As I started to get up to leave, Charlie stayed seated. He had one more thing to say. “I’m not sure about Mr. Trump,” he said after a short pause. “The things he’s said are definitely not a Christian attitude. He scares me a bit. But I pray for him. Sometimes it’s hard to.”
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