December 28, 2017 10:05:21 AM
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 and sounds and smells about the same as it did when it opened a half-century ago. Coffee is 50 cents a cup, refills 25 cents. The pot sits on the counter, and payment is based on the honor system.
People like it that way, he thinks. It reminds them of a time before the world seemed to stray away from them, 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.
Everyone in town comes to his diner for nostalgia and homestyle cooking. And, recently, news reporters come from all over the world to puzzle over politics -- because 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 came along and 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 profoundly popular here in these mountains, a region so badly battered by the collapse of the coal industry it became the symbolic heart of Trump's white working-class base.
The frenetic churn of the national news, the ceaseless Twitter taunts, the daily declarations of outrage scroll soundlessly across the bottom of the diner's television screen, rarely registering. When they do, Trump doesn't shoulder the blame -- because the allegiance of those here is as emotional as it is economic.
It means God, guns, patriotism, saying "Merry Christmas" and not Happy Holidays. It means validation of their indignation about a changing nation: gay marriage and immigration and factories moving overseas. It means tearing down the political system that neglected them again and again in favor of the big cities that feel a world away.
On those counts, they believe Trump has delivered, even if his promised blue-collar renaissance has not yet materialized. He's punching at all the people who let them down for so long -- the presidential embodiment of their own discontent.
"He's already done enough to get my vote again, without a doubt, no question," Wes Lewis, a retired pipefitter and one of Whitt's regulars, declares as he deals the day's first hand of cards.
He thinks the mines and the factories 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. What Lewis has now that he didn't have before Trump is a belief that his president is pulling for people like him.
"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 next to the card game, drops a stack of mail onto his lap and begins flipping through the envelopes.
"Bill, bill, bill," he reports to his wife, Chesla, who has arrived to relieve him at the restaurant they run together. He needs to run home and change of out his Frosty Freeze uniform, the first of several work ensembles he wears each day, and put on his second, a suit and tie. He also owns a local funeral home and he's the county coroner, elected as a Democrat.
The Whitts, like many people here, cobble together a living with a couple jobs each -- sometimes working 12 or 15 hours a day -- because there aren't many options better than minimum wage. There's the school system, and a prison, and that's pretty much it. Outside of town, population 622, 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 slides a medical bill across the table.
"Looks like this one is the new helmet," he says, and his wife tears the envelope open and reports the debt: $3,995. They will add it to a growing pile that's already surpassed $40,000 since their son was born nine months ago with a rare condition. His skull was shaped like an egg, the bones fused together in places they shouldn't be. Tommy, their baby boy with big blue eyes, has now outgrown three of the helmets he's been required to wear after surgery so his bones grow back together like they should.
They pay $800 a month for insurance. But when they took their baby to a surgeon in Cincinnati, they learned it was out of network. In-network hospitals offered only more invasive surgeries, so they opted to pay out of pocket. At the hospital they were told that if they'd been on an insurance program for the poor, it would have all been free.
This represents the cracks in America's institutions that drove Whitt, a lifelong Democrat, from supporting President Barack Obama to buying a "Make America Great Again" cap that he still keeps on top of the hutch. Many of their welfare-dependent neighbors, he believes, stay trapped in a cycle of handouts and poverty while hardworking taxpayers like him and his wife are stuck with the tab and can't get ahead.
"Where's the fairness in that?" he asks.
But Whitt doesn't blame Trump for the failure this year to repeal the health care law and replace it with something better. He blames the "brick wall" in Washington, the politicians he sees as blocking everything Trump proposes while "small people" like them in small places like this are left again to languish.
A third of people here live in poverty. Just 9 percent of adults have a college degree, but they always made up for that with backbreaking labor that workers traveled dozens of miles to neighboring counties or states to do, and those jobs have gotten harder to find.
Many here blame global trade agreements and the "war on coal" -- environmental regulations designed by Obama's administration to curb carbon emissions -- for the decline of mining and manufacturing jobs. When Trump bemoans the "American carnage" of lost factories and lost faith, it feels like he's talking to the people in these Appalachian hills. When he scraps dozens of regulations to the horror of environmentalists and says it means jobs are on the way, they embrace him.
Coal has ticked up since Trump took office; mining companies have added 1,200 jobs across the country since his inauguration, more than 180 of them in Kentucky. But industry analysts say that was tied largely to market forces and dismiss Trump's repeated pledges to resuscitate the coal industry as pie in the sky. Coal has been on the decline for many decades for many reasons outside of regulation: far cheaper natural gas, mechanization, thinning Appalachian seams.
Whitt leans back in his chair and ponders whether his community has so far sensed any relief.
"I don't think we're seeing anything yet," he says, and asks around. "Do you?"
The stock market is surging, one of his regulars at the next table says. The tax reform plan will help them, they hope. The unemployment rate here has dipped slightly to 7.6 percent, still higher than the state and national average but better than it had been.
"With the opposition he's had, I think he's pulling the plow pretty good," offers Wes Lewis from the card table. A few months ago, he says, he saw four brand-new coal rigs going through town. "For the longest time, under Obama, all we saw were trucks being pulled on wreckers, because people turned belly up, they went broke."
Lewis says he's heard about friends of friends being called back to work. He's noticed new trucks in people's driveways, too, which he takes as evidence that his neighbors are feeling confident about their futures. These tiny signs stack up to him as proof. Lewis fishes the tag out of the bib of his overalls: "Made in Mexico," it reads.
"Trump's bringing them back," he says.
Lewis, a registered Democrat, trusts Trump because he trusts his values. And because of that, he trusts Trump's other promises -- so strongly he can't think of anything that would shake that faith in him. If the factories and mines don't come back, he'll blame the opposition. If there isn't a wall on the Mexico border, he says, it won't be because Trump didn't try. If investigators find his campaign colluded with Russians, it's because so many people are so determined to bring him down.
He watches all the news stations, he says, toggling back and forth as he performs his own calculations to figure out what he wants to believe. He almost always sides with Fox News and anchors who dismiss allegations of Russian collusion as a "witch hunt" and tout the president's declarations of accomplishments. The people against Trump are, by extension, against people like him, too, Lewis figures.
"They don't care if we starve to death out here, because they don't care the first thing about anybody other than their pockets being full," he believes. "Donald Trump doesn't care about that because Donald Trump's pockets are already full. That's the reason I've stuck with him."
Lewis leaves the diner like he does every day as the midmorning lull tapers into the lunch rush, and Chesla Whitt scurries from the kitchen to the register to the walk-up window to the ringing phone.
Soup beans are on the menu today, like they are every Wednesday. The daily specials have been the same as long as anyone can remember, cooked by a woman they all call "Nanny" who has worked in the kitchen for 35 years. People here like tradition, says Gwenda Johnson, retired after nearly 40 years in community development.
That's why the decades-old pinball machines are still in the back room of the Frosty Freeze and ashtrays sit on the tables, because smoking is still allowed.
But Johnson acknowledges one painful and irrevocable change in the region: Coal will never be what it once was, no matter what promises Trump makes to turn back time. Appalachia should be looking for a new path, she says, not the old one.
She rattles off all the things the community stands to lose under this administration: The region relies on programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission and Economic Development Administration that provide federal 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. Many depend on food stamps, disability coverage and health insurance through the Affordable Care Act -- all of which could be upended.
"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.
Many families here can trace their ancestry back generations on the same land. Almost everyone is white, and almost everyone is Christian. At the Frosty Freeze, a plaque with a Bible verse hangs under the television, from the book of Romans: "Owe no man nothing but to love one another." Steven Whitt says that most people he knows fret about transgender bathrooms and their Second Amendment rights being snatched away.
Sometimes, people from out of town find themselves in this diner. "They think we're the most conservative Republicans they ever met," Whitt says. "And we say, no, we're all Democrats."
That's just the way it's always been. Until recently, the number of Republicans in the whole county of 7,600 people was listed in the double-digits. Whitt never considered changing his registration. He thinks his own mom and dad wouldn't vote for him in his next election for county coroner if he were a Republican. He hasn't had the heart to tell them he's a Trump supporter.
"Around here, you hear, 'The Democrats were for the guys carrying a lunch pail,'" he says. Now, it seems to him, Trump has become the lunch pail party in the minds of many. But not all.
"I damn sure didn't vote for Trump. I'd rather walk through hell wearing gasoline britches," barks Terry Stinson, a retired construction worker. He has come to the Frosty Freeze almost every evening for dinner since his wife died.
He can barely bring himself to watch the news because it makes him mad, and he howls with laughter at the idea that the Republican tax cuts to corporations will eventually help the little guys. The country has been sold trickle-down economics before, he says, "And it's never trickled down to Sandy Hook. Why would it this time?"
Chesla is working the counter alone, running between the ringing phone and the register. Steven had business at the funeral home, so she scrambled together someone to watch Tommy while she stays at the restaurant for the supper crowd.
"I hate rushing," she says. "It seems like that's all we ever do."
She isn't quite sure how much faith to put in Trump to improve things in her own life. She liked him on "The Apprentice." She liked that he was funny and knew how to make money, and so she thinks everyone ought to calm down and give him a chance.
Steven didn't get home until nearly midnight. Then he was back at the diner before sunrise to power up the coffee pot and turn on the open sign and start the whole routine again.
Lewis arrived and headed for his table the next morning, and he said he'd been thinking about whether Trump would pull off his promises.
"Here's the big thing," he says, shuffling the deck of cards, "if Trump lies to us, it won't be anything different than what the rest of them always did."
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