LEBANON, Va. — Behind the barber’s chair where Claude Rasnake diagnoses many of the world’s problems, he charted the to-do list of the Trump administration.
Social Security, Medicare, the tax code – maybe Trump and a Republican Congress can finally get them fixed. Dismantle Obamacare and fix roads and bridges, too. But all that comes later, after the top priority.
“The first thing I’d like him to do is fire that lady that runs the EPA,” Rasnake, 81, said, working the trimmer around a customer’s ear. The Environmental Protection Agency makes regulations that limit the use of coal, and here that kills jobs.
Rasnake had pondered his vote for months. He didn’t like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – didn’t like the insults and the lies. But about a week ago he made up his mind, and it came down to this: Clinton had promised to put coal companies out of business and Trump donned a miner’s helmet and said he would help the dying industry.
“That was the basis of our economy here,” Rasnake said, as his customer began to grunt in agreement. “That’s really hurt. I’ve lost customers – some have had to move away. The one’s that’re left have a hard time getting by, month to month.”
This part of Virginia, the far Southwest, is almost as distant from Washington as Boston is. These are the red-state voters who went overwhelmingly for Trump but were canceled out by blue Northern Virginia. But while the Washington suburbs helped Clinton take Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, the people of these hard-hit hamlets and towns woke up Wednesday to find that their man had actually won the presidency.
“I was elated. I was super surprised,” said Roy Bonney, 49, who owns Red Oak Trading Co., a hardware and home improvement store in Coeburn. He had thought Trump shot his mouth off too much to get elected. Many voters here said the same, that they were unhappy with the way Trump talked or conducted himself.
But they voted for him by a huge margin. Russell County, where Lebanon is located, went 78 percent for Trump, 19 percent for Clinton. Wise County, where Coeburn is located, was 80 percent Trump. Dickenson, Tazewell, Lee, Scott and Buchanan counties – coal country – were all the same. Many areas went more heavily for Trump than they did for Mitt Romney four years ago.
Unemployment in these counties runs roughly twice the statewide rate of 4 percent. Most of the job losses are from mining and related industries. Virginia coal production last year dropped 70 percent from its peak in 1990, and is declining every year.
The growth jobs are in retail, food services, health care and social assistance, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission. A lot of the work is part-time.
“We’ve had a lot of factories closing down. Families have lost jobs,” said Linda Smith, 39, who works part-time at the Food City grocery store in Lebanon and can’t afford health insurance, even under Obamacare. Her husband, who once worked in mining, is disabled from a car accident. “Men don’t know how to do nothing at all except work in the coal mines…If [Trump] can get some of that opened back up, people will be happy.”
In Wise County, Juan Lopez, 42, climbs down off the huge mining truck he’s been repairing, hands blackened with grease. He came to the U.S. in 1991 from Mexico, got married, got his citizenship, had two kids. “We go to church. We’re trying to do it right,” he said.
Lopez voted for Trump. It was a vote to keep his job. “They say if Trump can do it better [with the coal industry], we might be able to have jobs two or three more years,” he said. “But if not, we might be out by the end of next year.”
Lopez’s employer, Ricky Meade, owns a vast fleet of trucks for hauling or loading coal – yellow and red Peterbilt and Kenworth rigs with 35-foot trailers, about 70 of them sitting idle behind a chain link fence bearing Trump/Pence signs.
“We went from running 85 trucks to running eight trucks, over the past three or four years,” said Meade, 47. He grew up here, but now lives an hour away in Bristol, Tenn., so his daughters can have more opportunities. His customer base is down to a single mine. From 105 employees, he now has about 25.
He’s had to hire a man to do nothing but start up trucks and move them around, so they can stay in working condition.
The whole area, he said, is literally built on coal. All the commercial buildings are on sites that had been leveled by mining. All the jobs are connected. “Everything you see, everything we got came in some way from coal. If it wasn’t for coal this part of Virginia wouldn’t exist.”
Meade stayed up long past midnight Tuesday, watching election returns. Then he couldn’t sleep and turned them on again. He had never thought Trump would win, and didn’t much like him. “He was the lesser of two evils, but he was our only hope,” he said. “With Hillary I don’t know that we would survive.”
Now he wants to see if Trump will deliver on what he promised. If he lowers restrictions on power plants, then use of steam coal may go up and some miners may go back to work. “I know he can’t wave a magic wand. I know we can’t get back to where we were two or three years ago,” he said. “I hope we can get back at least part of it.”
That alone is a tall order. Coal is simply on the wane worldwide as climate change becomes more of a concern, natural gas remains cheap and alternate forms of energy become more cost-effective. U.S. coal consumption dropped 13 percent last year.
Back at Rasnake’s barber shop, where he keeps his guitar in a chair because “a lotta barbers play music, especially up here in these mountains,” hope is barely hanging on. “If we’re going to have any jobs here it’s going to have to be the coal companies. This little town is just drying up,” said Kenneth Jessee, 67, who retired from a coal company three years ago to farm.
As Rasnake talked about his decision to vote for Trump, the man getting a haircut finally spoke up at the question of whether Trump can make a difference.
“No, he can’t,” said William Sisk, 78, of Buchanan County. “You won’t see those people working in the coal industry no more. Natural gas is too cheap. Any kind of market for coal anymore is very weak.”
Sisk spent 30 years at Pittston Coal, he said, as Rasnake finished and whipped the cover off him. “I made a good living at it, got a good retirement. But it’s gone,” he said, referring to the industry, but also Pittston, which sold out years ago after a crippling strike.
“It was the life’s blood here,” Rasnake agreed.
“A lot of people talk about Obama’s war on coal,” Sisk said, standing and getting his cap. “But the coal war was on long before Obama got there. The bottom dropped plum out when he got in there and he got all the blame for it. But I don’t think it’s ever gonna come back.”
As Sisk stepped out into the sunlight, he confessed that he didn’t vote for Trump. “He’s too radical. He promised too much,” he said. “You can promise anything, but you gotta deliver.”
Sisk didn’t vote at all.