The boy who escaped Trump country
Their forebears made the Atlantic crossing from Ulster, Scotland, either side of Hadrian’s Wall, and other badlands of the emerging British state. They kept moving west. A few made it past the Blue Ridge mountains to Ohio, Missouri and the Great Plains beyond. A larger number put down their roots in Appalachia to forge a living out of “the peace of the silent hills”, as an old song put it. “Gold is where you find it. Old ways and old days. In the Smokies . . . ” The only real gold in these hills was of the black variety — seams of coal buried deep in its ravines, shallow on its mountain tops, and in the sides of cliffs and rock faces. For more than a century, King Coal reigned over the valleys of south-west Virginia, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Then Barack Obama took office. Few from these parts voted for him. Though coal was already in decline, the regional depression tightened its grip in the wake of Obama’s tough new carbon emission controls. In the past seven years, more than half the region’s mines have closed. Most of the rest are operating well below capacity. With the closures went hope. Property prices collapsed. An opioid epidemic spread like brush fire. Mere mention of Obama’s name prompts scorn. If anything, Hillary Clinton elicits even worse. “We are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal owners out of business,” Clinton said in March. Of all the candidates on either side, only Donald Trump promised a miracle. “We’re going to bring the coal industry back 100 per cent,” he vowed with his trademark precision at a West Virginia rally. “You’re going to be proud again to be miners.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump won the Republican nomination in all but 16 of the 420 counties in the region. Of these, Buchanan County, in south-west Virginia, topped the list. It gave the New York billionaire 70 per cent of the Republican vote — the highest share he has received anywhere in America. Indeed, the sparsely populated county gave him more votes than the other six candidates put together — and three times as many as Clinton. Forget Florida, Colorado and other traditional swing states. The battle in 2016 will pivot around former blue-collar strongholds, such as south-west Virginia, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“This is Trump country,” says Tamara Neo, a bankruptcy lawyer who co-chairs Trump’s campaign in south-west Virginia. “For the first time I can remember, I am hopeful about my children’s future.” Loretta Viers, a real estate agent, goes one better.
“I am 70 and I don’t remember one politician who has ever helped — not one,” she says. “Obama goes around apologising for our country. Trump says exactly what people in the coalfields are thinking. It is time for America to stop being nice.”
Coaxing people in Buchanan County to open up to a stranger is not the easiest of tasks. “We’re leery of outsiders,” says Dana Oliver, a 22-year-old single mother who lives in a mobile home and works two part-time jobs — serving in a bar and managing stock in a dollar store. “They make us look stupid, as though everybody’s missing their teeth or high on Oxycontin [a prescription opioid]. Seems like we’re easy to stereotype.” In exchange for Oliver’s insights, I agree to be e-introduced to her friend, Daniel Justus, who would show me another side of things. “Not everyone in Buchanan is going to hell,” she says. “Some people are making something of their lives.” I quickly forget about our deal as Oliver tells me about her travails. But that evening, an email arrives from Daniel. He calls himself “the boy who escaped”. It piques my interest. What, I wonder, was Daniel escaping from?
The drive to Daniel’s family home takes me across rugged mountains, through mist-shrouded valleys and past churches. Lots of churches. I counted about one a mile. A few hundred yards from Daniel’s valley, there is a Church of Jesus Christ with a large billboard you cannot miss. “When life gives you more than you can stand, just kneel,” it says. Daniel clearly wasn’t paying attention. Since childhood he has been kicking against the fate that everybody around him — barring his mother, Karen — seemed to have preordained.
When Daniel was in eighth grade (aged 14), he argued in front of the school board for his right to be taught extracurricular courses that would let him apply to college. The school principal had repeatedly turned him down. He won. “Nobody could understand why I would want to do that,” he says. “I convinced them it was my right.” Then he insisted on learning Spanish, even though there was just one qualified teacher in the county. They set up interactive television classes so he could learn remotely. He is now a Spanish interpreter for the state of Virginia. Then he wanted to learn Chinese. Today he speaks and writes fluent Mandarin. Last summer, he spent three months working for a Chinese law firm in Shanghai, dealing in intellectual property rights. Last weekend, he graduated with distinction from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Next stop is a postgraduate degree at an Ivy League university or Oxford. “I’m still thinking about where to apply,” he says.
Most of Daniel’s peers from high school found jobs at the hulking local Walmart, telemarketing from home or as welders on construction sites. One or two found work in the coalfields, or what is left of them. Others have fallen prey to the heroin epidemic. Many of the girls, including Oliver, got pregnant in their teens. “I knew one girl who got pregnant at 14,” says Daniel, now 22. Like most others I saw in Buchanan, he has good teeth, though he has purged all trace of his Appalachian accent. To put it mildly, he has defied the odds. Daniel was also the first person I met in Buchanan County who had not voted for Trump. In November, he will vote for Clinton — though without much enthusiasm. “Trump is just another drug,” Daniel says. “People round here are addicted to escapism.”
The first thing that strikes you about Daniel’s home is its serenity. From the covered porch with its lazy ceiling fans, you gaze up verdant slopes to wooded hilltops. In the garden, there is a weeping willow and cherry trees. As dusk falls, the air comes alive with the sound of tree frogs and cicadas. You can hear the occasional braying of the family donkey, Jackson. The second thing that strikes you is the garish cliff-face carving of the Confederate flag on the other side of their narrow valley. It overlooks the large, floodlit football field of Hurley High School, whose principal Daniel outfoxed when he was a student. The Hurley Rebels team colour is the old Confederate flag. “Heritage not hate,” is what the flag’s apologists say it represents. To Daniel the slave state flag evokes something more visceral — a culture that prizes sport to the exclusion of all else. It is not just the school. In place of petrol prices, the signs outside the local gas stations proclaim, “Good luck Rebels!” When the team win, it makes the front page of The Mountaineer, the county’s main newspaper, next to stories about suicides, local beauty pageants and elk poaching.
“Faith, Family, Football,” says a banner in the school’s main hallway. “We bleed red and blue,” says another. The sign outside the girls’ bathroom reads, “Lady Rebels”. The only other school banner I could see said: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The school has no science laboratory. Its library consists of two half-empty rows of shelves. A few months ago, Hurley High tipped most of its library’s contents into a nearby dumpster. “I found Oliver Twist in there,” says Joshua, Daniel’s middle brother. The family salvaged a bookshelf’s worth of discarded titles.
Daniel is not just an exception in Buchanan County. I am tempted to think of him as the canary in the coal mine — except this one managed to fly to its freedom. His mother Karen, a chain-smoking force of nature, puts his success down to being strangely different. “When he was 18 months old he knew his alphabet backwards,” she says. “He still doesn’t have a clue how to change the engine oil.” When Daniel’s father, Danny Justus, a coal salesman and Baptist preacher, and his two younger brothers went deer hunting, Daniel would tag along with a book. While the others stalked deer with their rifles and crossbows, Daniel would sit under a tree reading. He refused to eat the venison. The book that influenced him most was Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. It tells the life of a clubfoot boy who could never fit in. Karen knew this about her son and nurtured it. When Daniel felt down and ostracised, she would egg him on. “I told him, ‘Buchanan isn’t even a piece of the jigsaw — it’s barely a speck on a piece of the jigsaw in that large world out there,’” she says. “None of this will matter if you escape.”
When the Rebels won a game, the principal would broadcast it triumphantly over the public address system. If Daniel won a spelling bee contest, or a debate competition — as he did on every occasion — it would pass unmentioned. Karen would head down to the principal’s office and demand that his feat be broadcast. Anyone who meets Karen, a robust woman with a mischievous glint in her eyes, would think twice about taking her on. “Think about that,” Karen says, waving a smouldering Marlboro Light. “The teachers didn’t care if you could spell or argue. They think too much ‘learnin’ is bad for you. That’s the teachers! Can you imagine what everyone else thinks?” Her words reminded me of Trump’s praise for the kids who don’t turn out like Daniel. “I love the poorly educated,” he said.
The other trait that separated Daniel from others was his dislike of coal. In Buchanan County, that is tantamount to atheism. Many in his family had fallen victim to the hazards of working underground — the dreaded black lung disease, the sleep apnea, split tendons, slipped discs and orthopaedic ailments that come from a half-bent myopic existence in the dust-ridden bowels of Appalachia. Others, including relatives of Daniel, have fallen prey to the prescription drug culture that supposedly exists to ease their pain. One close relative, whom Karen asked me not to name, was caught distributing pills. Tamara Neo, the attorney who co-chairs Trump’s regional campaign, put him away for 10 years. “Neo was ruthless with poorer addicts who couldn’t afford lawyers,” says Karen. “There was no forgiveness.” The closest Daniel came to a fight at school was when he argued the benefits of renewable energy. A football jock wanted to punch him. Parents demanded that a sympathetic teacher be disciplined for making a case against coal.
What angers Daniel is that his people are clinging to a way of life that has crippled them — often literally. “It’s as if they have Stockholm syndrome [where a prisoner falls in love with his captor],” he says. Dana Oliver, Daniel’s school friend who introduced us, puts it another way. In the absence of coal, half the county now subsists on federal handouts — Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security disability payments and other “entitlements”. Alone in the Republican field, Trump vowed to protect them. Whatever else you can say about the New York property magnate, he knows his market. Call it big-government conservatism for white people. “Coal is not coming back — it costs too much to open a flooded mine,” says Oliver. “In their heart of hearts, most people know that. Trump just gives them a little bit of hope.”
But there is another way of looking at Trump’s wild popularity in the region. Before the start of each shift, a preacher calls for God’s blessing on the miners. In this part of the world, the church is almost as ubiquitous underground as it is above. In the wake of the mine closures have come bad habits. People sell food stamps for opioid pills, says Oliver. Church attendance has fallen. God is missing in action. “If you think about it, what Donald Trump wants to do is bring God back into their lives,” she says. “That’s the way a lot of people see it.”
Tamara Neo, Trump’s main cheerleader for the region, certainly sees it that way. Every morning she puts her three children into her Range Rover for the 45-minute drive to a private Christian school across the state border in West Virginia. There is too much godlessness in today’s public schools, she believes. As we drive, Tamara tests her children on the Bible. “John 1, verses 16-18,” she barks into her iPhone’s Siri app. The verses appear on screen. “Now say the verse, Axella,” she says to her daughter, who’s in fifth grade. Axella stumbles over it then yawns. “Again,” says Tamara, until she gets it right. She moves on to Io, her eldest: “Exodus 20, Verse 12,” she says. “Go Io.” Next comes Flux. Then she makes them recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address — all 278 words of it. She does not stop until they get it right.
With children called Io, Axella and Flux, Tamara betrays her western origins. People in Virginia are conservative with names. Tamara and her husband Flux, also a lawyer, moved here from Colorado 10 years ago because they loved the beauty of the Great Smokies. She ran as commonwealth attorney for Buchanan County — an elected position as chief prosecutor for the area. She lost her re-election in 2010 but not before putting scores of people away for prescription drug-dealing. “In a close-knit community like this, a prosecutor quickly prosecutes herself out of a job,” says Tamara. “You know too many people.” Almost never in her four years on the job did she come across cocaine or even meth. “The epidemic is in prescription pills,” she says. “People will do anything to get hold of them.”
Like many of Trump’s evangelical supporters, Tamara does not mind the thrice-married candidate’s lurid tabloid past. After all, Ronald Reagan had been divorced. “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future,” she says. What most appeals to her about Trump is that he talks without a trace of political correctness. He calls things the way he sees them. Gaffes that would have felled a lesser man — calling illegal Hispanic immigrants “murderers” and “rapists”, for example, or obsessing over supposed slights about the size of his penis — have left Trump unscathed. “He just keeps walking through one fire after another and coming out the other side untouched,” says Tamara. “I take this as a sign.”
In spite of having Mexican ethnicity on his father’s side, Tamara’s husband Flux, with whom she shares a private legal practice, is if anything even more Trumpian than his wife. He was raised by foster families in Tucson, Arizona, before “emancipating” himself in his teens. He dropped his Hispanic name for an invented one, Flux Neo, to symbolise a new beginning. Flux also found God. He still bears traces of his tough street childhood, which seems to come straight out of television drama Breaking Bad. His tongue is pierced and a tattoo in Sanskrit encircles his neck. It translates: “There is no higher religion than truth.” On his wall hangs a framed tableau of a dead tarantula and a dead scorpion. It reminds him of his past. Nobody supports building Trump’s wall with Mexico more than Flux does. “I’ve seen the Mexican drugs cartels close up,” he says. “I know what they can do.”
A few weeks ago, Tamara introduced Trump at a rally in Radford, Virginia. Flux took a video of it. The whole family was there. It was the performance of her life and the largest crowd she had ever addressed. In court she would occasionally suffer from stage fright. But on this occasion she felt no trace of nervousness. Shortly before Tamara went on, Trump had put her at ease. He was so humble and gentle, she says. No cussing or cursing. He asked about her home town. Then she walked up to the microphone. Her short speech focused on Trump’s promise to “make America great again”. “For all those trolls and haters out there, let me be clear,” Tamara said. “I am no longer OK with charming, smooth politicians speaking kindly to me as they destroy my children’s future. I don’t need someone to never use a foul word. I don’t need my president to have polished, perfect teeth: I want action! I don’t need a president to have perfect hair, I need him to have balls!”
Tamara had done what she was asked to do. She made the crowd roar. Then the big man came on. A few days later, Trump broke the barriers with his massive victory in Buchanan and surrounding counties. Tamara believes he will do it again in November. “For the first time in my life, I believe we can get America back again,” she says. “I have been waiting a long time for Trump to come along.”
Joshua Justus has a better idea than most of America’s past. Now almost 80, Daniel’s grandfather became a miner when he was just 15. Harry S Truman was still president. Joshua could barely read or write. He earned 70 cents an hour. He can vividly recall childhood scenes of the Depression, when people queued for hours for a slice of bacon. I sit on his porch in the fading light listening to him reminisce. Something about this toothless old miner, dressed in 1950s trousers and braces, sucking intermittently on his oxygen mask, reminds me of Daniel’s mother Karen — Joshua’s daughter. Perhaps it is his outspokenness. Joshua says he hated working in the mines. “I wouldn’t wish that on a dog,” he says.
I ask him what he thinks of his grandson, flying off to Shanghai again in a couple of weeks for further work experience, this time taking his father, who has never set foot outside of the US. Could he imagine one of his own would one day speak Chinese? The grandfather chortles. “Book learning is no good if you don’t have common sense,” he says. After a pause, he adds: “Daniel has plenty of both.” The only smart way to go nowadays is to get educated and get out, he adds. What he cannot understand is why “people round here” cling to the mines. “When a crook like Trump comes along, promising this and promising that, they are ready to believe anything,” he says. “Some people round here aren’t so smart.” Trump is a “disrespectful and very ill-mannered” man, he adds. He doesn’t have a good word to say about anybody. Daniel, on the other hand . . .
Our conversation turns to Daniel’s latest bugbear — stopping Buchanan from wasting its meagre budget on a new Bible studies class. The curriculum was approved by the Southern Baptist Convention, which embraces creationism. The young scholar wrote a letter to The Voice, the regional paper, which goes to the heart of the area’s future. Between the lines, it also tells us about the boy who escaped — and how, in spite of everything, he wants to return home to help it through its collapsing morale.
“I was fortunate enough to have been raised by parents who taught me to be a critical and independent thinker,” Daniel wrote. “Not all students in Buchanan County are quite so fortunate. Rather than challenged and encouraged, our children are stymied and restrained — their eyes blinded and their feet bound by a lack of curricular diversity and an overabundance of empty justifications for their plight.” The world outside south-west Virginia demanded “fungible soft skills” and “critical thinking”, he wrote. It was unlikely a Bible studies class would do that.
It was a bold letter — perhaps a little arrogant but sharply relevant. Beneath Daniel’s words there was a reply from Earl Cole, the paper’s proprietor, and one of the region’s leading opinion formers. He is also a Trump supporter and a friend of Tamara Neo. “It is not a good thing, totally, to be trained to be a critical thinker,” Cole responded. “As for the Bible, it is the Holy Book. There is no better manual for preparing for life in the real world.” But it was the proprietor’s closing paragraph that made me catch my breath. I had to reread it to feel its edge. “Mr Justus does not say whether he is a believer or not,” Cole concluded. “But in reading his letter, I can see that he has a lot to learn.”
Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US columnist and commentator
Photographs: Matt Eich; Getty