As a laid-off coal mine electrician, Nolan Triplett doesn't think his industry will ever return to the heady days when it powered America and offered generations of Appalachians a chance at a middle-class life.
But he still backs the president who said he'd reopen the mines and put thousands back to work, even if such promises proved empty.
“Even if I don’t go back to this industry, I’m still with him,” said Triplett, 41, outside a mine worker certification office in Danville, a town of about 700 people along the Little Coal River in Boone County south of Charleston.
Four years after Donald Trump donned a miner’s helmet at a West Virginia campaign rally and vowed to save a dying industry, coal has not come roaring back. The fuel has been outmatched by cheaper, cleaner natural gas and renewable energy.
But many West Virginians applaud Trump's efforts and remain loyal as he seeks a second term. Triplett and other voters say they are attracted to his “America First” slogan and anti-abortion stance, and figure he's the only one standing in the way of the entire industry closing down.
“He’s done good for this country all around," said Triplett, who lost his last mine job when the pandemic hit.
Democrat Joe Biden, who calls global warming an existential crisis, has promised to steer investments to coal and power plant communities, creating new jobs in renewable energy.
But many in coal country seem more intent on blaming the climate-change messenger than considering his plans for growth.
Next to Triplett stood Ronnie Starr, who lives near the Kentucky border in Mingo County, the scene of a legendary shootout over labor rights in the mines a century ago. He's had to move as far as Alabama to find work as a mine electrician since he started in the early 2000s, and is also out of a job now. He said the last Democrat he voted for was Bill Clinton, and he enthusiastically supports Trump.
“You got the right president, things go good,” said Starr, 43.
“And you got one group that hates us with a passion and would rather see us starve out and die,” Triplett cut in, “then you get another group that supports us, so it’s a rollercoaster.”
Since 2014, West Virginia has lost nearly a third of its remaining full-time coal jobs as production declines, starving local governments of revenue. When Trump took office in January 2017, Boone County received nearly $269,000 in quarterly coal company severance taxes. This October, it got just $42,300.
Nationally, cheap natural gas is beating coal on the market and coal-powered plants are closing. Coal consumption decreased nearly 15% in 2019 alone, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In 2016, the federal agency reported the industry’s worst jobs record since it began collecting this data in 1978, showing a yearly average of 51,795 employees at U.S. coal mines. Employment increased by a marginal 1.9% as of 2019.
“The coal jobs did not come back as the president promised,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a rare Democrat still thriving in West Virginia. “The markets have shifted.”
Anthony Starkey, a retired miner in Danville, said Trump earned his vote again by signing a bill last year to save the pensions of some retired coal workers, including his own.
“He’s a typical New Yorker, he’s arrogant,” Starkey said, pausing while mowing the lawn outside the Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge in Madison, the Boone County seat. “Whether you love him or hate him, he’s done what he’s said he’s going to do.”
Starkey, 62, said he was a Democrat all the years he worked as a miner, starting at about 17 in the early 1980s. He retired early at 38, drawing from a pension that nearly got wiped out as coal companies that paid into the fund went bankrupt. The relief Trump signed replaced corporate spending with $10 billion in public dollars to rescue pensions for 92,000 retirees, and health benefits for 13,000.
“If he was a typical Republican, he would not have signed that bill,” said Starkey.
Business has fallen off in the Danville hardware store Fred Byrnside, 73, has run for 30 years. “There was a time when 24-year-olds were getting jobs here in the mines,” he said.
“One time he could buy me lunch, and now he can’t afford it," cracked Craig Bratcher, a Boone County commissioner who stopped into the store.
Bratcher, who describes himself as a moderate, wouldn't say who he’ll vote for, but offered a forgiving assessment of Trump.
“He’s come in and he’s tried,” he said. “I’ll give him this.”
But he and others admit there’s no saving the industry. Although many won't forgive President Barack Obama for pushing to curtail carbon-polluting coal, Bratcher said the decline started before his inauguration.
That skepticism about coal's future is widely shared, even among Republican officeholders.
“I don’t think anyone thinks it’s a growth industry,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Capito, who is seeking re-election as a Trump ally. “What we’ve gotten with the president is a stabilization of the coal industry.”
It doesn't seem to matter much to these voters that Trump promised more than stabilization: “We’re going to put the miners back to work!” he told a campaign rally in Charleston in May 2016. “We’re going to get those mines open.”
That hasn't happened, even as Trump has rolled back some Obama-era regulations, such as one aimed at reducing contamination from the wastewater that coal-burning power plants release into streams, lakes and underground aquifers.
Richard Lalonde, a registered Democrat, still works at 82 inside a thrift shop he and his wife own in Madison, where a coal mining museum promises it is “preserving the past for future generations.” He said he remains uncommitted as to his choice on Election Day, after supporting Trump in 2016. But he's blunt about coal's promise for his town's economy.
“It’s never going to be like the way it was before,” he said. “Around here it’s done.”