MARTINSBURG — Lory, Maggie and the rest of their gang of septuagenarians weren't all that interested in politics, at least not to the point of openly campaigning for someone. But that was before Donald Trump and his wild run for the presidency in 2016. Ardent supporters of the Republican candidate, these grandmothers in Martinsburg, West Virginia began meeting regularly to discuss national affairs over coffee and muffins, and always with the White House chief's complete works in easy reach.
A year after their champion's serendipitous victory, the group is still gathering, this time to gush about Trump's recent Asia tour. Lory, a retired bookkeeper, reads an excerpt from the president's speech: "When we treat our citizens with the respect they deserve, other countries treat America with the respect that our country so richly deserves. During our travels, this is exactly what the world saw: a strong, proud, and confident America."
"I agree 100%," she then says. "Our president has given our country its standing and its pride back. We shouldn't continually shut up if we want to maintain America's leadership."
Sipping from Make America Great Again mugs, the group perks up even more when asked about the commander-in-chief's virtues.
"He says things the way they are," Maggie says.
"He respects us," Priscilla adds.
"And he's disrupting the establishment!" says Lory.
Nothing seems to dent their enthusiasm. The failure to repeal Obamacare? "It's not his fault, it's the Congress," says one. The out-of-control tweets? "He needs to talk directly to the people because the media distorts everything," another says. What about the controversies? "Those who attack him haven't accepted his election. He has to defend himself."
Until last year, these Martinsburg matrons steered clear of electoral politics. That changed with a trip to Johnstown, in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, where they attended one of Trump's election rallies. Getting there and back wasn't easy — Johnston is more than two hours away by car — but it was well worth the effort, the women explain.
"It was amazing. He brought the house down," Lory says. "He told us: The government has betrayed you for too long. I'm going to reopen the coal mines and bring the factories back." Did she believe these beautiful promises? "I know that he'll try at least. But it would take a lot to revive old industries," she admits. "It's not his fault if this landlocked state has missed the train of progress decades ago."
Poverty and addiction
The train, precisely, continues to play a large role in the city's identity. Martinsburg is a railway hub that became a front line during the American Civil War. Even today, railroad crossings on country roads are often closed for long periods of time because of long convoys of coal. The state's production fell by half, from 158 million tons in 2008 to 80 million in 2016, but there has been a surge since the beginning of the year.
Can Trump's deregulation and rising Chinese demand stem the decline? John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of West Virginia, is hoping that things at least stabilize. "We're not waiting for new regulatory constraints that would drive up coal prices," he says.
But Martinsburg needs more than just hope. From the peeling paint on its houses to the empty downtown storefronts, the city oozes poverty and neglect. Textile mills that generated the region's wealth have been rusting for decades. Interwoven — once upon a time the world's largest producer of men's socks — used to be Martinsburg's top employer. More than 3,000 people worked for the company before operations came to an end in the mid 1970s.
Street scene, Martinsburg, West Virginia — Photo: Doug Kerr
Nowadays there's a Macy's distribution center and the new Procter & Gamble plant, but they struggle to find local qualified workers able to pass the addiction tests. With 94 overdose deaths in 2016, Berkeley County has become the epicenter of the opioid crisis. The same can be said for West Virginia as a whole. Statewide, the crisis claimed nearly 900 victims last year, out of a total population of 1.8 million.
Tim Muggit lives in a ramshackle house on a small family farm along the road to Shepherdstown. He knows exactly what opioid affliction entails. His son Johnnie, who's theoretically in rehab after two overdoses that almost killed him, looks like the many ghosts wandering around Martinsburg. He arrives unannounced in search of a bed and a meal, but doesn't offer to help his father with any of the farm work. Flanked by two ferocious dogs, rifle close at hand, Tim sees only one reason to be optimistic: Trump.
"This country has gone soft," he says. "You can't say anything to anyone anymore. Everything is politically incorrect. The real world isn't like that. It's hard. Fortunately, the president has woken us up."
"This is the first time there's someone in the White House who really represents people like me," adds Tim, who's in his 50s. A New York billionaire? "It doesn't matter where he comes from," the farmer says. "He could have continued to be a successful businessman, but he hasn't forgotten this part of America, unlike all politicians for the past 40 years."
Like the old ladies of Martinsburg, Tim Muggit doesn't really care that much if Trump keeps his promises. Mostly he wants to be rid of "the disaster of Obamacare" — even as his son is being treated on public funds through Medicaid. He's also in favor of tax cuts, though he’s already exempted because of his low income. But what counts above all is that Trump "represents me against the establishment."
Downloads from God
There's plenty of anger to go around in these deprived areas. "The difficulties are everywhere, but they are more visible in smaller communities like ours," says Todd Funkhouser, president of the Berkeley County Historical Society. "People are too busy putting food on the table to worry about the rest."
West Virginia stagnates at the bottom of national rankings for household income (at 75% of the national average) and employment rate (barely 53%). "People don’t even bother looking for a job anymore," says John Deskins. "In some counties, the reliance on federal subsidies is absolutely shocking." Martinsburg is less isolated and is therefore doing better than other areas in the state. Even so, Funkhouser explains, "many people have to work far away from here."
In this context, the controversies shaking up Washington matter little. What the national media denounces as "propaganda" is accepted at face value.
"Trump works hard for us and the country has never done so well," says Lory. When I point out that he spends most weekends on his golf courses in Florida or New Jersey, she says she "didn't notice."
What about Russia and the election hampering allegations? "Nonsense spread by the hysterical media," Maggie says. And the special prosecutor? The overlapping congressional investigations? "Believe me, I know who I voted for and everyone around me voted for President Trump," she adds. "He didn't steal our votes."
On this solid Republican ground, skeptics are rare and the disillusioned rarer still. Jason Herman, who heads a small construction company, has some reservations about "the style of the President... he doesn't always express himself as you’d expected at this level." But he approves of Trump's policies: his challenges to regulatory excesses, his push for lower taxes, and for greater controls on borders and immigration.
"We used to care more about what people abroad would think than about the opinion of Americans," Jason laments. Thinking about what Hillary Clinton's victory would have been like, he says he's "ready to vote for Trump again tomorrow, without any hesitation. Who else is there?"
This enthusiasm, impervious to the president's missteps or subterfuge, sometimes seems to have more to do with worship than militancy. "No matter how demonstrably false his pronouncements are, they become, by definition, truth for his followers," Reza Aslan, author of God: a Human History, recently wrote in in the Los Angeles Times. "The cult leader is generally believed to possess special knowledge... Trump has been spectacularly successful at getting his supporters to believe his blandishments rather than their own eyes."
Last summer, an evangelical pastor from neighboring Ohio, Frank Amedia proclaimed that Trump "receives downloads from God," a sentiment Tim Muggit — who says there's no joking around when it comes to the Bible — seems to agree with. In this area, he explains, Obama was seen as "the antichrist." Trump, in contrast, is "the savior."
In West Virginia, the golden age Donald Trump promised hasn't materialized yet. No matter. More than hope for change, what unites the President and his "people" is the nostalgia for a prosperous and peaceful white America, where hierarchies were respected. "When I see these athletes who are paid millions of dollars and disrespect the national anthem, I'm glad the president has the balls to denounce them," Lory says.
She's talking specifically about players in the NFL, short for the National Football League. Around here people have other name for the league: "N***ers For Life," they say in hushed voices.