November 3, 2020

One thing was certain as I stood outside the courthouse in Lewisburg chatting to people casting their vote in this friendly little West Virginian town: Donald Trump is going to win a second term. Forget all the polls showing his Democratic rival Joe Biden has a big lead going into the final days of this strange campaign. “The silent majority of this country is going to come out loud and clear,” said Sharon McCallister, a 71-year-old retired nurse. “I love him because he has kept his promises and I truly believe he loves his people and his country. He is so down to earth and different to the others.”

I heard similar confidence that Trump will confound the pollsters, just like last time, from every one of his supporters I met in West Virginia. This is a place that fell heavily for his promises to revive American greatness, handing him a higher victory margin than any other state — and his fans remain loyal here at least. Like many others, McCallister used to be a Democrat — she lives in a state that was strongly blue until the turn of this century. But it has the lowest median household income in the country and, like other struggling parts, has been hit hard by changing global dynamics and population decline. Trump’s populist message found fertile terrain in the Mountain State, filled with dense woods, seams of coal and close-knit communities.

“I voted for Donald Trump,” stated Mitch Morgan emphatically, adding that abortion and the economy were his two key issues. “As a Christian and a conservative there was no real choice involved in my decision. I am not happy about him as a person but I like him very much as a politician. He’s brash but it seems to be working.”

The retired railroad worker also used to be a Democrat but after backing Barack Obama in 2008 sought “forgiveness” for his vote. Like many others with whom I spoke, he believes the party of FDR and Bill Clinton has moved sharply Left in recent years. “They used to be for the miners and workers. They did not used to be so radical. They’re a different party today.”

It was my third visit to this stunning corner of the country. Last time was before the mid-terms two years ago to see if the Democrats had any hope of winning back the white, working-class families that formed the bedrock of a reality television star’s unlikely triumph. There was national interest in an army veteran standing in this area who claimed to have found a way to woo them back by offering “populism with an Appalachian twang”. He lost by 12 points. My return on the eve of this seismic presidential election was to gauge the mood in the reddest slice of this now deeply-red state, a district where almost three in four voters backed Trump, as their Republican hero’s stated mission to drain the swamp seems set to be ended by a former Vice-President and veteran Washington insider.

The quaint town of Lewisburg, proudly displaying a wooden building from “circa 1787” and largely populated by polite Republicans, felt a world away from my previous stop of Portland, Oregon, a famously liberal city on the other side of the country that is struggling to contain near-daily Antifa protests. Yet in their very different ways, both places reflect the divisions that bedevil this country. Although no one mentioned the pandemic unless I raised the issue, many people raised the fissures running through the heart of these disunited states. And the most depressing lesson, for all the flags and banners bearing his name in homes and fields as I drove through West Virginia, was to see again how sharply these have intensified over four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

To return to Sharon McCallister, raised in the west of the state. She said this was an area of “die-hard” Democrats due to “the gimme”. When I asked her to explain, she replied that “most of them are on welfare and that goes back in their families four or five generations.” Then she told me a story about a close childhood friend. “We grew up together, we went to church together, we even sang in a trio together.” But this friendship ended because of McCallister’s support for the 45th president. “Trump has separated us — she did not like what I stood for now but this is a free country. I feel sad — it’s been a couple of years.”

What tragic commentary on this country that two pensioners could see a lifelong friendship extinguished over a sudden political divergence. But even this sorry story paled after I saw Brittney Taylor walking jauntily down the street and stopped to ask about the election. “Oh, I’m Trump,” she replied with a smile, instantly shattering my expectations of a young, black woman, especially one who comes from California. Then this 34-year-old single mother told me an extraordinary story of how she was working on the Hillary Clinton campaign in Alabama four years ago when she decided to switch sides — a decision that sparked such a huge schism with her parents, her 12 younger siblings and her friends that she upped sticks from Laguna Beach and moved 2,500 miles away.

Brittney Taylor, whose family rejected her for voting Trump

Bear in mind that Biden has an astonishing 85-point lead among black women voters, just 6% of them saying they might vote for Trump, according to the latest Pew data. But the big issue for Taylor — who describes herself as “pro-life, pro-country and pro-flag” — was seeing close up the Clinton campaign’s approach to abortion. After coming out for Trump, she felt she had no option but to move home since “it was like something out of The Lord of the Flies simply because I changed my political affiliation, with hazing from my family, my friends and my community.” She no longer talks to any of her family. “We started social distancing long before it became fashionable,” she joked. “They think Trump is the devil.”

It cannot bode well for the world’s leading democracy when its president divides friends and families in this way. Taylor admits that “I am not the typical face of a Trump supporter” but likes his brash style and believes his presidency has been a success:

“I really like what he’s been doing so far in making America safe, helping the country grow more prosperous. I have great confidence in his plans for the future. I think he is doing an awesome job so I want to see him continue to drain the swamp. He’s done so much so far.”

She added that while she missed her family, she hoped they would start speaking again after Trump left the White House. “Next week then,” I said. “No, in four years” time,” she fired straight back.

Talking to other Republican supporters, the same themes familiar to viewers of Fox kept cropping up: teachers indoctrinate children to hate Trump, George Soros subverts the US with his billions, the Democrats have swung so far Left they are going to turn their nation socialist and Kamala Harris is even more dangerous than Biden. “I”m scared,” said Sharon Simmons, 60, who described herself as “Trump trailer trash” since she lives in an isolated mobile home in the mountains. “I can see us turning into Venezuela. I know capitalism has its faults but you’ve got to be free. We’re one of the last free countries in the world. But if Biden wins, this will no longer be America. There will be two ‘S’s in the USA.”

Such stuff sounds strange to anyone from Europe, where mixed economies and universal health coverage is the norm. But both sides see this vote in apocalyptic terms, fearing their democracy will descend into either socialism or totalitarianism depending on their political perspective.

There were, of course, Democratic voters in this red redoubt. Corey Holley, 20, was casting his first vote for a president. “I went for Biden. I’d have liked a different candidate but he’s better than Trump.” His mother Jennifer, 47, a kindergarten teacher, was slightly more enthusiastic. “He’s a solid person, a moral person, who seems to know how a president should behave. It is just a game to Trump and he has diminished the way people around the world see our country.” She also denied charges of classroom propaganda. “I’m too busy teaching them about ABC,” she said.

Holley and his mother Jennifer

Biden’s balancing act — in trying to win back voters in these areas while keeping the Left on side with its forceful climate change demands — was evident talking to these folk. Some analysts trace West Virginia’s slide away from the Democrats to Al Gore’s environmental zeal, and Biden conceded he would “transition from the oil industry” in the final presidential debate. Yet this state still has 14,000 people employed in the coal sector and perhaps four times that number reliant on it — among them Timothy Gwinn, 58, who drives trains more than two miles long carrying 31,000 tons of coal into neighbouring Virginia. He endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 but could not even remember the name of the minor party candidate be had just backed as he left the courtroom. “I could not vote for Trump or Biden. I don’t like Trump, and Biden is against fossil fuels.”

Timothy Gwinn, who voted for neither mainstream candidate

Gwinn was resentful at his family’s rising medical costs to fund Obamacare but his big gripe was over the future of his industry, an issue he believes will hurt Biden in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. He explained that he took home around $100,000 a year from his job, but the alternatives on offer for workers in this region, such as flipping burgers or stacking shelves in a warehouse, would scarcely earn a quarter of his wage. “I”m almost ready to quit but I’m looking out for my fellow workers and I worry about younger generations. If you don’t have the railroad, you don’t have a decent wage and way of life.”

Here lies the dilemma for Western politicians: how to protect well-paid jobs, pacify voters and confront climate change while adapting economies to a world in which rival countries can undercut costs, businesses must compete globally and capitalism often seems driven by the wrong values. These issues — and the consequent sense of disgruntlement in rust-belt areas exploited skilfully by Trump four years ago — can crop up in the most unexpected corners of the economy, as I heard when I dropped in to see the owner of Frank’s Guns.

“You were surprised to find the owner of a gun shop was a liberal,” said Frank Godby, 81, reminding me that I had expected to find a fire-breathing redneck on my previous visit to his store. Instead he viewed Trump as “an immoral, lying asshole” — and his stance has not softened over the past two years. “I get more disgusted every day with his lies. Then there were his tax returns showing he paid $750 in income tax, which is quite a lot less than I pay.” This son of a coal miner told me he was one of 20 children and that his siblings all shared his viewpoint. “Some of their wives were Republican-leaning but they have been cured after seeing all his lies and his bragging.”

Frank Godby in his shop

This time Godby, a former private investigator, surprised me by explaining how tough the US gun trade had become in recent years despite sales booming nationally at almost double the pace of last year amid the heightened tensions. “I can sell guns but the big chains get all of them and all the ammo first so small dealers like me can’t get any new stock, new ammunition and new guns.” He said one popular brand of rifle was discounted so cheaply to the likes of Walmart that his giant rival could sell them cheaper than he could buy them, resulting in them undercutting him by $100 on each weapon. “My supplier went bankrupt about a year ago and I’ve not been able to get any ammo for five months. The big guys are crushing us. The system only works if you are a big company.”

He added that most families in this region have multiple guns in their homes and would not hesitate to use them to defend their properties if there was post-election violence. “These people are hunters who can shoot at long range,” he said.

“A lot of people are concerned that Trump will be stupid if he is defeated and stay in office. He’s an agitator and that might lead to violence. The old boys here have guns to protect their properties. No-one cares if people march but they do care if there is burning and looting.”

It is hard to believe that Biden will be able to solve such challenging issues of capitalism or heal societal wounds that provoke serious talk of civil war when they have been festering below the surface of society for decades — especially in such a hideously partisan political climate and money-drenched system. Even the wearing of a mask amid the pandemic has become politicised. Perhaps the best we can hope is that he dampens a few fires if elected. One Trump loyalist tried to argue valiantly that the cause of so much division was hatred felt against a man who stole the establishment’s right to rule, but this felt false given how this egocentric president has revelled in ferocious attacks on his enemies, flirted with far-Right extremism and ruthlessly pandered to his own base.

Yet at least diehard Republicans in this heart of Trumpland can see the desperate need to heal divisions. That same loyalist was passionate about the need to build bridges. Or take Barry Bruce, a local lawyer making his electoral debut at the age of 73 standing for the state legislature. He began by telling me how he is devoutly pro-life, despises Biden and believes his billionaire president has done a selfless job running the country despite some doubts over his boastfulness. Yet the more he talked, the more this man moved away from the template as he revealed his admiration for JFK, his dismay over some of his own party chiefs enriching themselves in office and, above all, his fears for the future.

“The soul of America is at risk,” he concluded. “It’s such a shame this country has become so divided. We don’t have any real dialogue. If we don’t solve these issues, then we are going to be like all those other countries that lost their greatness.”