Genie Kelly is busy sweeping the floor of a convenience store in Seligman, Arizona. It’s the first week of January, which makes for a chilly Friday night. Much of the country is enveloped in a blanket of snow. Genie spots a gentleman whom she recognizes; they seem to be longtime friends and flirt a little at the register. Genie has blond hair, dark eye makeup and elaborate tattoos. She rings up the gentleman for a six-pack of beer, and they chat about how cold it is outside. She wishes the man well and tells him to stay warm.
Like millions of Americans in small towns like Seligman, a population of 456; or Elk City, Oklahoma, a population of 11,623; or Beckley, West Virginia, a population 17,238, all that I passed through on a road trip across the country, Genie voted for President-elect Donald Trump. She believes it’s time to put America first, or, more specifically, Americans. Many people in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York believe that the presidency of President-elect Donald Trump can spell the end for the country. In many small towns across the country, fears about a Trump presidency are hard to find, though optimistic anxiousness is not.
“I’m excited about the fact that Obama isn’t in office anymore,” Genie tells me as I pay for my items. On my cross-country road trip, I pause to take the pulse of a country gearing up for Trump’s inauguration.
I ask Genie about her political leanings.
“I hope that Trump takes back a lot of what Obama put out there,” Genie tells me.
“The insurance issues, the coverage for people that can’t afford it,” she said alluding to the recent premium hikes for Obamacare policies. “I’m still paying the IRS back for that.”
Genie does not elaborate much on her apparent tax issue beyond noting that she has spent two years paying the IRS over a dispute related to health insurance.
According to Genie, the President-elect of the United States must pay attention to people like her, who she alludes were forgotten by the outgoing president.
“I think that people like me, people who work in gas stations and convenience stores who can’t afford much, or can’t afford insurance. I think that we should be taken care of before the foreigners,” Genie says. Her voice lowers as she adds that others are also given preferential treatment.
“…And before the poverty level people, that don’t work, that are on drugs, who are given everything on a silver platter…and we’re not.”
“And we’re not,” is a common sentiment across the country.
The sentiment of a forgotten country and people left behind in a jobless recovery has been examined in the weeks following the election. ProPublica writer Alec MacGillis explained this disconnect in an interview with NPR.
“They’re disconnected economically in the sense that these towns and cities have fallen so far behind the sort of coastal, prosperous bubbles of Washington, New York, San Francisco – these kind of places that have moved so far beyond these places in the last few years,” MacGillis told NPR in early November.
“Those gaps have really grown,” he continued. “They feel completely disconnected from the sort of mass mainstream media. And then they feel completely disconnected from Washington.”
That disconnect is evident among many of the white working class people I encountered.
MacGillis theorized that for many Americans, “electing Donald Trump was just a way to prove that they mattered. And the victory in itself was so hugely significant that I am not sure if it even matters so much what comes after it.”
That significance, and the promise that Trump will “Make America Great Again,” has percolated throughout the country and has many Americans chomping at the bit for Trump’s inauguration day.
As many sat on the sidelines of a jobless recovery, they are optimistic that that the perceived hardships they have endured during President Barack Obama’s two terms is about to end.
“In this new future, millions of workers on the sidelines will be returned to the workforce,” Trump promised at a rally in Michigan in August of 2016. “In this New American Future, American workers will always come first.”
The America First mindset seemed to be fresh in the mind of a man in the Yeager Airport in West Virginia, a small airport in which a Tudor’s Biscuit World outsizes the TSA security checkpoint.
Here I encounter “Gary*,” a dark-haired man who wears an untucked blue button-up shirt. He catches my attention because he loudly boasts to anyone that will listen that all he needs are the clothes on his back, a credit card and passport, which he keeps in a clear sandwich bag. He calls women “sweetheart” and asks several solo travelers if they would be his date on his outbound trip to South America. He is visiting an old Army buddy and could use another companion; they decline.
I ask Gary if he would be quoted for this story. He stares me down and looks prepared to talk. But when I ask to record him, the once sociable man becomes reserved. He does not want to be recorded, but will tell me what he thinks of Obama: he didn’t do anything for the military, and that under President-elect Trump, we will be able to beat ISIS.
Gary believes, like many I encountered, that it is time to put Americans before America.
Many of these people who I come across can be categorized as members of the “White Working Class.” Jim Tankersley examined the relationship between the WWC and Trump in a post-election article in the Washington Post.
“For the past 40 years, America’s economy has raked blue-collar white men over the coals. It whittled their paychecks. It devalued the type of work they did best. It shuttered factories and mines and shops in their communities. New industries sprouted in cities where they didn’t live, powered by workers with college degrees they didn’t hold,” Tankersley opined.
Perhaps no industry was hit harder during the last administration than the coal industry.
Throughout eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, people speak in angered tones about the plight of coal mining towns and those who once lived in them. One of those people is a retired homemaker from Beckley, W. Va. named Pat.
Pat is smartly dressed and wears her sunglasses throughout most of our conversation. She speaks sweetly of her many children and grandchildren. She has been on the road since mid-December visiting her family and is looking forward to returning to her winter home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Pat smiles as she recalls her New Year’s Eve spent at Greenbrier Resort, a luxury West Virginia complex that was once the location of an underground operations center for the government, should nuclear holocaust ever occur. A fitting place, perhaps, to ring in 2017.
Pat makes clear very quickly that she was not a fan of President Barack Obama or the Clinton family. Despite her dislike of the Obamas and Clintons, Hillary Clinton lost Pat’s vote when she spoke about coal miners in March of 2016.
“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Hillary said as part of a larger analysis of blue collar workers. Clinton said that she didn’t want to “forget about those people,” and respected people who “labored in those mines for generations.”
The second part of Clinton’s comment doesn’t mean much to Pat who is hopeful that the president-elect will “get our jobs back in our country.”
“I would like to see peace in the world. That’s so important,” Pat says when asked what her hopes were for a Trump presidency.
“I think [Trump] really needs to get our jobs back in our country. He knows how to do it, and it will be an interesting four years.”
Though she now lives part-time in Florida, Pat and her family spent almost 30 years in West Virginia. As she reflects on the coal industry during President Obama’s administration, Pat’s voice raises. The topic turns the otherwise calm woman into a more aggressive speaker.
“That’s their whole life, from granddaddy to daddy to son,” Pat says of the coal industry.
Federal data shows that nearly 100,000 coal mining jobs were eliminated during President Obama’s time in office, Pat explains how that has impacted generations of Americans.
“If you’ve ever been in a coal mine you sure wouldn’t want to make your living there, and that’s the only living that they know. They are in poverty no matter how hard they work. Obama came in and killed the industry, and that’s the only industry West Virginia really has. It’s a very, very sad thing. I’m anxious to see what Trump will do about West Virginia in the coal industry.”
The coal industry has been in decline since its peak in 2008, in part because of the rise of cheap natural gas. Environmental regulations and a halt on new leases for coal mines have furthered the collapse. 2016 was marked the lowest coal production in 35 years.
The consequence of this decline is that communities who once relied on these jobs are left ravaged, with little economic prospects in its place.
The people I met on the road were cautiously optimistic that Trump could deliver on his promises where Obama did not.
Before I turn my recorder off, I ask Pat what she would say to the president-elect before he takes the oath.
“Follow your heart,” she says. “That’s how you got elected, now don’t back down.”
*Man did not wish to be identified
Douglas Barclay is a senior editor at Rare. He traveled across the country between January 6 to 9. Follow him on Twitter @douglabarclay17.