Jamie Stewart voted for Donald Trump, but she thinks the president is a “jackass.” She doesn’t really love to talk about what he’s doing or why she voted for him.
WEST VIRGINIA“They should take his phone away from him,” she says. “He posts stupid shit all the time.”
In a series of interviews that stretched over a year, Stewart was ambivalent when pressed about the president’s accomplishments or any promises he might have kept. “I don’t really pay attention,” she says. “I don’t have time to give a shit.”
Since Trump astonished himself and the world on election night last year, observers have scrambled to figure out people like Stewart, Middle America’s “white working class.” Why did they vote as they did? And were they going to do it again?
A year into his dysfunctional presidency, Trump hasn’t delivered much — certainly not in the corner of West Virginia where Stewart lives. Her relatives and neighbors worked in the state’s coal mines for generations and are struggling to find work.
Stewart works as a customer service manager at Walmart — though not enough hours to receive benefits or health insurance from her employer. She is raising her 10-year-old autistic son, Wyatt, mostly alone.
Poor and working-class voters are facing only growing uncertainty as their access to health care and public services comes under attack. Their taxes are about to get higher. Black and brown working-class and poor voters face those same threats, plus emboldened racism that has been enabled from the very top, while immigrant communities are being torn apart at even greater rates than before.
Kentucky-born photographer Stacy Kranitz, who has a long history documenting life in Appalachia, visited Jamie Stewart five times over the course of a year, conducting interviews and photographing Stewart as she intersected with relatives, friends, and neighbors. As women descended on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration and white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Viriginia, and as the president threatened to wage nuclear war on North Korea, and Republicans tried time and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Stewart’s views offer a glimpse into a community that might think of itself as being far removed from the country’s politics, but in fact, lies at their very core.
THE MEDIA AND
THE WORLDStewart is not your MAGA hat-wearing Trump voter. She put no signs in her yard. Her family, she says, are “union members” and “diehard Democrats.” She prefers the “Today” show to Fox News — “They do a lot of nice things for people and stuff. I like to see the good in the world not the bad.” She thinks the border wall is stupid and marijuana should be legalized.
Stewart voted for Obama in 2008 and thinks he “wasn’t a horrible president.” She didn’t like Obamacare, but she loved Obama’s relationship with first lady Michelle. “They love each other and you don’t see that much.” She doesn’t remember whether she voted in 2012.
Stewart said she had no illusions, when she voted for Trump, that things would get better. “Trump came in, promised West Virginia bigger and better things,” she said. “Something so bad, you can’t make great overnight.”
Today, she doesn’t regret her decision, nor does she try to justify it or apologize for it. “It just seemed like the best choice,” she says. “Better than Hillary, that’s what everybody was saying, so that’s what we went with. A lot of my family was just like, put anybody in that office other than that bitch.”
“We have the right to vote either way,” she added. “I think that’s what people forget, to respect other people and their decisions, whether they’re right or wrong, whether they work out or not.”
“I don’t want a bunch of backlash online of people calling me just an ignorant, racist, redneck. I’m a quiet, small-town girl.”
Stewart feels much more strongly about the media than she does about the president. “Every little decision, every little thing that’s done in politics that’s released to the public — it’s made a big deal of,” she says. “Even if he does something good, they portray it in a way to make it seem negative against him. Everybody’s against Trump, it seems like.”
Overall, Stewart says she doesn’t have time to keep up with politics. “I just work so much. That’s all I do.”
“I don’t like the war in Syria. I hated seeing all those kids get killed,” she added. “I really don’t agree just going over to different places and dropping bombs and killing innocent people. I think that’s terrible. And then they put it all over the news for everybody to see. I don’t think they should do that, because people know what’s going on in this world, but people don’t want to see it every day and be scared.”
“I’ve really been trying to just not watch any of that or read any of that, because I’ve had my own stresses and stuff in my own life, and watching all that really adds to it.”
But for someone as disconnected as she believes herself to be, Stewart has heard a whole lot about North Korea, which dominated her preoccupations over the summer as Trump escalated his rhetoric against Kim Jong-un.
“I think it’s the unknown in North Korea is what’s sketchy about it,” she said. “Because you just don’t know. They’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll wipe cities out.’ Whether they really can or not, I don’t know.”
“War on this land scares me, mostly because of my son. Him having autism, the age he has, that would be really scary if a war would break out over here. … That’s just something about little North Korea men running around chopping people’s heads off that freaks me out. But I try to keep that in the back of my mind and hopefully our government and our politics, they’re smart enough and able to not let that happen.”
What about the president’s threat to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen”?
“My honest opinion about that is probably really horrible, but I think take them out before they kill all of us.”
There are few immigrants in Mason County, which is 97 percent white, and Stewart doesn’t know any. She doesn’t care much for Trump’s immigration crackdown. The wall, she says, “reminds me of something I’d do in kindergarten with my blocks. … I’ll just build a wall and you can’t come over here.”
“I can’t say that I’m against it, but I’m not really for it. Don’t take a bunch of money from your own country to do it, and of course another country’s not going to pay for it, you dumbass.”
Stewart’s boyfriend, Dozer Hayes, who worked with some immigrants at a FedEx center in Columbus once, thinks the border wall, though still unapproved, is evidence that Trump is getting the job done.
“I feel like he’s fulfilling what he said he was going to do,” Hayes said. “He’s getting ready to build a wall, he’s getting ready to shut Congress down if they don’t want to build a wall, which he said Mexico would pay for it, but in the end, if we get all of the illegals out, and we don’t got to supply their welfare and shit, in the end, it’s paying for it.”
“I know a lot of them are murderers, rapists, carrying in hard drugs, stuff like that. If they’re doing that, ship them back. If you’ve got a family … trying to make a new life, leave them the hell alone.”
Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and most other public benefits. Trump has regularly misrepresented this, including when announcing the RAISE Act in August, a bill aiming to curtail legal immigration. “They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare,” Trump said. Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes — to the tune of more than $10 billion per year — sometimes paying directly for benefits they will not actually receive.
Trump is “not racist,” Stewart says — just a typical “dirtbag dude.” There are few racists in Stewart’s world, but plenty of assholes — and definitely too many “butthurt” politically correct people who whine too much. She wishes the media would stop making everything about race. “They’re what’s dividing people.”
Nearly everyone in Stewart’s life is white. There was a black cashier at Walmart once, and when she was growing up, an elderly black man lived in the same hollow as her family. He kept to himself and no one bothered him.
“We were raised as you don’t mix races. You know what I mean?” said Stewart. “White people’s with white people. Black people’s with black people. That’s how I was raised. And still to this day, if me and Dozer weren’t together and I’d date a black guy, my family would disown me.”
Does she think Trump’s election was a backlash against the first black president?
“You might have a few people like, ‘We can’t have a black man in there.’ But, like I said, you’re always going to have the assholes. And they’re always going to stand out. But, as long as the media is glorifying these racist idiots, and showing them like, ‘Look how racist this person is,’ it just keeps cropping up, over and over and over again.”
Does she think black and brown people have a reason to feel that their lives are threatened because of their race? “If they feel threatened, they feel threatened. But if someone is just black, they shouldn’t feel threatened just because they’re black. They bleed the same way everybody else does.”
This summer, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, and as the nation was once again ablaze with reckoning over its racist past and present, Stewart talked about the Confederate statues being removed across the country with her neighbor Roger Chadwell. “What are we gonna do, tear down Mount Rushmore?” said Chadwell, in a rant filled with racial slurs. “They gonna start putting up black statues? We ain’t got no black fucking heroes.”
The way Stewart sees it, Chadwell isn’t racist. “He’s a lot like Trump,” she says. “Just talks shit.”
LOSING A LIFELINE
In Mason, the county along the Ohio River where Stewart and her family live, nearly 20 percent of the less than 30,000 residents live in poverty. The mining industry that was once Appalachia’s lifeline has been on a long decline, and for the past 10 years, employment rates have dropped. In nearby New Haven, the Philip Sporn Power Plant closed in 2015. Two other coal plants in West Virginia have since closed.
During the primaries, at a campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia, Trump put on a miner’s hard hat, pretended to shovel coal, and told a jubilant crowd he was “going to get those mines open.” “Oh, coal country,” he said. “What they have done.” Trump won both West Virginia and Mason County by wide margins.
Trump was hardly the first politician to capitalize on the loss of jobs, racial resentment, and the fear of being at the bottom — and he likely won’t be the last to leave his promises to this region unfulfilled. In the 1960s, Appalachia became the poster child for the government’s war on poverty — not because the region was singular in its struggle, but because a federal anti-poverty program was easier to sell to voters when its recipients were white. By then, the radical, multiracial labor movement born out of the mines had been brutally crushed, Steven Stoll, who wrote a book on the economic history of the region, told The Intercept.
What followed, according to Stoll, was a concerted effort to confuse white working-class voters about their own interests. “There’s a muddled confusion about what government is for, what it should be doing, who benefits, and we’re still in that crazy muddle,” said Stoll. “They just hate business as usual — and they’re not clear who’s responsible for it.”
Since the election, the president pushed a budget that would slash funds from mine safety enforcement and a host of federal programs that support laid-off coal miners, among others, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is credited with helping cut the region’s poverty rates in half. In August, Trump returned to West Virginia and held another campaign-style rally and falsely claimed that his administration was bringing back manufacturing jobs by the “hundreds of thousands.” He told West Virginians that he was “putting our coal miners back to work” – an inflated claim at best.
Despite Trump’s pledge to revive America’s coal industry, American energy corporations are increasingly shifting to natural gas and renewable options. In the last couple years, fluctuations in the global coal market have led to a slight uptick for the industry in the U.S., and a handful of mines have opened — something Trump has attempted to take credit for. But the overall trend continues to point downward.
Today, the best jobs available around Stewart are at a women’s prison and a government-run nursing home. She never went to college — “probably should have, but I didn’t,” she said. A friend of hers started college but dropped out and has been getting her wages garnished to pay off the loan. “They’re taking out of her paycheck and all of her taxes from where she had a student loan. I know you owe someone money, you owe them money, but man, to take it like that from a struggling person, that’s shitty,” she says.
In 2014, in response to the Affordable Care Act, Walmart announced it would stop offering insurance to 30,000 part-time employees. According to an estimate the same year by Americans for Tax Fairness, Walmart and its founder, the Walton family, received $62.1 million in subsidies and tax breaks in West Virginia, including $52.8 million in public assistance for its employees.
Stewart says she is happy with her reduced hours because that allows her more time with her son, even if that means she no longer gets benefits. Her paycheck from Walmart varies as her hours do, but she takes home about $600 every two weeks. Wyatt gets a $500 disability check every month.
Stewart’s boyfriend, Hayes, has been on disability after nearly losing his left foot last year, when a 3,000-pound machine rolled backward onto him at his construction job. He is awaiting a settlement, and he wants to get back to work, but he’ll never be able to stand all day, which limits his already narrow options around here. Stewart’s parents live off disability checks, too, after her father suffered a series of workplace injuries.
Stewart doesn’t shop for herself much — she buys her clothes at Walmart. She has no savings, but for the most part is able to make it to her next paycheck. She’s almost finished paying off her trailer home — which costs her about $400 a month. The plot of land where the trailer is parked is $80 a month. She pays for bills and car insurance and can stretch $20 of gas for two weeks. What’s left goes for food and things for Wyatt. He loves pizza and Mario video games.
“I would like to be able to live comfortably and not have to live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “But other than that, I’m content with my life, I’m happy, I have a roof over my head, I have a little bit of food, my child’s happy, he’s healthy, he does well in school. I really can’t ask for more, you know what I mean?”
Stewart has little patience for those she sees as “mooching off the government,” even though she used to get food stamps. “If you’re getting $500, $600 in food stamps, and you’re just lying around lazy, soaking up the food stamps, not doing a damn thing for ’em, I don’t think that’s right,” she says.
Stewart mostly blames the poverty rampant around her on people’s “laziness,” even as she’s keenly aware that the odds are stacked against her neighbors. “I think there’s just a lot of lazy ass kids in this generation that they don’t want to work,” she said. “I think they should be made to get a job. If you don’t get a job, you’ll be fined. If there is nothing wrong with you physically from getting a job, I think that there should be some kind of consequences to it.” She seems more willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.
“He promised West Virginia to keep the coal in the state, keep the coal mines open,” Stewart says. How he’s going to do that is on him, she says. “That’s why he’s president. He’s supposed to come up with those ideas.”
Stewart says she doesn’t know anyone with health insurance. She used to get hers through Walmart, before her hours were cut. Now she is covered under her son’s disability — “I guess it’s pretty much through welfare is what it is,” she says.
Her boyfriend had money docked off his tax returns — the Affordable Care Act’s penalty. He never tried to sign up. Stewart said she did try when enrollment first opened. “I looked at the packages and I remember I was like, How in the hell is anybody supposed to pay for this? There ain’t no one I know ’round here that can afford that shit monthly.”
In West Virginia, Stewart says, some people self-medicate with weed. Many others go down the opioid hole. Opioid addiction, Stewart says, is “everywhere through here.” “I’ve seen people die.”
West Virginia has become the poster child of the opioid crisis, with a record 880 deaths by overdose last year, the highest rate in the country. On April 21, Mason County EMS got 17 heroin overdose calls in 11 hours. None were fatal, but news spread quickly on Facebook. “There was a big alert that bad heroin was goin’ around,” Stewart said. “Bad heroin, good heroin. You know, shit’s killin’ people whether it’s good, bad. It’s all bad. It’s terrible.”
Deaths by overdose are so common here that the state spent nearly $1 million to transport corpses last year —and one embalmer came out of retirement to help with the load. “In 2017 it’s a fair, albeit morbid, assumption that most West Virginians have attended the funeral of someone lost to addiction,” the West Virginia-based journalist Danielle Costello wrote.
Trump promised he would “liberate” Americans from the “scourge of drug addiction,” though he has put forth few resources to do so. In March, he signed an executive order establishing the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In October, the acting secretary of Health and Human Services declared a nationwide public health emergency regarding the crisis. While the declaration added to the sense of urgency, Trump’s order only tapped into emergency cash available through the Public Health Services Act, which would allocate roughly 2 cents for every American addicted to opioids.
Meanwhile, West Virginia voted to legalize medical marijuana earlier this year, following a trend of states that are easing their laws on medical marijuana as a way of combating the opioid crisis — despite an aggressive federal crackdown on legalization efforts led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Recreational marijuana remains illegal.
“I really think legalizing marijuana would bring a lot of jobs into this state,” says Stewart. “There’d be new shops opening up. There would have to be farms where they grow it.”
“I think that’d be a big boom for West Virginia.”
“You’re still gonna have your people that use drugs, but I really think it’s going to drop,” she adds. “A lot of people use marijuana to get over an opiate addiction.”
For a time, Stewart herself “started to fall into the opiate crisis,” she says. She bought suboxone off the streets. “I was not abusing it,” she says. “Well, they would say it’s abuse because I didn’t have a prescription wrote for it.”
“Now I take no pills. No pills. I don’t even take a Motrin if I’ve got a headache,” she says. “There’s something about the government, I don’t trust a bunch of weird chemicals packed into pills, it weirds me out.”
“I quit all of my habits because I couldn’t pay for them,” she adds. “You can’t work and get your fix all day. You know what I mean? So they have to steal to get the drugs. … I’m not friends with a lot of people I was friends with in school because that’s what they went to. They went to the heroin and the needle and the stealing and lying.”
Costello identifies the vacillation between caring for people who are struggling and insisting on their personal responsibility as emblematic of West Virginian attitudes at large. “The opioid crisis has proven deleterious for Appalachia’s hardest-hit state, not only destroying families but also upending compassion,” she wrote. “As an overwhelmingly conservative state, West Virginia’s ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps’ values are proving as self-destructive as drug abuse itself.”
People Stewart knows have been “Narcan’d” four, five, six times, she says, referring to the use of the lifesaving anti-overdose drug. Some around here are opposed to its wide availability. “A part of me, I agree with that,” Stewart said. “If you’re a repeat offender, you’re playing Russian roulette with your life. How many get out-of-death-free cards do you need? You know what I mean? You think you’d learn your lesson by one.”
“But in one sense I’m like, yeah,” she adds, “everybody’s life’s worth saving.”
Photographs, reporting, and audio recordings by Stacy Kranitz; text and reporting by Alice Speri; audio editing by Travis Mannon, additional reporting by Henriette Chacar.