How ‘the Energy Capital of the Nation’ regained its optimism in the Trump era
The resurrected feeling of American possibility came not from pontificating TV pundits or a radio host in a studio miles away. Optimism arrived here because of what people were seeing: the unemployment lines getting shorter and their daily commutes getting longer.
Tom Gorton, 41, drove through those increasingly congested streets in his Arnold Machinery truck late on a spring afternoon, under the watch of mountains covered in white from a spring snowstorm. As Gorton settled behind his desk, he was heartened to see how messy it was with orders, one year after hundreds of layoffs at two nearby coal mines cost him his job and delivered a gut punch to a county that produces more than a third of the nation’s energy supply.
In another room at Arnold’s, branch manager Adam Coleman fixed his eyes on statistics tracking economic trends. Electricity had flatlined. To Coleman, this was good news.
“I can’t put fully into words this feeling I’m feeling, but it is much better,” he said. “I believe the economy as a whole is going to recover, and when it does, electrical use will increase. It’s not going down, so that’s a good thing. We’ll be back.”
In Gillette and surrounding Campbell County, people were beginning to feel the comeback they voted for. Unemployment has dropped by more than a third since March 2016, from 8.9 percent to 5.1 percent. Coal companies are rehiring workers, if only on contract or for temporary jobs. More people are splurging for birthday parties at the Prime Rib and buying a second scoop at the Ice Cream Cafe.
Maybe it was President Trump. Much was surely because of the market, after a colder winter led to increases in coal use and production. But in times when corporate profits are mixed with politics, it was difficult for people here to see the difference.
“I’m back to work,” Gorton said. “It’s real. Did Trump do it all? I don’t think so. But America voted in a man who was for our jobs.”
In a divided nation, optimism had bloomed here in a part of the country united in purpose and in support of the president. Close to 90 percent voted for the same presidential candidate, and 94 percent of the population is the same race. And everyone has some connection to the same industry. They felt optimistic about the tangible effects of the Trump economy, which favors fossil fuels, and the theoretical ones, which favor how they see themselves. Once on the fringes, their jobs had become the centerpiece of Trump’s American mythology.
“I happen to love the coal miners,” Trump said Thursday, when he announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. The president said he backed out of the global agreement, in part, because it “doesn’t eliminate coal jobs. It just transfers those jobs . . . to foreign countries.”
Even so, Trump’s decision on Paris wasn’t what many here wanted; they felt it was better for the United States to be part of an agreement that so directly affects their livelihoods.
“Given that several of the coal companies in the Powder River Basin have expressed their desire for the U.S. to stay in the accord,” Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said, “it would be prudent to heed the wishes of the industries to be most affected by the accord.”
At least, though, they had a president who was trying to protect their jobs.
When the mines laid off workers in March 2016, the city spiraled down into a period of job- and soul-searching. Environmentalists on the coasts had long derided their type of work as toxic. Democrats, led by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, declared their jobs passe. Gillette had coal, oil and gas, but so much attention was placed on wind and solar and turning miners into computer programmers. In an increasingly interwoven country, residents grappled with whether there was still a place in America for their kind of community — even if it kept the lights on.
“We once powered the nation,” Gorton said. “But you got the feeling that things are not quite the same and that political forces are encroaching on your livelihood. It’s like they are willing to take away your town.”
Now the fear of what might be taken away was carried by someone else. There was another side of this American story, a tenser and more terrifying one, where immigrant families worried about deportation raids and liberals marched with witty placards to protest the “war on science.”
Far beyond the borders of this isolated town, many Americans were gripped by the latest evidence of the president’s coziness with the Russians, and wondered why the white working and middle classes hadn’t abandoned their increasingly unpopular president. In that America, the early optimism about Trump was fading. A Quinnipiac poll released last month said that 52 percent of Americans were pessimistic about the country’s direction, 20 percent higher than when Trump was inaugurated. And Friday’s anemic employment report, showing the country gained only 138,000 jobs in May, provided little consolation.
Gorton found it difficult to reconcile those two polarized feelings; it seemed that either you had to believe in the country’s pending prosperity or its impending doom.
“I know there are people who are scared about where the country is headed, but before I was scared,” Gorton said. “Either they’re dreaming, or I’m dreaming.”