HUNTINGTON, W. Va. — As President Trump's campaign staff searches for locations for his campaign rallies, the requirement are simple: Where can they quickly assemble a massive, supportive crowd that can energize the president and allow him to dominate cable news for an evening?
This week, they selected Huntington, a city of roughly 48,000 on the Ohio River in far western West Virginia near Ohio and Kentucky — right where Appalachia ends and the Rust Belt begins.
Trump has long been popular in West Virginia, and it's the first place where he hit No. 1 in a poll of possible presidential contenders in 2011, when he considered running but did not. When Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in May 2016, he celebrated with a rally in West Virginia's largest city, Charleston. Just last week, he was in the New River Gorge area to speak at the National Scout Jamboree, delivering a highly political speech that prompted the leader of the Boy Scouts of America to later apologize.
Although Bill Clinton won West Virginia in the 1990s, the state has gone to the Republican presidential nominee for the past five elections. In November, Trump won all 55 counties in the state, including 43 counties where he received more than 70 percent of votes. In Cabell County, where Huntington is located, his support was lower, with just 60 percent of votes. Hours before the doors opened for the rally Thursday, hundreds of Trump supporters from miles around gathered in downtown Huntington — and weathered a torrential rainstorm that hit late in the afternoon.
“I am with the president, 100 percent,” said Barbara Tackett, 66, a retired nurse who got in line for the rally early Thursday afternoon with her daughter and granddaughter. “They just need to back off and let him be president.”
Tackett, who is married to a retired police officer who served in the Vietnam War, raised her family in Huntington and has watched the city struggle over the years — first with the closure of steel and manufacturing plants, then with the decrease in coal mining elsewhere in the state that had a trickle-down impact here, and now with a heroin epidemic. A few years ago, the whole family moved across the river to Ohio. The drug problem in Huntington and the crime that comes with it had become too much. She and her daughter said they don't know any families around here that haven't had a loved one die of a heroin overdose.
“We need help for our city,” said Kimberly Tackett, 43, who used to work at the hospital but is now on disability. “We need more recovery centers.”
While prior presidents have used these sorts of gatherings to promote specific pieces of legislation or pressure local elected leaders to offer support, Trump has no political motive or goal for this rally, one campaign official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the president's rally strategy. The official said that the purpose of these rallies is to energize the president's core supporters, energize the president and dominate local, regional and national media for at least one evening if not much longer.
Trump tried to build suspense Thursday morning by saying that he planned to make a “very big announcement” at the rally that night. Later in the day, the New York Times broke the news that West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a conservative Democrat elected last year, planned to announce that he was changing parties and becoming a Republican.
Huntington is named for the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, who is accused of having built his fortune through corruption and practices that put money above all else — and, like many cities that the president visits, it was once an industrial hub with steel mills, a booming shipping industry and various manufacturing plants. Many of those jobs vanished generations ago, and the region has seen its population shrink since the 1960s, when more than 80,000 people lived here. Today, nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty.
Huntington's largest employers include health-care providers such as the sprawling Cabell Huntington Hospital and Marshall University, a public research university downtown that has more than 13,000 students. It drew national attention in 1970 when a plane carrying the Thundering Herd football team, coaches and fans crashed, killing 75 people.
Trump has promised to revitalize the steel industry in this part of the country, along with West Virginia's coal industry. Conrad Lucas, the state GOP chairman, said that West Virginia has seen a boom in coal-industry jobs since Trump took office and coal companies are now holding job fairs in the southern part of the state, which has suffered from poverty that has been entrenched for generations.
“That has really helped with the stabilization of our economy,” said Lucas, who personally welcomed Trump to the state last week but would miss the president's rally this week because he's on his honeymoon.
The president's promises ring false to others in the region, and dozens of protesters gathered near the rally site Thursday afternoon — a reminder to the national media and the president that the deep division over Trump's presidency exists across the country, even in places that voted for him so overwhelmingly.
These protesters carried signs focusing on the environment, health care, women's rights, the investigations into ties between Russia and Trump's campaign, the president's behavior, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. The crowd was spotted with union members and T-shirts supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was widely popular here.
A 28-year-old college student who proudly called herself “an avid redneck” and grew up trapping and hunting protested Trump rolling back an environmental regulation that allows coal companies to dump debris in the waterways where tourists like to kayak and fish. A 62-year-old retired state-government attorney from Charleston held a homemade sign comparing Trump to Richard Nixon and stating “Stand up for American rights.” A local high school student carried a sign that read “Tweet women with respect.” Others held signs that read “The power of the people is stronger than people in power” and “West Virginia not for haters.”
“We are not all for Trump,” said Jean Arthur, 60, who lives in South Charleston and traveled across the state to protest. “We're not all stupid in West Virginia. We're educated. We work.”
Arthur is retired from a longtime job with a phone company, an industry that she saw undergo major change and shrinkage, forcing her and others to adjust and keep up with the times. The same has happened with the coal industry, she said, and she doesn't understand why her fellow West Virginians don't adjust and why they believe Trump's promises. Arthur is still active in her union and went door-to-door ahead of the election to urge members to vote for Hillary Clinton — only to find member after member determined to vote for Trump.
“You try to make them understand. You tell them: 'You have to think about what you're going to need,' ” such as assistance from the government for health-care coverage and other protections, Arthur said. “Here in West Virginia, you're not going to change their minds, because they still think he's going to bring coal back.”
The Herald-Dispatch newspaper in Huntington saw a rush of comments on its Facebook page when it posted an article about Trump's visit, noting in Wednesday's newspaper that “many commenters were critical of each other's posts rather than focusing on possible issues, and many of the posts weren't suitable for print.” Some locals were concerned about possible violence at the rally following a post on Facebook, which has since been deleted, that called on Trump supporters to arm themselves.
“Not for the rally but for the protesters. Let’s give the protesters what they want,” the post read, according to local media accounts. “... Bring everything you have or can bring. We start with anyone blocking the streets then we clear the protesters once and for all, by any means necessary. Let’s show them this is not Commieforna and we deal with protesters faster.”
Jose Gonzalez, a 37-year-old project manager at a local steel plant, said that there is a widespread feeling around here that things are getting better. There are suddenly more industry jobs, the stock market is doing well and there's the resumed sound of trains carrying coal and other materials. Many of his co-workers, friends and others point to these signs as clear indications that the president is succeeding, while he believes that most of this progress was set into motion long before Trump took office. And he noted that many small businesses in the area still haven't seen the gains trickle down to them.
“I think it's a sign that people have found a way to get back to work,” said Gonzalez, who has never been out of work, because he's willing to move from state to state, depending on where there are jobs. His mother is originally from Appalachia, and he now lives in Ashland, Ky., which is not far from Huntington.
Gonzalez always voted for Democrats, and during the primaries he supported Sanders. He said he's still angry that Democratic leaders undermined Sanders in favor of Clinton, whom he just doesn't trust. In November, Gonzalez voted for Trump because he saw him as the “lesser of two evils.” Despite the president's chaotic, controversy-filled first six months, Gonzalez said he still believes that Trump is the better choice of the two, and he planned to take his 10-year-old son to the rally.
Gonzalez wants Trump to stay true to his campaign promises that overlapped with Sanders's promises, including providing health care for everyone. He envisions Washington as working just as he sees it on the Netflix show “House of Cards,” and he's frustrated that lobbyists for pharmaceutical and health insurance companies have so much sway over legislation, making it impossible for lawmakers to implement a health-care system that actually helps people — likely a universal health-care system like those in most other major nations.
“People are the ones suffering right now,” he said. “There's no reason that they can't come together and push something through that helps everyone. ... There's no reason they can't come up with something that covers everyone.”