More than 80 percent of Republicans remain loyal to President Donald Trump, only slightly less than when he took power in January
Williamstown (United States) (AFP) - With unemployment declining, the local truck plant expanding and optimism on the rise, one industrial heartland region has become a microcosm of the reinvigorated America promised by Donald Trump.
Seen from Williamstown, 300 miles (500 kilometers) west of Washington, the political tumult since Trump's November 8, 2016 victory appears artificial to those who welcome his leadership as a break from business as usual.
The sleepy West Virginia town is in Wood County where 70 percent of voters celebrated the anti-establishment victory. A year later, they are pledging their loyalty to the Trump revolution, praising the billionaire businessman-turned-national-leader for already delivering on his declaration to reverse their declining fortunes.
In an elbow of the industrial Ohio River basin, barges are filled with freight. Factories lining nearby Route 7 belch smoke and steam. On the highways, trucks are loaded with sections of pipeline and water tanks used in the region's shale gas drilling.
The town's pride is the Hino factory, a subsidiary of Toyota that employs 300 people. In September it announced 250 more hires. The manufacturer has outgrown its facility, and will soon relocate to bigger digs 20 miles south.
Local truckers are benefitting from the boon. An employment agency across the bridge in Marietta, Ohio lists 898 truck-driving jobs within a 50-mile radius.
"We are much better off than we were before (Trump) became president," Jean Ford, the mayor of Williamstown, population 3,000, tells AFP.
The television set in her modest office is broadcasting Fox News.
Ford, a jeweler by profession who is slight but speaks in firm tones, recalls her unrestrained joy on election night.
She cannot point to specific policies that have demonstrably helped her region. What matters, she stresses, is that confidence has returned.
National indicators of consumer and business confidence corroborate the sentiment.
But the economy was already healing under Barack Obama, argues Jessie King.
The 33-year-old gas pipeline specialist sporting bright eyes and prematurely-graying hair recently rose to become business manager of a local construction workers' union.
He has lived all his life in the area, and observed its timid recovery after years of job loss and resident flight.
"Maybe he's getting to reap the benefits on some of that," King says of Trump.
- Indulgence -
Supporters of the 45th president are not naive. They are well aware of Washington's stagnant reforms despite Trump's efforts to "drain the swamp."
Instead they point to those they see as the real culprits: Congress, the establishment, Democrats, the media, and liberal judges.
Ford, who has been mayor for 20 years -- and says her age is a secret -- can relate to Trump being blocked by a reluctant Congress.
The city council once denied her request to raise the sewer tax, but that did not stop her from building a municipal pool and parks.
Patience with Trump will pay off, she says. "By this time next year we will see the difference."
The local economy is dependant on manufacturing and nearby natural gas production. It's what keeps trucker Tim Runnion busy.
"There's never going to be anybody that's going to make everybody get along," the 29-year-old says on a lunch break in Ellenboro.
"I like the fact that he's not afraid of the foreign countries."
Trump's supporters have claimed some successes: anti-immigration orders, strong military rhetoric, and environmental deregulation, especially in a state where coal is sacred.
What of his failure to repeal Obamacare, or his impetuous Twitter habits? Forget about it.
"They see him as having flaws, they seem him as having a temper... as being, frankly, a normal person, just like we are," says Rob Cornelius, who chairs the Republican Party in Wood County.
"People are willing to give him a pass, they think the world is against him."
They also appreciate the robust economic indicators.
The economy grew at a three percent clip in the third quarter, the stock market has set new records, and unemployment dipped to 4.2 percent in September, the lowest in 16 years.
"Regardless of how you feel about President Trump, you're up, and you're up a lot in the last year," Cornelius said of Americans with retirement investments.
- Trump 2020 -
None of this makes much sense for the more than 60 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump's performance.
Democrats here note that the number of people without health insurance was halved thanks to Obamacare. And they say opioid addiction, a scourge that kills 65,000 annually and which has decimated the region, is still awaiting Trump's emergency plan.
Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of Republicans remain loyal, only slightly less than in January. The dam holds.
Part of this support is a purely partisan reflex, observes Lynn Vavreck, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles. The phenomenon has been intensifying for years, among Republicans and Democrats.
Trump as an outsider creates a deep emotional connection with his supporters.
"It is in fact more than patience, it is a sign of deep loyalty and commitment," Vavreck says. "It's a lot like rooting for a sports team."
Historically, she recalls, presidents have a re-election advantage, particularly if the economy fares well.
Runnion, the truck driver, says he is already committed: In 2020, he'll vote Trump.