The Gilded Rage: A Conversation With a Trump Supporter That Will Surprise You
The following is an adapted excerpt from Alexander Zaitchik's new book, The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump's America, published here with permission from Skyhorse/Hot Books. The Gilded Rage is the chronicle of Zaitchik's listening tour, inspired by Studs Terkel, through the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and along the Mexican Border. The result is an often surprising collection of voices of Trump supporters that Zaitchik met as he followed the 2016 primary calendar. The below section profiles a West Virginia Trump supporter named Ed Wiley, a former miner who in recent years has emerged as one of the state's leading (and most unlikely) anti-coal activists.
Ed Wiley is a 59-year-old retired mineworker. Though he has the face of an older man, framed by a long gray chin-curtain style beard, he still has ripped upper arms and Popeye forearms. He has a quiet, philosophical manner and piercing blue eyes. Like a lot of West Virginia men, his favorite hobby is turkey hunting. Lately, a pinched leg nerve and back issues have kept him out of the woods and off his feet in the same Coal Creek house where he grew up and now lives with his wife, Debbie. That eponymous creek runs past Wiley’s front yard. Like all moving water in the area, mining runoff poisoned it beyond use ages ago. So long ago, and so thoroughly, there’s never been need for warning signs.
Even as a kid, Wiley never liked the idea of working down in the cold, dark mines. He chose a career above ground, doing strip work on surface mines. He didn't think much about the health impacts of the coal industry until 2004, when his granddaughter Kayla complained of feeling sick. When her illness persisted, Wiley began looking into the respiratory ailments that plagued not only his own kin but many other students at Marsh Fork Elementary. He realized the widespread illnesses undoubtedly stemmed from the area's torrent of toxic coal waste, which sent a steady mist of silica dust and other chemicals down onto the school. Wiley began a crusade to have the school relocated, linking up with a fledgling local activist group, Coal River Mountain Watch. When industry and state officials ignored him—“They just couldn’t admit it was dangerous,” Wiley said—he announced plans to walk from Coal Creek to Washington, D.C., where he would directly petition the secretary of education and Robert Byrd, the West Virginia senator who was then in the twilight of his legendary career.
Thus began an unlikely second career as an activist, taking Wiley to the nation's capital and beyond. A decade ago, Mike Roselle, the veteran activist who co-founded Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network, moved a few houses down from Wiley to help lead the fight against mountaintop removal. Roselle describes the miner-turned-activist as “the single best grass-roots organizer I have ever seen.”
Early one morning, I sat down with Wiley in the small tool shed he calls his “pout house.” With his yellow Labrador stretched out at his feet, he talked about coal, Trump, and a future for West Virginia without coal.
The following is quoted from my interview with Ed Wiley:
“My family’s been up here in this hollow, probably around 350 years. I never did leave. Stayed right here. It’s been pretty good. It’s beautiful country. I met my wife, and here I am.
“I didn’t work down in the mines. Ain’t for me. It weren’t for my dad. I worked around the faces of the mines, did ground work, strip job work. It was 17 hours a day a lot of times, seven days a week. The money was more than I ever made before. I had a medical card I’d never had before. But I’d never do it again. It ain’t worth it. The money—unless you got ahold of yourself—the more you make, the more you spend. I’ve seen these guys, they kind of get above their raisin's. Then it bottoms out, and here they got a home, cars, four-wheelers they’re trying to pay for. You don’t need a bass boat all the time.
“I can understand the pride of the deep miners. It’s a dangerous job. Nasty. Dangerous. I’ve been down in that hole. What I don’t understand, after all these years, a hundred years—it’s one of the worst jobs. Why would you want this job? Why wouldn’t you want something better? They won’t let go. They won’t accept something better. I don’t know why. This area down here is one of the toughest bunch of people I’ve ever seen. Hard headed.
“The new [coal economy] isn’t like the old. There’s millions and millions of dollars that leaves out of here every day, but never gets put back into the towns, no way, shape, or form. Look at Whitesville. I’ve seen pictures of that town back in the '40s. It was booming. Booming. Couldn’t park nowhere. Everything open. Booming. And they was still digging it out by hand, you know what I’m saying? Now you look at the amount a coal that leaves out of here, and that town is dead. Dead. There’s something wrong somewhere.
“This mayor that’s down there now in Whitesville, when he first got in, three or four years ago, he tried to [get the coal company to reinvest in the local economy], but the company slapped him down. They told the coal miners to move their bank account to another bank so it wouldn’t be in Whitesville. The coal company was going to take their money out of Whitesville Bank because the mayor was bucking on them. They put him in his place. He just rolled up. They let that town die. Millions of dollars go through it—and nothing [comes back]. Now they want to try to restore it, wanting to turn it into like a ‘Coal Mining Historical Something Town.’ Why? That’s what killed your town.
“There’s a lot of things we could do here. When they do this stripping here [points in the direction of a decapitated mountain], all that timber got pushed in big piles and burnt. That could have been turned into toys, furniture, anything. That’s jobs there. That’s jobs. They wouldn’t even let the pulp people get it out of there because they couldn’t get it out fast enough. They could've turned it into chipboard and stuff. But they wouldn’t let the timber people get it out. They weren’t fast enough. They just shove it in a pile and bury it, burn it.
“There’s jobs in coal, but look at other states that don’t have coal. What do they do? How are they making it? West Virginia University just moved some people out here, in Beckley. It was on TV a little while ago; they’re going to get some training going, help retrain people.
“The coal miners get up on TV—I don’t know if the companies are paying them to say this—they get up on TV, and say, ‘If I can’t do coal I can’t do nothing. I don’t know anything else.’ Buddy, you’re wrong. You guys are some of the smartest guys in West Virginia. They could do about anything. If they’ve never done it, you show them once and they’ll do it. Why would they say that? Here you are, a high school graduate, some of them’s college graduates. Some of them’s got engineer degrees. If you want people to come to West Virginia and bring jobs here, you don’t want people sitting up there saying, ‘Well, I don’t know nuthin’.’ You couldn’t pay me to get up there and say that. That’s a disgrace to West Virginia. To get up on TV—it’s not right. I don’t like it. Why disgrace yourself like that when you know you’re smarter than that? We could do lots of things.
“The Big Branch explosion [leading to Don Blankenship’s conviction] made the miners prouder. The saddest part about it is, people lost their fathers and people lost sons. Some of them settled right off the bat for $3.5 million. I know some of these people. My buddy Irv, his sister lost a husband. They took this money, and I don’t know what they’ve done. Some people, like the Coles, built this great big stone house. Well, if you look out at the hollow, there’s the strip job. They’re stripping in his backyard and wanting to come around both sides of him. It’s his business to do it that way. It’s his son’s money. Lost a son. But we ain’t seen one dime of that money go into these communities. Why not say, ‘I got $3.5 million, I’m going to take a million and build a packaging factory’? Something to create jobs, so nobody else’s kids got to go back into a coal mine. I haven’t seen nothing like that happening in this community. Not even an ice cream shop. Not even a little, tiny mom-and-pop ice cream shop. That upsets me.
“I know everybody up and down this river. Hunted with them, worked with them, hung out with them, all kind of stuff. Since the school [pollution] issue, they don’t hardly look at me now. People won’t talk to me, won’t come around. You go out to the store, you might get a nod or a wave out of them. You really thought they was your best buddy at one time. You know? You find out who your friends are when something like this happens. You really do.
“I went up against the company for their kids, too. I made that clear a lot of times. This ain’t just my granddaughter. I’m standing up and speaking for all the kids. Nobody else will; I’ll be their voice. Once I’d seen, and learnt, and did some research and stuff, I knew it was a bad place for kids. It was a bad place for anybody. Still is.
“When I worked the mines, I was blinded by the money and the medical card I never had. I worked behind my granddaughter’s school. I didn’t even think about it. My granddaughter was down there. Never thought nothing of it until she was sick. All the time, that silica dust. You can’t see it. It’s a really fine particle. Well, sure, the company knew. They didn’t care. There were a lot of violations, 200 and some violations. It wasn't just the dust. If [the dam holding the waste] failed, 977 lives would be perished. Three hundred kids. In seconds. No time to evacuate.
“When Kayla got sick, I worked on it for about a week. I called Channel 5 [WDTV, the CBS affiliate in Weston, West Virginia], and turned out at the school, did an interview. I didn’t even know Coal River Mountain Watch existed in Whitesville. I drove right by it every day working down there. Didn’t even know. They’d been watching that school, too. They said, 'Let’s get together.' So we did.
“Two years later, and we done about everything we could do. I couldn’t sleep at night. I’m just sitting down here, and I got to thinking, ‘Senator Byrd.’ He’s about ready to retire. He’s in his last term. He is who he is. You can’t hurt his name. It won’t hurt him to shake this boat and help these kids. I said, ‘Well, why don’t you announce that we’re going to Senator Byrd’s house? Take the news straight to the man. Go down to the capital, do a press thing.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’ll do that. I’m ready to go right now. That’ll shake them up maybe.’ Left within a month’s time.
“Met a lot of good people on the walk. Every town I come to, I went to the mayor’s office. Handed my pamphlets to everybody, put a pamphlet in every mailbox. I got in trouble for that [chuckles]. I was handing out too many pamphlets. Everybody got a pamphlet. If somebody would be on their front porch, believe it, I’d walk up. Everybody got a pamphlet.
“I met with Byrd in the Hart Senate Building. Byrd stood right there right next to the big poster I carried all over the country. It’s a full-sized poster, aerial view of the school, and you’d point and show everything out. Had that in there, and pointed and described everything that was going on, plain and simple to him. Byrd was from this area; he’s from the Daniels area. I just made it kind of clear to him: These are your people. Somewhere down there, you’re bound to have some kind of kinfolk. This is your territory, Raleigh County area. I thought he’d do something. I figured he would do more than what he did. I kept writing letters to him. He said it was a county and state issue, not a federal [one]. Nothing he could do. He called Blankenship and Massey a 'rogue coal company.' Well, what coal company ain’t never been a rogue coal company? You tell me what’s not.
“A little colored boy from New York died for the campaign. There was a [special-needs] school up in the Bronx, one of the teachers got involved to help me raise money. There was one class that was leading this. They brought in pennies, had a chart, keeping count. This one particular little boy, a little African-American boy, he had asthma real bad. He had a bad attack this particular night before the collection ended. He made it through the night okay. He wouldn’t go to the doctor. He got to school, the first thing he done, was take his pennies. That’s all he cared about. Then he sat down in his chair and took a real bad asthma attack there. Made it to the hospital, and passed away. At the hospital, they said [to his parents], ‘Why didn’t you bring him?’ They said, ‘Because he wanted to come and get his pennies in.’ [Long pause.] That whole class was special little kids. They knew everything about the story. One little girl wanted to come up on stage with me. She was four feet tall. Arms maybe an inch around. She put her little fist up, and yelled, ‘All I want to say is to you, Governor [Joe] Manchin: You’re a bad governor. You better help them little kids!’ You know, you’re sitting there and your heart is going out.
“That class encouraged the whole school to get involved, talking about environmental issues. They were the first people to give money—was those little kids from New York. They raised $650. They were the poor kids. Then I had what I called the ‘richie kids.’ There’s a school, two blocks above Trump’s office, where the park is, a private Catholic school, big old place. I’d go up there and meet with them kids twice a year. Take 'em in the park and show 'em different plants and such. The ‘richie kids,’ they wasn’t comin’ up with nothing. It was the poor kids, they were the only ones that gave money.”
I asked Wiley what kind of Raleigh County he’d like to leave for his grandchildren. “They can do a lot around here. There’s a lot to save. It’s a beautiful area. You get out towards Arlington and all that, anywhere with Civil War battles. Well, shoot, that’s the prettiest place, it’s protected, they get extra money and all that. Well, they was Civil War people down in here, too! I like to see this get turned into a big national park myself, and the jobs that would go with it.
“They’re talking about jobs, so-called ‘reclaim and fix’ what the coal companies tore up, but none of that ever happened. They’re using the ruined mountains for military practice. They said they couldn’t find nowhere else better than Raleigh County mining sites that resembled Iraqi terrain. They’re landing cargo planes and taking off, practicing dropping stuff out the back. I was going to go up there and hang up a great big plywood sign: ‘Iraq: 5 miles’ [laughs]. I don’t like it. I really don’t. People say, ‘Well, at least they’re using it for something.’
“I think they want everybody out of this valley. See, there’s seams of coal underneath here, underneath this river, that goes all the way to Chesapeake down past Charleston. I’ve seen them strip a big valley like this in Pennsylvania. They gutted it. I mean, they gutted it. They started consolidating schools. Then they started shutting post offices down. No schools, no post offices. Then you look at Whitesville. You got to go all the way down to Charleston from Whitesville to get anything.
“Trump will get elected. I’m for it. I said it from the beginning, when everybody said I was crazy. People in America like his attitude. We’re tired of being broke. People’s tired of bull crap. Jobs never should have never left here. They should have stayed in America. He’s a businessman, and mostly everything in the world now depends on some kind of business. We need to keep our butts at home, stay out of these wars. That’s the sort of thing you’d have to watch with him, is: Can he keep himself calm? Control of his bipolar. That might be what we need, is a good bipolar president [laughs]. He says it like it is. If he says it, he’s probably going to do it one way or another, or try to. He don’t hold nothing back. That’s for sure. He probably knows people all over the place. Can make some kind of jobs happen.
“But they need to quit talking about that border wall shit. I never did like this. The drugs are going to get here from somewhere, one way or another. We don’t need a damn wall. Get along with the people. Bring them and build more. Help us build the country. They want to work, too. Let’s put them to work. Put everybody to work. You look at all the problems it’s caused in California right now—it’s over that damn wall. We need to just work this out on that. We need to get that straightened out so people ain’t fighting in the street. And Trump should stop calling them scoundrels. Everybody’s not a scoundrel. And them people are desperate. You become a bit of a scoundrel when you get desperate, whether you are or not. You get hungry, you’re going to grab that doughnut, if you can get it.”
This has been an adapted excerpt from The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump's America by Alexander Zaitchik, published with permission from Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.