A tiny hill community in rural Pennsylvania reveals so much about what the US President means to blue collar America.
“We’re just this kind of ‘if you shut your eyes you miss us’ kinda place, and we like it like that.” Amy, the owner of Hair Expressions in Donegal is smiling with pride about her home as she applies the finishing touches to her friend Trina’s highlights.
“It kind of feels like this time though, the little people like us were heard. Someone listened to them for a change,” she says. She’s talking about Donald Trump.
This is Donegal, Pennsylvania. Population 121. It’s a tiny hill community in the western end of the Allegheny Mountains that stretch down from the Appalachians. You come across some surprising things in the mountains but Donegal was the most pleasant of all.
Amy wasn’t lying. If you drive for a minute, you’re in and out of the town. You’ll pass Donegal Post Office, the Donegal Pharmacy and, most impressively of all, Neighs n’ Nickers Therapeutic Riding Centre.
This village isn’t just a nice discovery or a reminder of home, however. It speaks volumes to the disenchantment that Donald Trump tapped into on his course to taking the ‘Keystone State’ last November and it also says a lot about why it’ll be very hard for anyone to take it off him in 2020.
Coal is king in this part of Pennsylvania. 30,000 mining jobs have been lost in America since 2009. They are well-paid jobs. Miners took home between $100,000 and $150,000 per annum according to Dave Serock, of nearby Fayette County, who was laid off last year when Emerald Mine shut for the last time.
Those jobs are gone. The men who were laid off are forced to turn to part-time or services employment earning $20,000 to $30,000 a year. It’s a huge difference and it leaves a scar.
“The stress it puts on a family, when you’re used to living at an income level. The things you had for your kids - pools, toys or whatever - a lot of guys had to sell off their big trucks, their new cars, quads, their UTBs or campers or whatever extra they had,” Dave says. “A lot of guys had to cash in their 401K (pension plan) just to get by.”
That hurt seeps through communities like Westmoreland County where Donegal lies. Families take enormous pride in their contribution to ‘the American century’ when coal and steel pushed the United States until it became an economic superpower.
The jobs that have replaced the mines and the mills are not fulfilling. The promise made by Donald Trump to restore the coal and steel industry was aimed at these people.
“I hope he can. I hope he can,” says Dan, taking a breather on the tailgate of his station wagon across from the pharmacy. “There’s a lot of opportunities to bring jobs back in the area. 10 miles that way there was a Sony plant. It closed. Went to Mexico. The place I worked for 36 years? It closed. Went to Mexico.”
I ask if there is a lot depending on President Trump’s early moves in that respect. “Yeah, there sure is. Our future. There are a lot of good workers and good opportunities for business to move in. He’s got to capitalise on that.”
Despite the heartache and sense of bereft that seeps through the communities outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, there is now a growing sense of optimism taking hold. They say that’s down to the President.
Back in the salon, Trina is opening up about how she feels about Trump’s first 100 days.
“I will say this: last year, I was laid off. I was out of work. In what I do, I work very closely with the oil and gas industry and there just simply wasn’t any work to go around. This year? I’m on overtime. You’ve gotta believe that he (Donald Trump) has played a part in that,” she says, from underneath the foils as Amy works her magic.
Amy tells me that talking politics isn’t the norm in her salon but she says Donegal is bouncing with the President’s every move so far. She suggests the Democrats and critics “ought to give the guy a break” and helpfully directs me to the local watering hole, “the boys there will have a thing or two to say.”
I push through the door of Springer’s Cove and I’m greeted with low-playing country music and an almost-empty restaurant. Two diners decline to share their thoughts but within seconds two big figures come through the bar door.
They are Charlie and Jay Springer, a father son operation who run the place. After a brief introduction and explaining that we too have a Donegal back home, Jay produces a bottle of Donegal Whiskey. “We know it!” he laughs.
Like Co Donegal, sport is the local obsession. All the TV screens are booming with colour from ESPN chryons and captions. Unlike our Donegal, you can smoke in the pubs. There’s no mistaking that. It’s like walking back in time and the fumes hit you like an alien experience.
“How do we think Trump’s doing?”, Charlie, the father, laughs from under his moustache. “I think he’s doing damn well! Yeah. We should have had more like him for the past 16 years. We wouldn’t be in the shape we are now. I’m definitely impressed.”
“We had 16 to 20 years of nothing and now we’re rolling. This guy talked a good story and he’s backing it up. The guy, if I might say, he’s got a set of kahunas (sic),” Charlie finishes as Jay sniggers.
Jay agrees. I ask if he’s delivering for Donegal. “He’s already doing that. The lifting of the EPA restrictions, that’s putting guys back to work. That’s big in our region.”
So that was it. An hour spent in the company of a town like many others across Pennsylvania; a town which is now, through sentiment alone, suggesting their guy is making their corner of America great again.
This is the America Donald Trump appeals to. This is the base. As long as he keeps them on side, it’s hard to see how anyone unseats him in 2020.
But, If he fails to re-open the mines, or the smog doesn’t start spewing from the blast furnaces of the steel mills, he’ll have to answer to Donegal and thousands of towns like it and, they’ll tell you, they’ve already had their share of hard times. After all, like many Irish governments have found out, the people of Donegal aren’t quick to forgive.