SANDY HOOK, Ky. (AP) — The regulars amble in before dawn and claim their usual table, the one next to an old box television playing the news on mute.
Steven Whitt fires up the coffee pot and flips on the fluorescent sign in the window of the Frosty Freeze, his diner that looks and sounds and smells about the same as it did when it opened a half-century ago. Coffee is 50 cents a cup, refills 25 cents. The pot sits on the counter, and payment is based on the honor system.
People like it that way, he thinks. It reminds them of a time before the world seemed to stray away from them, when coal was king and the values of the nation seemed the same as the values here, in God’s Country, in this small county isolated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Everyone in town comes to his diner for nostalgia and homestyle cooking. And, recently, news reporters come from all over the world to puzzle over politics — because Elliott County, a blue-collar union stronghold, voted for the Democrat in each and every presidential election for its 147-year existence.
Until Donald Trump came along and promised to wind back the clock.
“He was the hope we were all waiting on, the guy riding up on the white horse. There was a new energy about everybody here,” says Whitt.
“I still see it.”
Despite the president’s dismal approval ratings and lethargic legislative achievements, he remains profoundly popular here in these mountains, a region so badly battered by the collapse of the coal industry it became the symbolic heart of Trump’s white working-class base.
The frenetic churn of the national news, the ceaseless Twitter taunts, the daily declarations of outrage scroll soundlessly across the bottom of the diner’s television screen, rarely registering. When they do, Trump doesn’t shoulder the blame — because the allegiance of those here is as emotional as it is economic.
It means God, guns, patriotism, saying “Merry Christmas” and not Happy Holidays. It means validation of their indignation about a changing nation: gay marriage and immigration and factories moving overseas. It means tearing down the political system that neglected them again and again in favor of the big cities that feel a world away.
On those counts, they believe Trump has delivered, even if his promised blue-collar renaissance has not yet materialized. He’s punching at all the people who let them down for so long — the presidential embodiment of their own discontent.
“He’s already done enough to get my vote again, without a doubt, no question,” Wes Lewis, a retired pipefitter and one of Whitt’s regulars, declares as he deals the day’s first hand of cards.
He thinks the mines and the factories will soon roar back to life, and if they don’t, he believes they would have if Democrats and Republicans and the media — all “crooked as a barrel of fishhooks” — had gotten out of the way. What Lewis has now that he didn’t have before Trump is a belief that his president is pulling for people like him.
“One thing I hear in here a lot is that nobody’s gonna push him into a corner,” says Whitt, 35. “He’s a fighter. I think they like the bluntness of it.”
He plops down at an empty table next to the card game, drops a stack of mail onto his lap and begins flipping through the envelopes.
“Bill, bill, bill,” he reports to his wife, Chesla, who has arrived to relieve him at the restaurant they run together. He needs to run home and change of out his Frosty Freeze uniform, the first of several work ensembles he wears each day, and put on his second, a suit and tie. He also owns a local funeral home and he’s the county coroner, elected as a Democrat.
The Whitts, like many people here, cobble together a living with a couple jobs each — sometimes working 12 or 15 hours a day — because there aren’t many options better than minimum wage. There’s the school system, and a prison, and that’s pretty much it. Outside of town, population 622, roads wind past rolling farms that used to grow tobacco before that industry crumbled too, then up into the hills of Appalachia, with its spectacular natural beauty and grinding poverty that has come to define this region in the American imagination.