When the news broke Wednesday that a Russian company had purchased more than $100,000 in politically divisive Facebook ads during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, shock waves ricocheted on television networks and across the internet. In a mountain of evidence of Kremlin efforts to influence American voting results, this was the latest development to bring fresh outrage and questions about just how much the president knew.
Except in West Virginia, where the response has been muted, the statewide reaction slightly more than one big, collective yawn.
Of the allegations of Russian meddling, Dirk Shamblin, a corrections officer in Raleigh County, summed it up: “Nobody cares,” he said.
“Coal production has seen an increase. Opiates are tearing the state apart. Younger generations are leaving because jobs are scarce. It’s almost football season and deer season is around the corner. People here have better things to do and more important things to worry about than Trump connections,” Shamblin added.
And in many ways, he may be right.
July’s Gallup Poll put President Donald Trump’s approval rating at 60 percent in West Virginia, the highest in the nation (compared with 26 percent in Vermont, the lowest).
That approval rating shows little sign of dropping – even after West Virginia was drawn into the national discussion when it was revealed that Rick Clay, a Charleston, W.Va.-based military contractor had tried to engineer a meeting between Russian officials and members of the Trump presidential campaign in 2016. Clay said he encouraged the meeting so the two sides could discuss “their shared Christian values,” but it never happened and the campaign took the overture seriously enough that they turned it over to the U.S. Department of State.
Lance Wheeler, vice-chairman for the Kanawha County Republican Party, believes the allegations of collusion with the Russians are blown out of proportion and at least partly fabricated by an often-disingenuous national media. Carefully clarifying his remarks as his own thoughts and not representative of the party views, he said the continual pressing of the collusion narrative mistakes what many in middle America – and West Virginia in particular – actually care about.
“What real America worries about versus what Washington worries about are two different things,” Wheeler said. “This isn’t just politicians, but the people who live and work around Washington.”
Washington and West Virginia are different worlds with different sets of concerns.
“At the end of the day, middle America, West Virginia, what they want to know is: am I going to have a job? Can I put food on the table? Are my kids still going to get an education?”
Compared with the day-to-day struggles of most West Virginians, assertions of Russian meddling in an election aren’t even a distraction, let alone a concern.
It’s just political noise.
Wheeler doesn’t think West Virginians are naturally sympathetic to Russian objectives and said when most people think of Russians, they think of movie villains.
“We know them from ‘Rocky’ or ‘The Mighty Ducks,’” the vice-chairman said. “They’re the bad guys.”
But he acknowledged that everyday Russian citizens probably aren’t that different from everyday West Virginians.
Like West Virginia, Russia leans socially conservative. Family is important, as is religion.
The Russian government, often violently hostile toward people of faith during the Soviet years, now supports and draws support from the very conservative Russian Orthodox Church, which opposes abortion, women’s equality, and is often hostile to gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
Those values are not entirely out of sync with many in West Virginia.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, women in West Virginia make around 70 cents for every dollar a man earns.
Abortion is difficult to come by in West Virginia. The state only has one abortion clinic. The other closed in January.
In 2016, the West Virginia senate voted down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by the House of Delegates, which many feared would have allowed businesses to refuse goods and services to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered citizens based on the religious beliefs of the business owner. With Republicans now in control of all three branches of state government, some believe the act or something close to it will eventually return.
On August 9, the city of Parkersburg voted down a non-discrimination ordinance that would have extended protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents by a vote of 6 to 3.
Scott Sears, the pastor at First United Methodist in Princeton, said people in West Virginia aren’t concerned about the Russians or any scandals because they’re disenchanted, disenfranchised and distrustful.
“A lot of Appalachians have become disheartened by where some of the democratic policies have taken us,” he said.
Some of that is social. A lot of it is economic.
“Economy trumps everything,” Sears said.
Donald Trump won Appalachia because he promised to do something different.
“People wanted something new, and they found it,” Sears said.
Whatever else it may be, President Trump’s approach is very different from that of any other president and a lot of people are waiting to see what happens, he said.
Russia, Sears said, doesn’t bother people in West Virginia because Russia doesn’t mean anything to them.
“We’re not afraid of them,” he said. “Maybe there was a time when we were, but that was a long time ago. Now, we have other, more immediate things to worry about than what some hackers might be able to do with a computer.”
Wheeler allowed it was possible Russians might have tried to influence the election, though he doubted their effectiveness.
The following investigation and news reports sound to him like sour grapes and political theater.
Calling your opponent “a cheater” is fairly routine in American politics, he pointed out. Trump often referred to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” and repeatedly said that if he lost the election it would be because the election was fixed.
“The left laughed at him,” Wheeler said. “They mocked him, said he was crazy, and just trying to explain his loss.”
But then election went the other way.
“The tables turned,” Wheeler said. “Now the left is saying it was fixed and the right is laughing at them.”