GILLETTE, Wyoming — From behind the counter of his brother's auto-parts store, Bubba Miller looks out at the 2020 presidential race and worries about what will happen to his hometown if a Democrat wins. Not just a Democrat, but, based on the current frontrunners, a liberal Democrat. Or a Progressive. Or an avowed Socialist.
"I wish we could build a wall around Wyoming," he says with a laugh. "I think there's just something wrong in their heads to think you can get everything for free."
Shifting the wad of tobacco tucked in his lip, Miller, 24, lays out the case for re-electing President Donald Trump, from this coal town's booming economy to the president's protection of gun rights, to his tough border policies and efforts to reduce the size of the federal government. As far as Miller is concerned, Trump can do no wrong.
He's not alone. In 2016, then-candidate Trump won 86% of the vote here as he swept every Wyoming county but one, the wealthy liberal enclave of Teton County, home to Jackson Hole. Only once since 1952 has the state voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, and in 2016 Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by the widest margin of any state. And ahead of the November presidential election, none of the 2020 Democratic candidates are making any inroads with these most conservative of voters.
"I've very concerned about the direction of the Democratic Party," says Robin Clover, a 20-year Wyoming resident and registered Republican who's voted for Democrats at the local level. "They're either past their prime or far too progressive."
Here in Wyoming, where every other car is a pickup, and cowboy hats and boots are a working man's uniform, the 2020 election worries voters, who fear the election of a Democrat will upend their way of life, force the coal mines to close and the oil wells to stop pumping. Force them to pay higher taxes, force them to give up their AR-15 rifles and high-capacity magazines. Force them to subsidize the health care of immigrants. Force them to pay for college loans for city kids. Force. Force. Force.
"That's the problem," Miller says. "I'm an adult. You can't make me. It's just taking away from letting people grow up."
Like his neighbors, Miller says he wishes Trump could lead the country the way he was elected to, without being second-guessed or attacked by what he considers a "corrupt" class of politicians and bureaucrats. The way Miller sees it, the fact that Trump is being so forcefully opposed perfectly demonstrates that the president is on the right track in draining the swamp in Washington, D.C.
The state Republican Party officially endorses a slew of other conservative positions, from disarming forest rangers, to returning to a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for the military and banning birthright citizenship. The party has also called for banning the acceptance of any international refugees unless they are vetted Christians, defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, abolishing the EPA and the U.S. Department of Education, and strictly enforcing all immigration laws.
But for most voters here, coal and the jobs it provides are the biggest drivers of decisions. And that means Trump is their guy.
Because Wyoming has only three Electoral College votes, there's little chance a Democrat will even bother campaigning here, and even Trump is considered unlikely to visit, since most voters across the state will back him regardless if they see him in person shaking hands and holding babies. That leaves Wyoming's voters in a uniquely powerless situation: Ignored by both parties, they are effectively sidelined despite the critical role federal policy plays in their future. And they're facing Democratic candidates who all see a bigger federal government as a solution to the nation's problems.
Polls suggest their worst nightmare could come true in November. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are all narrowly leading or in a close tie with Trump in recent polls. The president's supporters in Wyoming, however, point out that polls showed Clinton winning the presidency in 2016, so they don't put much stock in them.
Wyoming's approximately 578,000 residents, most of them white and living on land seized from Native Americans, have long prided themselves on a frontier spirit of rugged individualism and independence. They also see themselves as a world apart from the nation's big coastal states, all of which tend to vote Democrat. For generations, they've voted Republican and argued that big-city liberals can't possibly understand what life is like where there's just six people per square mile. New York City, by contrast, has 27,000 people per square mile.
But the outside world is increasingly moving in a different direction, where global warming is settled science, inclusivity, diversity and tolerance are honored, and access to health care is seen as a fundamental human right. The United Nations even has set a 2030 goal for achieving universal health coverage internationally. That's setting up an increasingly stark contrast for Wyomingites who see a Trump victory as essential to preserving their freedoms and independence.
"Our way of life here is threatened by a Democratic administration," said state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, a Republican who represents a portion of the largest city, Cheyenne, where Trump won 60% of the vote in 2016. "Every Republican in Wyoming you'll talk to would agree that Wyoming is better off under a Republican administration. No one liked Hillary. They just knew that she was the enemy. And whether it's Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, I don't think the vote totals would change by 5%. There's just this attitude that you have to maintain control of the presidency at all costs."
To understand Wyoming, you have to understand a little bit about coal, the state's backbone, both physically and financially. In Gillette, which calls itself the "Energy Capital of the Nation," coal is inextricable from daily life. The mines outside of town set the pace, explosives blasting the windswept ground to free the coal. Many of the workers are no longer full-time employees but work as contractors, missing out on the benefits but still keeping the same 12-hour shifts they used to before repeated bankruptcies prompted many mine operators to restructure.
In town, restaurants proudly display "coal keeps the lights on" and "friends of coal" stickers, and the diesel-equipment repair shops and heavy machinery repair yards line the approaches to the historic downtown, where the Gillette Brewing Company's bar is supported by pieces of drilling rigs.
Taxes levied on the vast trainloads of coal hauled to power plants across the West means the state has never had an income tax, and its sales taxes are among the nation's lowest. While Eastern coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia get the president's attention, Wyoming leads the nation in coal production, with its approximately 5,500 miners digging more than the next six states combined.
Virtually all of that coal is mined from land owned by the federal government, which leases the property to conglomerates to mine and then burn the coal for electricity. That quirk of geology has long helped Wyoming maintain its financial independence, but even coal's strongest backers worry that times are changing. The federal government plays a key role because slowing down new coal leases or restricting coal-powered generating plants almost immediately impacts the miners themselves.
During the 2016 election, Clinton declared "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” a statement that infuriated Wyoming residents who already disliked her for reasons ranging from Benghazi to her work with the Clinton Foundation. While Clinton then went on to explain that she planned to offer job retraining to coal workers, Wyoming's voters -- who weren't going to support her anyway -- hardened their opposition further.
They say there's still life in coal, and that Clinton would have harmed an already struggling industry. And they say the Democrats running for president in 2020 have a similar playbook.
"I think Hillary would have killed our economy. And I think any of the people running on the Democrat side would absolutely eviscerate our economy. The Democrats seem to do everything they can to squash business," says Vicki Million Hughes, a Cheyenne real estate agent whose grandparents moved to Wyoming in 1920.
Hughes says she's 100% behind the president, aside from offensive tweets attacking specific people, because his focus has been creating a strong economy, growing industry and "jobs, jobs, jobs."
The strength of the national and local economy is a major factor for Trump's ongoing support in Wyoming, even though coal mining jobs have been on the decline for decades. Voters here believe four more years of his administration will keep the economy humming and extend the life of the coal mines for the foreseeable future.
"If God is good enough to give us a natural resource, we should use that resource wisely," says Hughes, who like many Wyoming voters, says she believes the planet naturally warms and cools, and that humans have little to do with it. "Why waste what God has given us?"
About 70% of Americans say climate change is occurring, and a majority -- 55% -- say it's mostly human-caused, according to an April 2019 study by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, scientists. In Wyoming, voters like Hughes and Miller say they have the right to disagree and worry that their voices will be shouted down by the modern-day shaming mobs populating social media.
"I have lots of friends who live on the coasts and they tell me it's time to evolve, that Wyoming needs to get past fossil fuels. But we make our living and livelihood off oil and gas and coal," said Zwonitzer. "You've got people who have been involved in these industries for generations."
That singular focus on coal and federal land management means Wyoming's voters spend little time worrying about the nuances of immigration or health care reform, although many shake their heads at what they see as the entitlement culture of the Democratic candidates and their supporters.
Wyomingites pride themselves on their low-tax, work-focused culture, and the idea of erasing student loans or giving everyone government-run health insurance runs counter to their deeply held ideology of taking care of their own problems and being responsible for their own decisions.
Miller, for instance, is paying off medical debt accumulated when he crashed his dirtbike and blew out his knee. He didn't have health insurance at the time, and instead paid the Obamacare tax because it was cheaper than paying for health insurance. While having to pay the bills "sucks," Miller says, he accepts that it was his decision to forgo insurance.
"Everybody in Wyoming would love to have the best college education, the best health care, and for it all to be done for free. And that's just impossible," said Carl "Bunky" Loucks, a Republican state representative from Casper. "I just don't understand the mentality that you can get everything for free."
Loucks, 52, said he and many other Wyoming residents support both an audit of the federal government and a balanced budget amendment that would limit government spending to what it can actually afford, instead of adding to the ballooning national deficit. Loucks said he's frustrated the national debt has increased under Trump but says it would have been worse under a Democrat. Trump won Louck's county with 70% of the vote.
Miller says Wyoming has flourished under Trump, and none of his neighbors regret their 2016 votes. If anything, he says, Trump's support has increased.
"How can you hate someone who is so good for the United States?" Miller says. "I think his mouth gets him in trouble, but sometimes what he says is well-needed."