As “Moundsville” heads to PBS stations around the country, we’re starting a new series of features on this blog around the election. We don’t talk about politics in the film, but it is an election year, and Moundsville is a good place to check in on Trump country, with, hopefully, as much accuracy and nuance as possible. We’ll talk to characters in the film and others, on all sides of the debate. First up is Phil Remke, who opens and closes the film. Remke is no longer mayor, but he’s still on city council and he was keen to show off new construction. We met at Bob’s Diner, and then he drove me around town.
Underlying the Senate’s certain acquittal of President Trump is a floor of support from Republican voters around the country that seems impossible to erode.
Phil Remke is one of them. He’s not changing his mind. “The president is a businessman and he’s doing a great job,” he told me when we sat down for coffee. “This impeachment thing is ridiculous. I haven’t seen any facts.”
Phil gets most of his national news from Fox. He also watches NBC, CBS and ABC, but not CNN, which “needs to look deeper into the issues as I believe Fox does.” Until Fox changes its approach or other media companies figure out ways of reaching people like Remke, Trump will reign in Moundsville. (In 2016, 73% of voters in the county voted for the president, compared to 23% for Hillary Clinton.)
Remke’s perception of good times rolls on two things: the stock market, and shiny new local construction. Moundsville has a new Holiday Inn with 123 rooms, its second chain hotel. The market for beds is strong, thanks to the gas industry and a possible plastic-making plant that might get build across the river in Ohio. The other is the Sleep Inn, with 75 rooms. If the plastics plant gets built across the river in Ohio, a new Marriott will get built, too, said Remke. There’s a new bank under construction. And a spectacular new high school football stadium that cost over $5 million.
“We’re doing well, thanks to Trump,” said Remke. “He’s doing everything he said he would do, and everybody’s doing better in the stock market, everybody’s saying that.”
No president should be above the law, said Remke, “but I don’t think Trump has broken any laws, at least not that I’ve seen from watching the news.” The former mayor believes in democracy. “I believe everyone has the right to their own opinion without fighting,” he said. “That’s the way it should be in the greatest county in the world.”
You can’t overstate the role Fox News plays in the cultural and political lives of people in Moundsville. With newspapers shrinking in their availability and influence, it’s Fox, almost alone, that feeds people the national narratives they carry to their dinner tables, commutes, golf courses, voting booths, and reporters who show up at Bob’s Diner asking questions. The loop doesn’t crack.
On a big screen in the McDonald’s where sources often ask to meet me for coffee, the station plays all day. “You go into people’s homes and they’re always watching Fox,” Father That Son Nguyen told me when I stopped by the town’s Catholic Church, where Remke worships. (He also attends a nondenominational church on Sunday mornings, which “works hard to bring God into the picture for the younger people”. In a follow-up text message, Remke wrote that he is “a Catholic and always will be” although he doesn’t “believe everything that is done in the Catholic faith is correct.” Without God, he wrote, “we are nothing.”) Fox “validates what people believe, especially religious beliefs,” said Susan Board, who works at the church.
Here’s how powerful Fox is: Remke speaks of its anchors as if they were national leaders. When I asked him who he would support in the 2024 election, Remke said he would like “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson”. Of the other Republican politicians, Remke said “they just don’t have the guts, the toughness we need right now.”
Remke’s boosterism lies on top of some harsh realities Moundsville still faces. The population is still aging. Opioids are killing people. Facing low prices, gas companies have been laying off workers. The hotels are owned by out-of-town chain operators and will create mostly low-paying jobs for people in Moundsville. The town’s unemployment rate is 6%, higher than the national average. There are 30 gambling joints in Moundsville, with slot machines and other games. Remke is trying to shut them down: “People don’t have the money to spend on that stuff, and we need to help people.”
And then there’s the demographic challenge. “We need more young people down here,” said Board. “It’s still a great community for people to live.”
John W. Miller