The music stopped and Daniel Harnsberger — all 6-foot-5, 237 pounds of him — burst through the black curtain and jumped into the ring. Kids booed. Mothers shouted “snowflake.” A girl shot him thumbs down, and a logger threatened to take a swipe at him.
Taunting his hecklers as hillbillies and saying coal was a “dirty lie,” Harnsberger — eyeing his nemesis and local favorite Pretty Boy Stan Lee — ranted and prowled, the perfect villain on a rainy night in an abandoned school in one of the poorest regions of the nation.
“We don’t like you,” yelled a boy.
“You stink,” screamed another.
Harnsberger lifted his arms and puffed his chest in full, agitating bloom: “You stupid, ignorant people.”
Harnsberger is the Progressive Liberal, a professional wrestler whose renewable energy politics and preening arrogance have riled supporters of President Trump across the Appalachian Mountains. He praises Hillary Clinton and invokes the Affordable Care Act. Worst of all he’s an outsider, a real estate agent from Richmond, Va., who drives south on weekends and slips on “blue wave” tights and a conceit that he’s better than out-of-work coal miners and Baptists with rifle racks in their pickups.
“Dan, well, that’s a little complicated,” said Beau James, a revered wrestler in these parts who has answered the bell in nearly 4,000 matches and broken 16 bones. “Somebody has to filter Dan or he’s going to get killed. The whole thing of wrestling is to play on the raw emotions of the crowd, but with Dan there’s a chance you may have to fight your way out of the building.”
Harnsberger is both metaphor and caricature in these polarizing, reality-TV-inspired times. In the era of Trump, when entertainment, politics and alternative facts whipsaw through the culture wars, the Progressive Liberal appears as a self-righteous pundit who ridicules Republicans and conservatives on the back roads of America. He travels a well-tread wrestling circuit — in these foothills a cineplex can be many miles away — and preys on stereotypes, scratching at insecurities and what he calls the “persecution complex” of the South.
“All I do is touch the nerve,” said Harnsberger, sitting in the gym of the A.B. Combs Elementary School, which closed two years ago after mining jobs dried up and families moved away. His headlocks are part of the act, but there’s no make-believe in his politics. “These people are stuck in time. They’re on the wrong side of history. They’re not watching Rachel Maddow before they go to bed every night. So I keep it simple: Trump. Hillary. Russia. Coal.”
These mountains, which Kentucky writer Chris Offutt described as “humped like a kicked rug”, are unapologetic Trump territory. The region’s sensibilities hew closer to NASCAR and Hank Williams III than Lady Gaga and “The Crown.” And loyalty is prized: Republican Rep. Hal Rogers has represented this district for 37 years. That is not likely to change as the embattled president leads his party into this week’s midterm elections.
Trump won 62.5% of the vote in Kentucky in 2016, but in the eastern part of the state that figure surpassed 70% in many counties, including Perry, where Hazard is the county seat. People here believe the president, who has a long history with professional wrestling and once clotheslined WWE promoter Vince McMahon at a scripted bout, will resurrect coal jobs, stop immigration, scrap environmental regulations, bring foreign capitals to heel and reinvent Washington with his tweets and anti-establishment fervor.
“President Obama gave mountain people a rough time,” said Van Haynes, owner of a repair and equipment company who was 10 years old when he worked a coal mine tram six decades ago. He voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but like most in this county, where Democrats hold a 3-to-1 registration edge, he has not cast a ballot for a Democrat since. “Obama sent inspectors in and wanted to kill coal. Mountain people don’t stand for that. I’m tickled for Trump. I’m getting old and I’ve seen life. Trump is turning this country around. You know it. I know it.”
Appalachia is a cruel and enchanting land of snapping winds and tin chimneys. Streams run like threads; morning mist scrims the hollows. Eyes peek from behind curtains and home-for-sale signs linger on lawns for years. The unions are broken and gone, and the coal trains that once shook the dawn no longer run to the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Bethlehem, Pa. Coal has succumbed to decades of globalization, mechanization and other factors that have turned men to fits and women to prayer.
For generations everyone feared what they hoped wouldn’t come — that the land would fail to sustain the people whose Scotch-Irish ancestors are buried on its hillsides and in the shadows of its steeples. The hard-pressed swallow their shame and shop at secondhand stores. Addicts wander the North Fork of the Kentucky River; the police station keeps a drop-off box for “unwanted” prescription pills. In a swath of America that boasts self-reliance, about 30% of people live in poverty and more than 40% of children rely on Medicaid, a program Republicans want to shrink.
“Our economy has crashed. The Magic Mart chain went under a few weeks ago,” said Billy Campbell, a Pentecostal minister and apprentice funeral director. “Opioids are full-blown now. Every town. Every household. My father was an addict. He died 13 years ago. I’ve got aunts, uncles and a sister on drugs. Opioids. Meth. We’re seeing people from 19 into their 60s laid out here. It’s 15% of our business. All these tragedies.”
Up the road, behind the courthouse where a sign reads that Elijah Combs settled this frontier with his seven brothers in 1790, Philip Stidham wandered amid guitars and a drum set at Taulbee Music, where he rings up customers on a 1920s cash register. He said Trump reaches into the working man’s heart, which has long been forsaken by Washington.
“It’s tough here,” said Stidham. “A lot of coal miners have gone south to limestone and salt mines.” He leaned on his desk, settling in for a long talk on a damp day. He knew a 23-year-old man — he called him a boy — who overdosed. He paused. “I saw a girl last night I went to high school with,” he said. “She was on meth. Her face was so aged and ragged. She was once so beautiful.”
That last word hit the air slow and soft, as if a man retracing footsteps. Stidham said he’s learned Appalachia’s uncompromising math: You take away one coal mining job (Kentucky has shed 10,000 since 2010), you wipe out 10 other people.
‘He wasn’t late to the dance’
A few hours before his match, part of the “Boneyard Beatdown” for the Appalachian Mountain Wrestling association, Harnsberger ate chicken and mashed potatoes in the bleachers. Big and guileless, with a swoop of brown hair hanging over his forehead, he’s the son of a carpenter mother, who came out as gay when he was a teenager, and a salesman father. He had been wrestling for years under different names — Dynamite Dan Richards, Big Dan – when in 2015 he created the Progressive Liberal.
“It was getting fashionable to throw politics into the arena,” said Shawn Cruz, a cop from Roanoke, Va., who wrestles under the aliases the Assassin and the Gladiator. He noted that Harnsberger was in the vein of Japanese and Russian villains who emerged on the circuit after World War II and the Cold War. “Dan was doing political stuff before Trump was big. He wasn’t late to the dance.”
“The best wrestling personas are extensions of your personality, ” said Harnsberger, who leaves his real estate job two to three days a week to wrestle anywhere from Indiana to Florida. His outfits are emblazoned with pictures of Hillary Clinton and phrases like “Dump Trump” and “Impeach.”
His trash talk is part smug progressive and political-science professor, as if Bill Maher slips on lace-up boots and body slams his way through the hinterlands. Once he enters the ring, Harnsberger is an incessant instigator, a master of condescension.
“I’ve had husbands and wives come after me. Grannies have cussed me out,” he said. “My whole intent is to get people worked up, to create a reaction. We are selling tickets after all. They’re paying money to see me get my ass kicked.” He looked down to men making a ring out of steel, wood, duct tape and foam. “I hope, though, this country goes through an intellectual renaissance and looks at what a shameful time this has been.”
Across the river, in Shawn Lewis’ tattoo parlor, a stuffed coyote sat on a cabinet and a scythe hung on the wall. Lewis’ skin served as canvas and diary, etched with colors, designs and names accumulated over the years, through the booms and busts of coal (his uncles and cousins worked the mines) into the hard place of now. He had a .45-caliber handgun holstered on his hip — he proudly states he’s never been robbed — and a circle of stars tattooed on his face to connote his allegiance to the Three Percenters militia group.
“Why do people like Trump?” he said. “Guns and immigration. I’m a big gun fan myself. I carry every day. A lot of my friends were in the Army. They didn’t like Hillary because of how she handled Benghazi. People like Trump because he can’t be bought. He’s not in anyone’s pocket. He has a way of riling things up. People around here like that.”
When asked why support for Trump was high when the president wanted to curtail government programs the region relied on, Lewis did not see a contradiction. He said Trump promised to bring back coal. A local mine recently hired more than 30 people, an indication to many here that Trump was making good, even though they conceded it was a glimmer. The president’s relaxing of environmental regulations has had little effect on an industry in decline.
“A lot of times it’s just dim candle here,” said Lewis, who on his friend, Junior, tattooed an image of Jesus arm-wrestling the devil. “When I grew up there were a lot of dirt roads and miners in uniforms. But this place has always had a lot of poverty — a lot of poverty and a lot of family.”
Night fell. Cars drove down from the hollows to the Combs school gym. The concession was selling Halloween candy. Ringside seats went for $13, bleachers for $10. A girl swept by in a princess dress. A few men stepped outside for a last smoke in the rain. The national anthem crackled through a speaker and faded. Children ran toward the black curtain. Whoosh. The Progressive Liberal arrived with #Resist on his tights and white stars glowing on the sleeves of a blue jacket.
“I am not a snowflake,” he shouted.
The Progressive Liberal jumped into the ring, warning the crowd of the environmental dangers and “dirty lies” of coal. Don’t follow “in the footsteps of your ignorant fathers and grandfathers,” he said. He bellowed about renewable energy and better healthcare. He called them stupid. Sitting ringside, Joe Jones, wiry and thin as an old belt, could not contain himself. He challenged the Progressive Liberal to meet him out back. “They should have never let this guy across the state line,” said Jones. “He’s a liar and a cheat.”
“Loser, loser,” the crowd yelled.
Another whoosh. Pretty Boy Stan Lee blew through the curtain and climbed through the ropes. His platinum hair shined, a butterfly glittered on his robe. He circled the Progressive Liberal. “These good people of Kentucky,” said Lee, “don’t want you here.”
Body slams, arm twists, grunts and punches. The Progressive Liberal yelled “Hillary” when he got into a fix. The crowd shouted back: “Moron.” They have never forgotten how she called them “deplorables” and promised to put coal mines out of business. Pretty Boy won in two out of three falls, and the Progressive Liberal, a villain defeated in Trump country, walked to a locker room built for little kids.
“I’m happy,” he said. “I try to do ‘Hillary’ once a match. We got a reaction.”
He wiped the sweat away and changed. Rain was falling and the night cold as he got into his car and drove over the mountains, past dying towns and abandoned coal mines on his way home to Virginia.
This is the third in a series of occasional articles about cultural touchstones reflecting the tumultuous political times across America.