“Post-Truth” Politics, Trump and Coal Country

Roger Cohen is an internationally renowned columnist and author who recently journeyed to Eastern Kentucky in Appalachia to talk with citizens whose communities have been hard hit by the decline in the coal industry in recent decades. As a group, these individuals were historically Democrats, but have become reliably Republican in recent years. Support for Donald Trump in this region now runs strong. The question is why, and it is that concern that Cohen went to explore. His resulting article appeared in The New York Times.1 I found Cohen’s reporting thoughtful and nuanced, and he provided a rich portrait of the region’s changed politics and the reasons its residents offered for that shift in his relatively short essay. Echoing others’ arguments, Cohen found a deep despair and anger among those with whom he spoke. This finding was surely predictable, given how not only the industry, but also the way of life represented by coal mining, has been declining in Appalachia, and the dearth of ready economic alternatives available there. As he observed,

There’s a sense, crystallized in coal’s steady demise, that, as the political scientist Norman Ornstein put it to me, ‘Somebody is taking everything you are used to and you had’—your steady middle-class existence, your values, your security. It’s not that the economy is bad in all of Kentucky; the arrival of the auto industry has been a boon, and the [state’s] unemployment rate is just 4.9 percent. It’s that all the old certainties have vanished.2

The reasons for coal’s decline include the intense mechanization that has characterized the industry for many decades, a trend that has resulted in a steady reduction in the number of jobs available for miners. This development has been exacerbated by the advent of mountain-top removal mining in lieu of long-wall efforts. The former employs huge power shovels and dump trucks operated by many fewer employees than traditional underground mining efforts. In addition to these changes in the industry, natural gas is now less expensive and considerably less polluting than Appalachian coal. As a result, power generation companies and many other industrial users now prefer it to coal. Accordingly, the natural gas industry has experienced a boom that has simultaneously reduced demand for coal.

In addition to these changes wrought by technological innovation and market shifts, the air quality of Appalachian coal’s largest customer, China, has become so poor that that nation’s government has actively begun to replace the country’s coal-fired electrical plants with alternative fuel sources as quickly as feasible. Moreover, Chinese economic growth has slowed in the recent period and that, too, has diminished demand for the region’s coal. Finally, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sought to improve America’s own air quality pursuant to its legislative mandate by requiring the coal industry to improve its pollution abatement technologies. That effort has surely squeezed some coal firms’ profitability, at least at the margin.

These trends are all beyond the specific control of miners or their families and have primarily to do with capitalism’s search for efficiencies, and secondarily with our nation’s quest for a sustainable ecology. The major drivers of the region’s present crisis are not the result of government actions or policies, but instead of global competition among energy producers as well as changing extraction technologies and demand patterns. Nonetheless, Cohen found that those he interviewed were uniformly convinced that President Barack Obama had personally launched and was vigorously prosecuting a “War on Coal,” and that was the primary factor for the economic decline of the industry so vital to their communities:

Kentucky voted twice for Bill Clinton before going solidly Republican in presidential elections. Now Kentuckians are clambering aboard the Trump train—and to heck with its destination. Obama is blamed for the collapse of coal, particularly in eastern Kentucky, and the ever more stringent standards of the Environmental Protection Agency. Beyond that, the blame is aimed at airy-fairy liberals more concerned about climate change—often contested or derided — than about Americans trying to make their house payments.3

It is hardly coincidental that so many residents of the region have come to this conclusion. The industry has blamed government pollution reduction efforts for its diminishing employment for decades. Likewise, the GOP is on record arguing that climate change is not real and regulation is therefore unduly onerous or even unnecessary, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. And Donald Trump has embraced that same mantra. Given this political advocacy, undertaken to encourage citizens to scapegoat the government as responsible for the continued decline of their most important local industry and to mobilize them simultaneously in partisan terms, it should surprise no one that while a far less significant factor than any of the other major trends outlined above, voters have settled on personalizing their fear (i.e., the belief that “the President is evil and out to get me and my family”) and embraced a demagogue as their answer to the perceived enemy: their own government (which is to say, themselves). This is a real and vitally important paradox. Here is how one of Cohen’s interviewees described this turn:

Jenny Williams, an English teacher at Hazard Community and Technical College, told me it’s past time to get over divisions between “Friends of Coal”—a popular movement and bumper sticker—and anti-coal environmentalists to forge a creative economy around agriculture, ecotourism, education and small-scale manufacture. Coal, she observed, was never going to last forever. ‘How could any idiot support Trump?’ she said. ‘But when you’ve been on $70,000 a year in coal mines, and your life’s pulled out from under you, who else can you be mad at but the government?’4

The answer to Ms. Williams question might be, “well, many other factors might more reasonably be cited as at least partly responsible for coal’s decline, before one demonizes the President or holds government regulation alone responsible.” To begin, citizens might hold the coal companies accountable for their situation, as those firms have often treated the lives and safety of miners with an amazing casualness or otherwise abused the power associated with their absentee ownership of much of the land of the region. Or these residents might demand changes in government policies, by calling on the nation to do a better job of supporting unemployed and displaced workers (steps which, perversely, the GOP has often vigorously opposed). These possibilities could be multiplied. In short, one can think of many far more important factors that residents could articulate as responsible for their difficult predicament (and means to address it) than the EPA or the President’s alleged personal animus (for which there is no evidence).

Nevertheless, as noted above, Cohen’s interviewees did not cite these more compelling concerns when speaking with him. Instead, they blamed environmental policy and contended that the President intensely dislikes them and is acting to hurt them in self-conscious ways. Since one of these “explanations” is not factually true and the other is a classic case of scapegoating, the obvious question is why voters might adopt these arguments. While one might offer a number of hypotheses, the most compelling in my view is that both the coal firms and the Republican Party have told the region’s citizens repeatedly that the government was responsible for their woes.

That this was not principally the case mattered little if voters, in their angst and fear, could be convinced of this claim, and it is clear that many have been so persuaded. Not coincidentally, this pretense has also reflected and served the GOP’s prevailing anti-governance ideology. To this obfuscation, Trump has added another equally facetious set of claims: that he alone could accomplish the following goals (without saying how) needed to bring coal-based prosperity back to the region:

• Single-handedly change the globalized trade system, • Eliminate the Chinese pollution problem while ensuring that nation’s continued (and increased) demand for Appalachian coal • Overcome the fact of ongoing mechanization of the mining industry, including major changes in mining technology leading to a declining need for labor and • Overcome the fact of competition from natural gas • Somehow assure that America’s air becomes cleaner while burning more fossil fuels.

He can, of course, do none of these things as a matter of his will, assuming they could be accomplished at all, and saying he can do so profoundly misleads and misinforms those supporting him.

In sum, it does no disservice to this region or to its hardworking people to point out that they have been victimized by the coal industry, their presumed benefactor, twice over. First, Republican political leaders, the industry’s principal political allies who work closely with those firms, have been more interested in partisan positioning and power and ideological claims than in assisting these residents, and have falsely led their communities to believe that government created their parlous economic situation and that climate change and coal’s decline together constitute constructed cruelties aimed at undermining their way of life. Second, those same political leaders and coal firms have systematically misled the region’s citizens, and continue to do so, by claiming that the only instrument equipped and potentially willing to assist them—government—is their enemy. Rather than roll up their sleeves and demand that their state and national public institutions aggressively support them in devising new strategies to create new economic possibilities for their communities, these citizens are instead supporting a demagogue and a party with no interest in assisting them meaningfully.

Whatever one’s partisanship, this is a punishing irony visited on a population that deserves far better. It seems clear that the coal region’s citizens have been treated to a massive dose of today’s new “post-truth” politics, in which candidates and leaders may assert whatever they please, regardless of whether it has any basis in reality, and refuse to be held accountable thereafter for such arguments when challenged.5 Appalachia’s citizens surely should not be the targets of this cynical shell game. Indeed, all Americans deserve, and must demand, better.

Notes

1 Roger Cohen, “We need Somebody Spectacular:’ Views from Trump Country,” The New York Times, September 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/we-need-somebody-spectacular-views-from-trump-country.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Froger-cohen&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection Accessed, September 14, 2016.

2 Cohen, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/we-need-somebody-spectacular-views-from-trump-country.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Froger-cohen&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection Accessed, September 14, 2016.

3 Cohen, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/we-need-somebody-spectacular-views-from-trump-country.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Froger-cohen&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection Accessed, September 14, 2016.

4 Cohen, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/we-need-somebody-spectacular-views-from-trump-country.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Froger-cohen&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection Accessed, September 14, 2016.

5 William Davies, “The Age of Post-Truth Politics,” The New York Times, August 24, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html Accessed, September 5, 2016.