Those of us who live and work in coal country are used to lies. Even whoppers, like the one Donald Trump made this summer when he said he was going to put West Virginia coal miners back to work.
“We’re going to bring back coal jobs. Believe me.”
The people who make decisions about hiring and firing American coal miners work for coal companies. Coal companies decide to open or close coal mines, not the president of the United States. Governments regulate coal mines because they are dangerous. So coal companies say regulation is what caused the collapse of the coal industry in Appalachia. I don’t believe that lie, either.
Trump’s tall tales about coal come at a time when coal-mining states will help decide the 2016 election. For example, zoom in on the part of Pennsylvania that has been called Pennsyltucky, where there is a long history of coal mining and drilling for oil and gas. In September 2016, that part of this swing-state is in sharp decline. The fracking boom and bust has come and gone.
If you zoom out from Pennsylvania, you find two more swing states with coal – Virginia and Ohio, plus Kentucky and West Virginia. These are places where some of the country’s most difficult economic problems are located. It’s where Trump’s lies are believed, or at least most wanted. If you are hurting, then you want some powerful person to say, “I’ll fix that. Everything is going to be OK.” Even when you know it’s not true.
Let’s hold virtual hands and chant, “There is no Trump Coal Company.” He will not bring back long-lost jobs. He is just doing what politicians do. He’s telling us what he thinks we want to hear.
But somehow we continue to vote for politicians like that. Wyoming, another coal state, will go for Trump. Kentucky will go for Trump, and West Virginia will go for Trump. Why? The reasons are deep and persistent. Over 100 years ago, large-scale coal mining came into our homeland and tore it all to hell. We’ve seen mine disasters and polluted streams. We know all about dependency and addiction. Yet we really miss the paychecks and the good times in our communities when coal employment was high.
This isn’t to say that the Democrats have gotten it right. While Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the deep-lying economic problems left in the wake of a departing coal industry, she continues to make mistakes. The problem with “America is already great” (in response to Trump’s slogan) is that regions of the country are hurting. She could say, “America can be greater than it is.”
Coal country people remember the Bill-Clinton years as a time when the economy was better. Why not remind the voters of those years? Why not say, “Government has a role in improving the economy. I’m going to put Bill in charge of economic development in the regions of our country where coal mining jobs have disappeared.”
Hillary Clinton does have a $30 billion proposal for revitalizing coal communities. Why is that message not sticking when Trump’s simple lie is?
Many Democrats don’t recognize the effectiveness of the style that Trump uses. For example, he repeats his lines. “Clinton is a world-class liar; a world-class liar.” It’s like a parent talking to a child. “Look both ways before you cross the street; look both ways.” Also, he seems to really believe what he says. It’s like an excellent car salesman. The best ones are so convincing that it seems to be stupid to not buy the car. The trick is that the salesman sells himself first. Trump sells Trump first. Small things – the tone of his voice, the way his eyes move – become more important than his words.
Clinton hasn’t made the same connection. Maybe her family could help. Where are the Clinton grandbabies? Does Chelsea have a new baby boy? What’s Chelsea’s man like? Does he have any cousins? Cousins are huge in coal country.
On the surface, a politician like Trump seems to be the opposite of what coal country voters want. He’s a rich and from the nation’s biggest city. He’s everything mothers warn their children about. But he’s also something else that people think they want. Trump’s favorite color seems to be gold, the color of the letters and trim on his personal jet. There’s so much gold, it starts to seem that some of it might be for us.
Coal country may not be mining coal like we were, but a bunch of us are going to stay right here and rebuild this place, with or without a president who is willing to use the levers of government to do more than pass out free food.
Herb E. Smith is a filmmaker from Letcher County, Kentucky.