Donald Trump and the Furor in Coal Country - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Donald Trump and the Furor in Coal Country

Donald Trump and the Furor in Coal Country

By Alexander Zaitchik


Because they’re beating their chests for a reason. 

By Alexander Zaitchik

To take the pulse of a polarized nation and better understand the allure of Donald Trump, I traveled across America during the Republican primaries. Rather than finding a movement composed simply of angry (racist) white males, I was reminded how most people, when given the chance, prove more aware and more complex than you might expect. Still, there was an overarching theme throughout my journey, which helped inform the title of my new book: The Gilded Rage.

Trump supporters were often bordering on desperation — both in terms of their personal well-being and their local economies. Occasionally that rage was expressed in echoes of Trump’s crude attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, but mostly it was aimed at distant elites and an economic order they felt was rigged. What do they want? The old blue-collar, middle-class economy restored, or “made great again.”

“We’re the little men, understand. We live in this little community, we’re rural, we’re out in the woods, we’re not to be heard. We don’t have a voice, OK? Well, we do.”

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Coal Country. The former mining counties of West Virginia have been gutted. Many mines have closed, and the jobs that do remain are often non-union and part-time, providing no benefits or security. The resulting spiral of poverty and depopulation has created quasi-ghost towns, many of which feature a modest church and faded husks of social and commercial life, like boarded shops, abandoned bowling alleys or the charred foundations of a once-popular bar. “We have a higher rate of refugees than Afghanistan and Syria. The whole valley is being depopulated,” one embittered Coal Creek resident said. “People want to believe Trump will turn it around.”

When a January poll showed Trump’s strongest support in the counties of central and southern West Virginia, it seemed to offer an explanation many craved: poorly educated, white, in economic free fall. The state, like Trump, seemed a caricature: a toothless monster of working-class anger, despair and resentment. Glossy magazines sent feature writers to Charleston, and newspapers published interactive maps about “How West Virginia Explains Donald Trump.” But it was in the coal towns where I learned firsthand how Trump had established himself as the black-lung candidate: He understood that miners loathed the automation of their industry, offering a lifeline to communities fed up with “anti-coal” Democrats. 

These communities have been plagued further by a spiraling drug crisis — namely heroin and painkillers. “If you told me back then there’d be a drug problem in southern West Virginia, I’d say, ‘Son, you need to go back to New York,’ ” Lenny Massimino, the owner of a Raleigh County hardware store, said. And it’s not just the death of coal, he offered. Other industrial sectors, like textiles and manufacturing, have also been hard hit: “You can’t find a shirt made in the United States anymore.”

A similar refrain could be heard up north, in the coal and steel towns of Pennsylvania. In Carmichaels, Greene County, one of the Keystone State’s better-known coal towns, I spent a day with two coal miners. It soon became clear that for John Beatty and Stanley Stockdale — chatting from their trailer home in the hills outside town — anger over economic dislocation was often inseparable from resentment toward the smug elites they suspect — not always incorrectly — of taking the lion’s share of new wealth. “I’ve heard the term ‘dumb coal miner’ many times in my life,” Beatty said. “We’re the little men, understand. We live in this little community, we’re rural, we’re out in the woods, we’re not to be heard. We don’t have a voice, OK? Well, we do.” 

In the oldest miner’s bar in Carmichaels, I heard a similar refrain from bartender “Tiggie” Teegarden, who explained why many former Democrats in the area had switched to Trump. Folks in D.C. and New York “think we’re dirtying the economy,” he said. “That is our economy. Without the coal mines, we don’t have no economy.” Stores are closing at a steady rate — Kmart and Sears just shut — and the only upside is gas prices being down, he explained. “People can afford to drive out of the county to work,” he said, but former hot spots like Nimocal and Rice’s Landing have already been transformed into ghost towns, where young people have few opportunities — other than enlisting.

Trump couldn’t restore King Coal, even if he wanted to. But the anger of people in places like Appalachia — check out the video below to get a sense of their despair — will not dissipate with Trump’s victory or defeat in November, and it will likely remain a feature of American politics for years to come.

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