Two weeks ago, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt announced his intention to roll back former president Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, aimed at limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Pruitt’s announcement looked to fulfill President Trump’s campaign promise to take care of coal miners and return the industry to its former glory. Speaking in Hazard, Ky., in the middle of the state’s coal country, Pruitt declared, “The war against coal is over.”
Trump has long positioned himself as the champion of coal — and miners. In the second presidential debate, then-candidate Trump rhapsodized, “Coal will last for 1,000 years … We have found tremendous wealth right under our feet.” He went on to promise, “I will bring our energy companies back … We have to bring back our workers.”
For Trump, the fixation on coal is less about energy than about white masculinity. And Trump is not alone in that motivation: Throughout the 20th century, white Americans have imagined the mountaineers and backwoodsmen of Appalachia as the ideal of the American man. If a West Virginia coal miner could fall on hard times, what chance did the rest of the nation’s men have?
Yet since at least the end of World War II, changing economic circumstances have left coal miners out of the promises of American prosperity.
This disconnect between ideal and reality has led politicians in both parties to scurry to the rescue, not just for political gain, but to save American manhood. They have done so under the assumption that a dynamic economy and culture requires productive white men employed in manly jobs.
This assumption is rooted in white supremacy — an ideology proved wrong by the mountaineers languishing in poverty. For the #MAGA crowd there’s a fundamental problem when manly roughneck coal miners are put out of work by liberal hippie tree-huggers. White and masculine, coal miners symbolize the 1950s society that Trump supporters long for — a time when white, heterosexual men dominated society. That makes coal the perfect fuel for the drive to “make America great again.”
But the importance of white masculinity in the politics of coal country was nothing new in 2016. In 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president after pulling an upset in the West Virginia primary. Initially leery of the elite-born New Englander, West Virginians eventually flocked to Kennedy in droves, winning him the primary with 60 percent of the vote. He later carried the state in the general election.
Kennedy’s victory came in the aftermath of journalist Homer Bigart’s exposé on poverty in coal country. Kennedy responded by preaching a message of economic uplift to West Virginia’s coal miners — promising to use the powers of the federal government to revitalize the region.
His promises to out-of-work coal miners were not merely campaign bluster. As president, Kennedy formed the Appalachian Regional Commission with the goal of advancing legislation to funnel federal dollars to the region. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, continued to champion the cause of poverty-stricken coal miners, signing the Appalachian Redevelopment Act in 1965.
Johnson’s most dramatic appeal to coal mining came in Inez, Ky. — less than 75 miles from where Pruitt recently declared the war on coal over — where he attempted to sell his War on Poverty to the American people. From the front porch of out-of-work Kentuckian Tom Fletcher, Johnson implored Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, a crucial piece of legislation aimed at relieving poverty in the region and other depressed areas.
Johnson’s trip to Kentucky intended to show that the War on Poverty didn’t just target the problems experience by African Americans in urban areas. The Great Society could also help people like Tom Fletcher, poor white citizens struggling to survive in coal country.
But holding back the brewing politics of racial resentment was not Johnson’s sole motive. As historian Ian C. Hartman has shown, many Americans have long looked to Appalachia to find a “realer,” more “authentic” expression of America: the one that was nourished along the frontier and on the hardscrabble mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia. The one that was white and masculine.
When Kennedy and Johnson looked to the region, however, they only saw destitution and a once vigorous and hardy population leveled by economic and cultural decline. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society, Hartman argues, were in part motivated by a desire to fix the existential problem of virile white men reduced to poverty. Essentially, liberals in the 1960s wanted to save white America’s manhood.
Liberals courted poor white men in the 1960s for more than just electoral gains. Although in 1964 Barry Goldwater would reach out to white men who felt abandoned by Democratic policies aimed at minority groups, it would take years for that strategy to become the GOP norm. (For good reason: As Johnson’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964 showed, that strategy was far from a guaranteed winner.)
Instead, Kennedy and Johnson went to coal country because they believed poor white Americans were being left behind. Destitution in Appalachia was more urgent to them than social problems found elsewhere. White men mired in poverty revealed a failure in Kennedy’s and Johnson’s understanding of where white men belonged in American society. Even as both presidents promoted civil rights, they still put white masculinity first.
Trump is the direct heir of this tradition, rhetorically at least. Commentators today have been quick to note that despite the president’s rhetoric, coal mining occupies an increasingly insignificant role in the American economy. A January report from the Department of Energy indicated there are nearly twice as many jobs in wind energy than in coal mining.
While the voting power of coal country cannot be ignored — it played an important role in both Kennedy’s and Trump’s elections — the industry and its workers have an outsized place in American politics for the simple fact that it has long been coded as white and masculine. Trump feeds on the anger of white men who feel their whiteness is no longer as valuable. They feel marginalized by globalization, yes, but also by eight years of a black president.
But even as Trump lionizes America’s coal miners and promises a return to the good old days, his policy decisions indicate it is all rhetorical wrangling designed to stoke a base obsessed with the perceived decline in white manhood. His latest attempts to revive America’s coal country are entirely ineffectual. Rolling back environmental regulations, as an April study from Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy indicates, “will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities.” Nor will Trump’s suggestion to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, the first body created to alleviate the poverty that wracked the region.
But this policy mismatch doesn’t matter to Trump. For him coal is not really about energy policy or economic uplift. It’s about a crisis in manhood and the chance to capitalize on the resentment of white men who feel left out of the economic and cultural life of the nation.
Trump’s full-throated support of the coal mining industry, though far from unprecedented, remains dangerous. As the Trump administration continues to create policies that favor the extraction and use of fossil-fuel resources, the costs of those policies will likewise grow. The legacy of Trump’s fixation with coal mining will not be the vitalization of communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Instead Trump’s legacy will be rivers and streams fouled by mining waste, air choked with pollutants, a global climate that continues to heat up and a coal-mining community that continues to fall further and further behind.