On the campaign trail, few groups of workers were mentioned more often by candidate Donald Trump than coal miners. Factba.se, which indexes every speech and tweet of the president’s, tallied 294 total references to coal miners over time. By contrast, Trump only mentioned doctors 94 times, despite the issue of health care being prominent in politics over the past few years.
In one sense, it’s easy to see why. The coal industry has shed thousands of employees over the past few years, with the number of people working in the coal mining industry declining by more than 41 percent since Barack Obama took office in January 2008. (The overall mining and logging industry — which includes oil drilling — fared better, shedding only 6 percent of its jobs.)
In terms of raw numbers, though, there’s another industry that has fared even worse. Compared to January 2009, there are 35,600 fewer coal miners. But over that period there are also 198,400 fewer department store employees.
Yet Trump mentioned department stores four times as a candidate.
Over the weekend, the department store giant Sears announced that it planned to close 43 more stores across the United States. When the chain announced 72 additional closures in June, Business Insider obtained a list of the store locations.
Twenty-three are in nine states Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Forty-nine of them are in 20 states Trump won — of 30 total. About 178,000 people work for Sears, more than three times the number of people that work in the coal mining industry. But over the last five years, BI reports, a quarter of those stores have closed.
So why hasn’t Trump championed the dying department store industry the way he has coal? It’s true that department stores are struggling in part because of changes to the industry, with online retailers eating into the profitability of large brick-and-mortar retailers. But, then, the coal industry is also a victim of shifts in technology. The rapid rise of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) led to a huge spike in cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas, which in turn prompted utilities to switch over from coal. If department stores are archaic vestiges of a world gone by, one can argue that the coal industry is, too.
A key difference lies in the way that Trump describes his mandate. His campaign slogan — “make America great again” — centers on a vision of a United States that embraces the rugged blue-collar aesthetic of the coal miner. In Trump’s halcyon America, men go to work in mines and at manufacturing plants and produce the energy we need and the goods the rest of us buy. It’s a traditional vision of the working class, pitting guys who work with their hands against the white-collar management.
It is not, however, an accurate depiction of the United States as it is today.
Trump’s campaign was explicit in its appeal to working-class whites, and, it’s probably fair to say, to working-class white men. Coal miners are almost all men and almost all white, as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. By contrast, 60 percent of the employees of department stores are women and 40 percent are black, Hispanic or Asian.
It’s not that the diversity necessarily precludes Trump from focusing on the industry. It’s that the industry looks more like the modern American economy Trump was implicitly running against. He was running against global trade. He was championing manufacturing over service. He was celebrating a macho, idealized past, not the murkier present. In America in 2017, service-sector jobs that employ a large percentage of women and nonwhites are more common than jobs in manufacturing or coal mining. But those aren’t the jobs that Trump was running to protect.
Far less of Trump’s core base of support is negatively affected by a stumbling coal industry than a crumbling department store chain. But department stores don’t carry the cultural weight that coal mining does, particularly to Trump and his base of support. As with so many other aspects of the United States these days, the political utility of the people who are negatively affected makes an enormous difference in how much political leaders care.