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The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless White Mind

Bernie Sanders's town hall in “Trump Country” revealed a longing for a past that never was.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For MSNBC viewers who had the chance to watch Chris Hayes’s townhall special Bernie Sanders in Trump Country on March 13, nothing could have been more instructive in revealing why Red State America remains so committed to Donald Trump.

I’m not talking about the more fanatical, right-wing cadres that worked so hard to bring this president to power, all of those Tea Partiers and dittoheads, the alt-right acolytes and the Bannonites, the usual drunken hooligans wearing shirts that read, “Trump That C---!” I mean nice, working people. So nice and polite, in fact, that they applauded almost everything that was said throughout B.S. in Trump Country, whether by Chris Hayes, or by Bernie, or by their own representatives, or by one another, no matter how fanciful, inaccurate, or thoroughly contradictory those things were.

The town hall was held at Mountain View High School, in McDowell County, West Virginia. Despite the “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” atmosphere suggested by the show’s title, Bernie was well-received. West Virginia might have handed Trump a 40-point victory last November, but Sanders carried its Democratic primary handily over Hillary Clinton, taking every county in the state. He would have been hard-pressed not to, after Clinton’s widely reported quote that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work.” Those words were ripped, rather unconscionably, out of a highly sympathetic statement about coal miners and her plan to put them back to work in “clean energy,” while Bernie himself is on record with such statements as, “To hell with the fossil fuel industry.”

But as they say, that’s so much blood under the bridge. On Monday, Sanders remained rigorously on point, reiterating his green energy views and support for the local environment and “universal health care,” but repeatedly calling the McDowell’s miners “heroes,” who produced the coal that kept him warm as a kid in Brooklyn. He reminded everyone of how hard he was working to get Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to restore pensions and health care that they had been cheated of by the mining companies. He told them that what they were enduring in McDowell County—which has been hemorrhaging jobs and people since the coal industry went south in 2010, and now has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths of any county in the United States—was “what’s going on all over this country,” including “my state of Vermont, where kids are leaving small towns, even if they wanted to stay, because they can’t find decent jobs.”

This was good politics, but it also seemed heartfelt, like everything Sanders says. It went over well, but then, what did not? These were very nice people, here in McDowell County, almost heartbreakingly nice, considering what they had been through, and they applauded everybody who spoke as you might expect in a desperate community, just trying to come together and reason things out.

They applauded Philip Lucion, an almost painfully sincere coal miner, recently rehired (Thanks, Mr. Trump!), when he told them, “I love being a coal miner, that’s what’s in my blood.” They also applauded when he said that most miners he knew would quit and do something else for the same pay and benefits if they could.

They applauded Ed Evans, a Democratic state delegate, when he evoked a McDowell County from the 1950s with nearly 100,000 residents, many of them immigrants (there are fewer than 20,000 people in McDowell now), thanks to “cities like Gary, West Virginia: U.S. Steel literally carved it, a town, out of the mountainside. ‘Come here. We’ve got your house waiting on you, we’ve got your job waiting for you.’”

They agreed that the coal industry had really been dying locally since “the seventies and eighties.” They applauded a young woman named Sabrina Shrader who said, “I never saw the jobs. I never saw what could be,” but that “for all of the coal that came out of our mountains, and the whole country, and half of the world got electricity, because of my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my uncles, my cousins, [but] we really got bread crumbs…”

They agreed with Bernie that climate change is real—though Mr. Lucion raised the standard Fox News talking points that “the world’s been changing for billions of years,” and how “it’s everything,” right down to all the people “who smoke cigarettes,” and anyway, “trees eat carbon dioxide, and give it back to us as oxygen.”

They told Chris Hayes that they doubted if Donald Trump really could bring the coal companies back—but then they applauded Lucion when he said that “America makes the best steel, we have the best coal and we’ve got the best bunch of men that work in the coal mines in the world,” and “that we should just go on until there’s no more of it…”

It is impossible not to feel the pain of the people in McDowell County. But the hard fact is that employment in our coal industry did not peak in 2010, or the 1980s, or the 1970s, but the 1920s, when there were nearly 800,000 coal miners. This number has declined precipitously since the Second World War—there are only about 83,000 left in the whole country—and as long ago as 1960, when he was stumping West Virginia during that year’s Democratic primary, John F. Kennedy was saying something ought to be done about all the idle men in McDowell County.

Something was. A few years after JFK’s visit, Harry M. Caudill, a Kentucky legislator, author, and environmentalist, wrote a seminal, bestselling history of the region, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, that turned a national spotlight on Appalachia. Shortly before his death, Kennedy appointed a commission to study what could be done for the region. Lyndon Johnson made it a focus of his “War on Poverty,” and set up the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1965 to bring relief to the region, and try to find an alternative economy there to coal mining. This last the ARC failed to do, but it accomplished much else.

“Since then, the agency has spent more than $4 billion on Appalachia, which in turn has leveraged $16 billion more in private funding. In that time, poverty rates have been cut nearly in half, from 31 percent to 17 percent. The number of high poverty counties has been cut from 295 to 90. The percentage of high school graduates has doubled; Appalachian students now graduate at the same rate as the rest of the nation. The infant mortality rate there has been cut by two-thirds,” The Roanoke Times, serving Roanoke, Virginia, just over the other side of the mountains, editorialized on Friday, and added: “All that counts as success.”


And yet today, still bereft of an industrial alternative to coal, West Virginia has been reduced to almost feudal destitution. Or rather, it has let itself be reduced, backing the coal barons in allowing a process whereby coal is “mined” by mountaintop removal. This is known as “strip mining on steroids”—an endgame that Harry Caudill predicted half-a-century ago—with the tops of mountains literally blown away. The coal is then extracted, and the detritus dumped into West Virginia’s waterways, reducing the state’s verdant hills and lovely streams to something resembling the landscape of Mordor. It’s a process which saves money, mostly by reducing the number of coal miners. (Trump has already revoked an Obama-era regulation aimed at curbing such practices, a move he proudly cited as keeping his promise to the miners.)

The truth is that the big coal and steel companies have long brutalized West Virginia. The town of Gary was named for Judge Elbert Gary, co-founder of U.S. Steel, who ruthlessly crushed the great 1919 national steel strike rather than countenance any restrictions on his right to work his men as much as twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Company towns such as his namesake were widely hated by the workers forced to live in them, because of their extortionate rents and prices, and how they could be evicted at a moment’s notice if they dared to object to anything, or tried to organize a union.

They objected and organized anyway, and West Virginia’s “mine wars” lasted from 1912 to 1921. These featured constant strikes and bloody confrontations, and culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, over in Logan County, when more than 10,000 men of the United Mine Workers (UMW) confronted a private army of 3,000 men, armed with machine guns and high-powered rifles by the coal companies, which also hired planes to drop explosives and gas bombs on the miners. The battle went on for over a week, and was only broken up by the intervention of federal troops. As many as 130 men may have been killed, and over a million rounds were fired—making it by some calculations the largest single civil insurrection in America since the Civil War.

Miners from Blair Mountain relinquishing their guns.

The miners lost, but the UMW went on fighting until it won, and made the political alliances with the New Deal that finally brought West Virginians the sorts of wages and benefits that enabled many of them to live at least a decent life. For all their determination, they had few illusions about the work they did. Coal mining, they knew, killed you quick or killed you slow, and the only way to get anything out of it was to make a serious demand on power.

These are the heroes that Bernie Sanders remembers, and the least that we owe their descendants is the truth. Bernie can bemoan how sad it is for young people to leave small towns for cities all he likes, but that’s what young people do, especially if small towns are done right, and prepare them to go out in the greater world. That’s what they will have to continue to do if we are to escape the looming environmental catastrophe we have created for ourselves. Not just because cities are more exciting, or wicked, but because the alternative is an endless, unsustainable sprawl of suburbs and small holdings, wearing out the soil and more dependent than ever on fossil fuels.

The same night as Chris Hayes’s special, MSNBC reported the estimate of climate scientists that, even if global warming were to stop right now, 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs, vital to our existence, would be dead by 2050. Later in the week came word that the Great Barrier Reef is dying. And this week the Trump administration released its first budget, which, among other petty and stupid cruelties, bids to cut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by almost a third—and to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission altogether.

The frustration of the people of coal country, and so many other, suffering industrial regions of the Rust Belt, is justifiable, but their insularity is not. Where the unions that their forebears belonged to frequently had the word “international” in them, and they spoke of a worldwide brotherhood of workers, the West Virginians at Bernie’s town hall often seemed to think that only Americans dug coal, or made steel, or generated electricity. Their support for “Medicare for all” seems genuine, but they threw in their lot with a candidate who promised to take away what health care they do have—and who now proposes to take away those social welfare programs that have served them best, and make their air and water worse than ever, and promote a coal-mining process that will, yes, put a lot of coal miners out of work. For that matter, something Ed Evans got right about the past was that many miners in West Virginia were indeed immigrants. Many were also African Americans, and almost ten percent of McDowell County remains black to this day. But those two groups were read out of the Trump coalition from the very beginning.

The people of Trump Country, like so much of white America, long for a past that never was, and a future that cannot be. A past cleansed of conflict, where a big, paternalistic company gave them nice things if they worked hard. A future where, who knows, maybe an orange-haired grifter really will restore everything to the way it allegedly was back in their parents’ time because … well, because he said he would.

Bernie Sanders is right to insist upon the liberal standard that Americans—all Americans—should not have to choose between a decent job, and health care, and a clean, sustainable environment. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have to make tough choices about where they live and what they do, and about withdrawing their support for the band of thieves they have given unlimited control over this country. One of those hard choices is this: If human civilization is to continue, we will have to make immediate, radical alterations in how we live, and the least of those changes will be to stop burning coal, now.

Much as they might like Bernie, there was no indication that the good people of Appalachia are close to accepting any such realities. But that’s the sort of stuff heroes do.