Last year, as he was vying for the presidency, Donald Trump made a stop in West Virginia for a campaign rally. During his stump speech, he praised the coal miners of Appalachia and vowed to revive the stagnating coal industry— to the point where miners would be “working their asses off.” In a show of solidarity, he slapped on a hard hat and mimed shoveling coal. The crowd went wild. This wasn’t the first or last time he made such promises to coal miners. At a campaign rally in Virginia, Trump lamented the regulations on coal companies, which, as he saw it, limited job opportunities for miners. At a campaign rally in Phoenix, he announced an end to the war on coal. Snappy slogans like “Trump Digs Coal” have shown up on t-shirts, signs, and banners since he joined the race for the presidency in 2015. Mr. Trump has been incredibly outspoken about the importance of coal industry and the lives it affects. That sentiment is sorely needed by miners. The industry has been declining for decades as natural gas and renewable energy grow increasingly favored over coal. Not only that, but as mountaintop removal and workplace mechanization have become more common, scores of workers are being laid off, often with minimal employee benefits and residual health issues.
Programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration have already been instrumental in assisting current and retired coal miners, but their efforts have not been enough. After all this talk about coal, there was hope: for the miners, for their kids, and maybe for the future. So it is pretty disconcerting to see Donald Trump’s budget cut funding for the ARC and eliminate the EDA altogether. A couple months ago, he was cheering on Appalachia and promising to bring back jobs; now, folks all over the region face job insecurity and unemployment due to his actions. Why isn’t he looking out for them? Often, politicians will conflate the coal mining industry with the actual coal miners, believing that if you help one, you help the other. Mr. Trump has made quite the effort to buddy up with industry magnates.Take his cabinet and core influencers, for example: his secretary of commerce is Wilbur Ross, the chairman of International Coal Group and Bob Murray of Murray Energy was a close confidante of Trump’s on the campaign trail and remains a very good friend to this day. But these partnerships don’t mean that he is helping the actual miners. International Coal Group is the same corporation that allowed for the deaths of twelve workers in the Sago Mine disaster and Murray’s exploitative mining practices led to the implosion of the Crandall Canyon Mine, which killed six miners and three rescue workers. Nevertheless, Ross remains Secretary of Commerce. And Murray was present at the signing of an executive order rolling back environmental restrictions on carbon emissions.
Trump sure hears a lot from these folks, who jeopardize the safety of their workers just to save a buck, but how much is he hearing from the actual miners? How much does he truly understand this fraught situation? Not enough, it seems. Instead of preparing workers for the inevitable collapse of coal and giving them the resources they need to train for new careers in a new market, Trump seems to be pouring money into a dying industry. And no matter how much he gives and how much he repeals, it isn’t working. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, claimed in June “since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, [the Trump administration has] added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that statement is just not true: closer to 1,300 jobs were created and an untold number were laid off. What Mr. Trump needs to realize is the coal industry is phasing out. There’s nothing he can really do about its death. What he can do is listen to those most affected by it: coal miners and their families. Appalachia backed him in the 2016 race hoping he would bring economic development to the region, not fewer restrictions and riskier careers. If he’s truly a populist president, it’s high time he listen to the people, and not just industry executives.