On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised he would put coal miners back to work. “Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me.”
He also promised to save the jobs of Carrier workers in Indiana.
One promise was empty. The other was forgotten as soon as he made it.
When Trump announced his horrible deal with Carrier, he said something that was fascinating, in a horrific way:
He said he was watching the evening news, and “they had a gentlemen, worker, great guy, handsome guy, he was on, and it was like he didn’t even know they were leaving. He said something to the effect, ‘No, we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.’ And I never thought I made that promise. Not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier.”
How had he mistakenly left Carrier employees with the impression that he would save their jobs if he was elected? “We’re not going to let Carrier leave,” maybe? He promised consequences for companies like Carrier that move jobs to Mexico. He promised to “tax the hell” out of Carrier’s air conditioners if they made them in Mexico and tried to sell them in the United States. “Tell them they’ll pay a damn tax when you leave this country and think you’re going to sell product because you think we’re all so stupid,” he said.
To Trump, all of that was a “euphemism.” (Someone might want to buy the president-elect a dictionary.) What he didn’t promise, though, was to let nearly half the Carrier jobs go and give Carrier a $7 million break. But that’s what he did.
So should coal workers feel any better than the Carrier workers Trump attacked when their union leader pointed out Trump’s lies about his deal?
Well, at least he hasn’t forgotten his promise to put them back to work. West Virginia’s Gov.-elect Jim Justice issued a press release about a phone conversation he had with Trump after the election. According to the press release, “President-elect Trump asked Justice to pass along a message to the people of West Virginia: ‘We are going to get those coal miners back to work.’ ”
But that doesn’t change the fact that it was an empty promise, and even coalfield officials and politicians know it. As Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward Jr. pointed out on his Coal Tattoo blog, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association both worked to temper expectations for a coal rebound after Trump’s election.
Nick Carter, the Kentucky Coal Association official, was the blunter of the two: “I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency. If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”
And what are the chances of an improved economy for coal? Pretty much zilch unless the price of natural gas and coal from Illinois and the Powder River Basin spikes for some unknown reason. The uncomfortable fact is that there’s little Trump or Justice or anyone else can do to bring back Appalachian coal.
A big part of the market’s decline, according to Downstream Strategies’ Evan Hansen, is “because the thickest, easiest-to-access seams have been mined out and because natural gas and renewables are getting cheaper.” Many coal plants have been retired, but most of those that remain have installed scrubbers in recent years that allow them to burn the high-sulfur coal from Illinois that is cheaper and easier to mine than the coal remaining in Appalachia.
Trump’s election, in other words, won’t magically bring coal back and fix all the problems facing coal counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Government revenues will continue to plummet. Environmental wounds will continue to fester. Unemployed miners will continue to struggle to find work. And politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, will continue to ignore the long overdue need to transition to a post-coal economy.
Trump made a lot of promises during his campaign. Some he’s forgotten. Some I assume no one ever took seriously — such as his repeated promise “to make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.” Some he’s walked back (no locking up Hillary, and that big, beautiful wall might just be a fence in some places).
But many of his promises were like his promise to bring back coal — empty platitudes that no president could ever fulfill, even if he wanted to.
Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.