by Markus Pohlmann
If everything goes well, Trump himself was just a temporary phenomenon; if it goes wrong, he becomes a political revenant. However, what remains are the political and social circumstances in the U.S. that made his presidency possible. Even such absurd political figures as Trump are interchangeable because certain classes, carrier groups and social conditions are decisive that make figures like him great. Not only did a great many people vote for Trump once again in this election, but he stands for typical social and societal conditions in the U.S. far more than many of his opponents would like. The coal industry and coal mining is an excellent example of this. It was a centerpiece of Trump’s ongoing campaign before and during his presidency. Coal has been a topic of many novels and songs, but its recent history is the story that has to be told to understand that Trump himself is merely an epiphenomenon. While all not in favor for Trump can feel the relief now, the misery of his voters, a large group of people in the U.S., and their institutions are not over with the End of Trump’s era yet: quite the opposite in fact – The womb he crawled from is still going strong.
Let us imagine that we go mountain hiking in the Alps or Prealps and see that more than 500 mountains have been beheaded. Their summits were just taken down, blown up to make coal. With giant excavation machines, so-called dragline excavators, the soil, including the seams, was removed. This caused them a loss of about 200 meters of their height. The overburden was carried into the valleys, and many river courses were buried as a result. These were backfilled up to a height of 200 meters in an action that destroyed many houses. As to the remaining villages in the vicinity and their inhabitants, the incidence of cancer is above-average. There are several miscarriages, and many infants are born with malformations and heart defects. Those who do not die of silicosis are more likely to suffer from other deadly diseases – even if they buy the water from the supermarket. However, the inhabitants love their coal and fight for it. To this day, they are still sending many environmentalists away. Furthermore, they elect as their political representatives preferably the people who make the overexploitation with its harmful consequences possible. It is mostly foreign investors who own the companies that mine the coal seams. They do not follow the rules, and yet the federal government supports them. Also, the penalties for ecological violations are low. Even more, the judges of the Supreme Court, who decide on these cases, are elected with the help of generous donations from dark sources. The prescribed renaturation measures are therefore rarely worth mentioning. In reality, most sites receive little more than generous sowing of exotic grass seed, and less than 3% of the reclaimed sites, out of a total of 4.8 million km², are re-developed. Exceptions or special rules for the coal companies are conceded in crucial environmental protection laws, including the Clean Water Act. It is a reality that has been hard for many decades, not in the European Alps, but some low mountain ranges in the U.S. Now let us imagine that there are many coal-friendly people in the ministries of the environment, including a former coal lobbyist. Then we have finally reached the full picture of the current conditions in some north-American mountain ranges. Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal companies, has been appointed to the chair of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So, welcome to the Appalachian Mountains, which central regions have lost up to 40% of their altitude to date.
Although many coal companies have gone bankrupt in the meantime – despite Trump’s support – this has to do with the energy market’s economic situation. Out of the top 20 coal companies, seven have filed for bankruptcy in the last five years, and five are no longer active. Nevertheless, the amount of coal produced in surface mining is still large, and coal still hovered around 11% of the total energy demand in the U.S. in 2019. Two-thirds of the institutional investors behind the coal companies are not from the U.S., so we are also dealing with multi- and transnational companies in the U.S., as is often the case in the raw materials sector.
The free entry ticket for the Mountain Top Removal (MTR)
The reason why the coal industry and coal miners could count on Trump is not entirely his achievement – but a piece of Republicans’ continuity and tradition. This was already the case under George W. Bush Jr. and his father. In 2002, amendments to the Clean Water Act by the government of George W. Bush Jr. created a loophole that allowed coal companies to dispose of mining waste into the valleys legally, and thus into the country’s waterways. This has paved the way for further coal mining through the mountains. From 2001 to 2008, the coal industry in West Virginia and Kentucky experienced a revival with an average of about 1,000 mining jobs per year.
A legislative initiative to protect clean water remained unsuccessful. While the president and federal authorities have the power to stop drilling peaks through strict mining permits and strict federal regulations, the coal industry is winning in most cases. After years of technological review, discussions with states and industry, and public debates, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) put a protective rule into effect in December 2016. However, this was withdrawn by Trump and Congress again. The moratorium on coal leases was also terminated at the federal level. Drilling and blasting in undeveloped areas was now possible again. Newly appointed EPA chief in 2019, Andrew Wheeler, had been a buddy of the coal industry for a long time. He had previously worked as a lobbyist for coal companies.
Against this backdrop, the numerous proceedings of breaches of environmental regulations are only slightly punished, if at all. Mountain Top Removal (MTR) can be carried out mostly legally through the various loopholes provided by politics.
“Coal is in our food, coal is in our blood” – Diseases and death ratios in the Appalachian Mountains
The people in the Appalachian Mountains are paying a very high price for their coal. Every year 1200 more people (exzess mortality) are dying in the coal districts than in the comparable districts. These figures, which are controlled for age, smoking, obesity, and poverty, only refer to respiratory cancer. This means there have been around 55,000 more deaths by respiratory cancer in the observation period from 1968–2014 – not counting the other types of cancer and other miners’ occupational diseases, such as the “black lung disease”. The air and water pollution caused by mountain top removal is also known to increase cardiovascular diseases and congenital disabilities. Congenital disabilities and complications at birth have surged in the mountain top removal areas when controlled for other risk factors such as smoking or drinking during pregnancy and other diseases. Heart defects are most common in infants, and the risk is 181 percent higher in the mining areas. To be clear: If we compare this with the births of mothers who smoke during pregnancy, the risk is still 30 percent higher. The effect is six times higher for mothers living in a mining area than for smoking mothers. The reason for this is, among other things, nanoparticles in the water and in the air, which consist not only of coal dust but also of aluminum, tin, iron, and silicic acid.
Approximately 10% of coal workers in the USA are diagnosed with incurable “black lungs,” and this percentage has not decreased but quite the opposite in recent years. Only the life expectancy of those suffering from it has decreased significantly between 1999–2016: people with this condition will die approximately 12.6 years earlier than the average in the region. This and other harmful diseases are even more severe and progress more and more rapidly – everything due to longer working hours and fewer protective measures.
The Elections and Right-Wing Populism
The fact that the population in the eastern corner of the former “rust belt” loves the Republican presidents for their coal policy was already the case under the Bush administration. There is only one thing that is worse for coal friends than coal: no coal. Thus, Trump – for all the pomp of the production – has done no more than other Republicans before. This continuing process – interrupted by democratic initiatives – has been going on for forty years now, and there is no end in sight.
With every coal job lost, income in the surrounding region drops by almost $100,000, and a third of those who have lost a job do not move away and remain unemployed. Therefore, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, voters in the coal district decided for pro-coal candidate Donald Trump and helped him win Pennsylvania. The preliminary results for 2020 are also supportive of that: Donald Trump has achieved majorities of around two-thirds in three coal states. In Pennsylvania and Kentucky, Joe Biden has won. However, if we subtract Chicago for Illinois and Pittsburg and Philadelphia for Pennsylvania as urban regions, his victory is also apparent in these states. In rural areas, Trump won an overwhelming majority.
It is essential to understand that these election results are not just a story of more or less rational calculations. Short-term advantages (we keep our coal, our job) are weighted higher than long-term disadvantages (our families get sick more often, and we die faster). It also has little to do with Republican’s values. Instead, voting behavior in the region is habitual and traditional. The many Appalachians feel that the federal government is neglecting them and devaluing them, just like urban America. For them, Obama and environmental protection were symbols of external interference and devaluation.
Committed to the cultural heritage of coal, environmental protection appears to be an attack on the right of coal-producing regions and economic opportunities for industry (and Trump) as guardians of regional interests and values. Trump’s populism was particularly caught up here because of the threat to unity (America First), the threat to a community, reactivated by a traditional offer of identification that had already won the Bushes many votes. The fact that he broke taboos, provoked, and even conjured up the “strong man” in the process meant that he was taken seriously as an advocate. Nevertheless, this repertoire has been used by others before him – perhaps with less bravery. Much more important was the cultural fit, which corresponded to the workers’ receptors and unemployed in the region, so that many did not even have to think about whom they would elect. “Coal is in our food, coal is in our blood” indicates not only the cultural imprint but also the workers’ habitus, which is held on all the more, the more the coal industry and its regions march towards the abyss. The decisive factor here is not whether Trump is suitable as an avenger of the overthrown and disenfranchised, but only that he has made political use of this culture. It forms a vibrant basis for right-wing populism, which has not lost any of its effectiveness with Trump’s departure from the presidency.
In the name of freedom…
Trump is for now being voted out, but the circumstances, which pushed him to the top, are not. However, coal is only one example, among many others. It remains a mystery why many people make choices that make them physically and mentally ill. Behind it, however, lie not stupidity and ignorance, but, as Didier Eribon was able to show for France’s right-wing populism of the working class, habitual and traditional imprints, which become stronger the more the foundation of one’s existence is taken away. External appeals to reason are of little help here.
Of course, we know how state conversion programs can help to support such regions and their people. In Germany, for example, the Federal Council recently approved the Structural Strengthening Act for Coal Regions on July 3rd, 2020. In order to cope better with the phase-out of coal-fired power generation, the Federal Government has made available over 40 billion euros in funding for the regions concerned, which are to be channeled into investment and innovation and create growth and employment. Nevertheless, in many other countries, the state has been one of the key players in cushioning and supporting coal-mining areas’ conversion. However, that would be “socialism” in the Appalachian perspective, almost worse than Obama and environmental protection.
Perhaps it could help explain the reference to the fact that with increasing poverty, one ends up in the place where one did not want to be before (with a little luck) – with external help and/or the state support programs. So why do we not learn from the experiences of conversion and development aid in other countries? Let us not give up hope that the traditions and habitual imprints will be so undermined with the departure from coal and that right-wing populism, which supposedly strives for “freedom” and “community”, will lose its basis and the misunderstood “freedom” will no longer have to be paid for with illness, death and a devastated environment.
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