Since his shocking election last fall, the media has coalesced around a narrative that millions of Americans across the country voted for Donald Trump on the assumption that he’d be able to recrown King Coal. In West Virginia alone, he captured nearly three times as many votes as Hillary Clinton.
Paul Krugman believes that “simple story” collapses when you “look at the realities of the situation.”
In his latest column, the New York Times columnist debunks the notion that any state is truly dependent on coal for its livelihood. While the industry began its decline after the Second World War, it has cratered since 1980, as innovations in extraction techniques eliminated scores of jobs and fracking has provided a cheap, if no less dangerous, natural gas alternative.
“Coal-mining jobs have been disappearing for a long time,” he writes. “Even in West Virginia, the most coal-oriented state, it has been a quarter century since they accounted for as much as 5 percent of total employment.”
Today, one in six West Virginians actually works in health care and social assistance, much of which is financed by the federal government. The state is also older than most, with 22 percent of its population dependent on Medicare against 16.7 percent for the rest of the country. So why, Krugman wonders, are so many willing to vote against their own apparent self-interest?
“’Coal country’ residents weren’t voting to preserve what they have, or had until recently; they were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more,” he writes. “Their Trump votes weren’t even about the region’s interests; they were about cultural symbolism.”
Trump’s successful manipulation of this nostalgia may prove catastrophic, not only to the region and the country but to the planet at large.
“Going backward on the environment will sicken and kill thousands in the near future,” he concludes. “Over the longer term, failing to act on climate change could, all too plausibly, lead to civilizational collapse.”