“We’re going to bring the coal industry back 100 percent,” Donald Trump told a Virginia audience of campaign supporters in 2016. At another rally in West Virginia, Trump announced, “Miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off.”
Among the many lies Trump told on the campaign trail, the promise of a rejuvenated coal industry was among the most obvious. Even as coal plants were shuttered across Appalachia and experts cited the irreversible market forces driving down demand, denizens of coal country voted for Trump by large margins. Despite widespread evidence that coal jobs will never return to their hometowns, miners continue to cling to Trump’s empty words to their own detriment. Across the region, many former coal workers are turning down federal and state job training opportunities that could lead to new jobs and steady incomes.
Reuters writer Valerie Volcovici spoke with “more than a dozen former and prospective coal workers, career counselors and local economic development officials.” She found that in parts of Pennsylvania, delusional optimism about a coal comeback, fed by Trump’s continuing insistence that he will jumpstart the industry, is helping keep out-of-work miners from learning new skills that might help them escape the dying industry. Volcovici spoke with a southern Pennsylvania miner’s son named Mike Sylvester who visited a career training center offering courses in “everything from computer programming to nursing.” Eschewing the chance to learn a potentially lucrative new skill, Sylvester signed up for a coal mining course.
“I think there is a coal comeback,” Sylvester told Volcovici.
Two brothers, Steve and Sean Moodie, echoed the same misplaced faith. “I am optimistic that you can make a good career out of coal for the next 50 years,” Sean told Volcovici.
The fantasy that coal mining will have another heyday is rooted both in desperation and delusion, the latter fueled by a White House all too willing to exploit its base. Reuters cites Appalachian Regional Commission numbers showing 33,500 mining jobs have disappeared from the area since 2011. Despite the industry’s growing employment void, federally funded career retraining programs in southern Pennsylvania are less than 20 percent full. Volcovici points to programs in Greene and Washington counties, where “120 people have signed up for jobs retraining outside the mines, far short of the target of 700,” while in “Westmoreland and Fayette counties, participation in federal jobs retraining programs has been about 15 percent of capacity, officials said.”
“I can’t even get them to show up for free food I set up in the office,” Dave Serock, a former miner who now works for a Fayette County career training center, told Reuters.
Experts have been clear about the absurdity of Trump’s coal claims. Last year, Robert Murray, the CEO and owner of the “largest U.S. private coal miner,” told CNN Money that he had urged Trump both before and after the election to tone down promises of a coal industry resurgence.
“I’ve suggested to Mr. Trump that he temper his expectations,” Murray told the news outlet, adding that coal industry employment “can’t be brought back to where it was before the election of Barack Obama.”
Even Trump’s chief economic adviser and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohen has spoken about the superiority of other energy forms compared to coal.
“Coal doesn’t even make that much sense anymore as a feedstock,” Cohn told CNN Money back in May. “If you think about how [much] solar and how much wind power we’ve created in the United States, we can be a manufacturing powerhouse and still be environmentally friendly.”
In many ways, the unwillingness of Pennsylvania’s coal miners to look toward the future is in keeping with the retro gaze of Trump supporters across the board. Trump ran on a platform that falsely painted America as great in its past and now in decline, an estimation inextricably linked with the rise of a non-white, non-Christian majority. The refusal of coal workers to face coal’s continuing decline as cheaper natural gas and renewable energy rise comes at their own detriment. That defiant resistance to truth holds consequences for miners and their families, as well as their communities. Down-at-the-heels coal towns are hoping to attract new industries, but companies move where a reliable and well-trained workforce exists. Obsolete skills ensure that businesses, from technology to specialized manufacturing, will stay away.
Still, coal-town dwellers like Mike Sylvester, who is putting his energy into coal mining studies, have ignored those facts for a temporarily satisfying pipe dream. He succinctly summed up his thinking for Reuters: “I have a lot of faith in President Trump.”