One of the better representations of the current political moment came on Thursday night in Charleston, W.Va.
Donald Trump — wearing, as always, a dark suit, white shirt and long tie — welcomed representatives of the West Virginia Coal Association on the stage during his campaign event in the state. In front of a backdrop of audience members, some holding signs reading “Trump digs coal,” the men came up, presenting Trump with a hard hat. Trump, after waiting for a bit, put the hat on. Mugging, he mimicked a shoveling motion, as though he was down in the mines, digging out coal.
Here was a man born into wealth, who lives in a Manhattan skyscraper and who pivoted from the moment to start complaining about hairspray. But: The crowd went bananas.
Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton was in the state, and she got a much different reaction. Clinton is not much more blue-collar than Trump, but her political position is trickier. Unlike Trump, who running as a Republican can simply embrace the coal industry without qualms, Clinton represents a party that prioritizes action on climate change. And climate change is linked directly to all of the coal that West Virginians (and Kentuckians and Pennsylvanians and so on) have dug out of the ground for so many years.
Asked by a member of the audience about how she’d pitch herself to poor white voters in the general election during a March CNN town hall, Clinton offered a clumsy response.
“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country,” she said. “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She went on to explain her vision for transitioning coal workers to new jobs, but the line stuck. So when she held a smaller event in the state on Monday, a visibly emotional coal miner, Bo Copley, asked her about it.
“How you could say you are going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend?” Copley asked. Clinton admitted the comment was a mistake, saying that “[w]hat I want you to know is I’m going to do everything I can to help, no matter what happens politically.” (Somewhat remarkably, a new poll released Friday has Clinton trailing Bernie Sanders by only four points in the state.)
Political campaigns are about convincing voters that you will make their lives better. This is much easier on a city level than on a state level — and much, much easier on a state level than on a national level. A mayor can just talk about cutting gun violence, while a senator has to also talk about protecting the rights of hunters. For a national politician in a party worried about the environment, Clinton has to balance West Virginia’s coal jobs with California’s climate concerns. She needs to offer those coal miners some assurances, and your-job-will-leave-but-we-will-help isn’t a great one. Especially compared to Trump’s we’ll-bring-your-job-back.
“Our county, our state, everything has been on the decline, and it’s pushing everybody out of the state of West Virginia,” one coal miner told West Virginia public radio. “So, it kind of gives people a sense of hope to even be a coal miner.”
But that’s politics. In reality, it’s Clinton’s articulation of the problem and solution that is closer to the truth.
Coal jobs have been declining for a long time. Thirty years ago, there were nearly three times as many miners as there are now. That decrease ripples outward to the jobs that support the miners — like Copley, who was a maintenance planner for a coal company before being laid off.