There are times I can’t help but feel disappointment and frustration towards many of my fellow Appalachians. For over a century, we have fought against the stereotypes given to us by popular culture, stereotypes meant to dehumanize us and gain access to our enormous coal reserves. In the face of such relentless stereotyping, it was our generosity, resilient ingenuity, and resistance to exploitation by outside extractive industries that helped us preserve our dignity. Appeasing the nation’s appetite for cheap electricity and steel has finally taken its toll on our mountain communities. Appalachia’s support for Donald Trump is the result of a cultural shift that has taken place over the past two decades and is indicative of a greater problem that exists within the American consciousness.
I grew up the son, grandson, and great grandson of union coal miners. My family, like many others, scrutinized the motives of the coal industry and understood the industry’s ultimate purpose—to extract coal as cheaply as possible. Decades of struggle for basic human rights against the glut of the industry had been engrained into our cultural knowledge. We knew that the wealthy oligarchs of our nation would only use us to increase the size of their fortunes. They always had.
How did we fall so far as to elect one to be our president?
A century of struggle amid economic desperation and union busting saw to it that the Appalachian spirit was finally broken. In its place, the coal industry worked to develop a new sense of Appalachia pride—one bent to their will.
Through industry organizations including the West Virginia Coal Association, the Kentucky Coal Association, the Bituminous Coal Association, and the National Mining Association, and many others, tremendous amounts of money were invested into manipulating the politics and culture of our region. It was a long term investment strategy with promised returns. Following the downfall of the unions, the industry funded pro-coal educational programs that were taught in our public schools. They recruited teenagers straight out of high school and enticed them with high wages. They then worked in unison with local chambers of commerce, including vehicle dealerships, realtors, and banks to help young miners find their way into enormous debt. The coup de grâce came when they gave the latest generation of Appalachians a new enemy to focus on—an African American president whose EPA was waging a war on coal and the environmentalists that supported him.
As manipulative, as exploitive, and as unethical as the coal industry has been, the blame does not end with them. The industry has been driven by a nation and culture that maintains a willful ignorance to the consequences of their consumption.
As manipulative, as exploitive, and as unethical as the coal industry has been, the blame does not end with them.
Americans have demanded cheap energy since electrification. They have felt entitled to the comforts and conveniences that coal, oil, and natural gas provide. The money that the coal industry has made and invested to turn Appalachians into Trump supporters, came from the bank accounts of millions of Americans living lifestyles that wastes energy.
Political opponents and environmental organizations did little to stop this cultural shift from happening, much to their own detriment. Their campaigns, lacking in cultural sensitivity towards the Appalachian people, did more to push Appalachians to their present political views than to achieve any form of social, political, or environmental justice for the region.
Hope for Appalachia, and indeed the rest of our nation and world, will not come in the form of any protest, march, or petition. It will not come from sending letters to our representatives or walking the halls of government, attempting to win their hearts in the midst of well-funded industry associations and their full time lobbyists. It will not come from supporting any singular candidate. It can only come from educating ourselves and the next generation, becoming conscientious consumers, engaging in hard conversations, respecting other people’s cultures, and working to spread the truth in a world full of lies and deception. There are many of us who understand this, and can see the need for change. People are working hard to preserve the labor history of Appalachia and remind everyone that the coal industry is not their friend. The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and documentary films like Blood on the Mountain are perfect examples of those efforts. We need to understand the power that corporations can hold over our culture, we need to look at the way we approach issues with our intended audiences, and find common ground that is inclusive of everyone—especially voters.