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Like a politician, Trump tells coal miners what they want to hear

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

During the 2008 election, I never heard a presidential candidate promise to save jobs in the newspaper industry. Technological changes had shattered the business model, newspapers were shutting down or laying off workers, and serious journalists with suddenly stunted careers were scrambling for PR jobs or starting up blogs that would never earn them a living.

A year later, the newspaper I worked for in Seattle stopped print publication and soon thereafter I headed to L.A. to reboot my career. Neither I nor any of my colleagues ever thought to ask a politician to save us, to somehow prop up our struggling industry and guarantee we’d not have to reinvent ourselves or train for something new. If we had asked (or been in any other industry), I’m sure we could have easily found candidates willing to promise an easy fix because, in politics, the economic debate is generally built around reassuring fables. Nobody wants to deliver the bad news that America is unlikely ever to return to the economy of the 1950s when even people with limited schooling could find jobs that would sustain a middle-class lifestyle.

Most candidates pretend the good old days can be restored by some vague magic right after the next election. Usually such hocus-pocus involves tax cuts and stripping away regulations. Today’s prime example of this phenomenon: Donald Trump and the West Virginia coal miners.

Campaigning in West Virginia before last Tuesday’s primary and with an eye on the Kentucky primary next week, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee told the state’s beleaguered coal miners that, once he moves into the White House, their industry will thrive and their jobs will come back. He laid into Hillary Clinton, his likely Democratic opponent in the fall campaign, slamming her for a provocative remark she made in March. Clinton had said she was the only candidate with “a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key into coal country, because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

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“That’s a tough one to explain, wouldn’t you say?” Trump asked a West Virginia crowd that took Clinton’s words as an assault on their way of life.

Clinton has apologetically tried to explain herself, saying she simply meant the decline of the coal industry is inevitable, which is why she is offering a $30-million plan to retrain coal miners for jobs in the rising alternative energy sector. That mea culpa is not likely to keep West Virginia from going for Trump in November, even though all he offers is false hope. Trump blames the coal industry’s difficulties on the Environmental Protection Agency, ignoring the reality that coal’s real problem is losing market share to natural gas and renewable energy.

Trump ignores another reality: climate change driven by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. Trump believes President Obama was born in Kenya and Ted Cruz’s father hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald, so it is no surprise he dismisses climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. That most of the world’s scientists and governmental leaders would call that deluded thinking does not matter to Trump or to the voters who love him because he says what they want to hear.

Hillary Clinton may have expressed herself poorly, but at least she was trying to do something politicians hate to do — address hard economic reality. Meanwhile, Trump, the “outsider,” promised the coal miners it will all be easy. How like a politician he has become.

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Folks in coal country need to face an unsettling fact: their lives cannot stay the same. As a source of energy, coal is a threat to the environment. As a job, coal mining is dirty, unhealthy, dangerous and anachronistic. As an industry, coal is in worse shape than newspapers.

On the bright side, neither the information industry nor the energy industry is going away. Both are growing, even as they change. That is why people in the news business are busy reinventing themselves to engage with readers who now get their information on screens, not on newsprint. Coal miners, too, need to reinvent themselves for a world where people will get their energy from the wind and sun, not from carbon scraped from holes in the ground.


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