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Fintan O’Toole: Trump has failed to restore blue-collar America’s lost paradise

President who promised to bring back coal oversaw its steepest ever decline

Paradise is lost again. The late, great John Prine wrote a lament about the place in western Kentucky where his parents came from. It is actually called Paradise. In the early 1960s, the Peabody coal company moved in: "Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel/ And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land. . ."

And in February 2020, the vast Paradise coal mine closed for good – under the president who swore that: “We’re going to put our miners back to work.”

It will make a good trick question in future table quizzes: Under which US president did coal production decline most steeply? The answer, of course, is Donald Trump.

In a week when he threatened to kiss his fans at a rally in Florida, it may not be possible to stand back from the deranged hype and deluded hysterics of his presidency. But if it were, the prosaic fate of American coal would help to explain why, if the election is free and fair, he will lose.

The withering away of muscle jobs where you worked damn hard but had the pride of being a breadwinner, a union man, a direct participant in the creation of big, hard, powerful things

In thinking about what Trump means, most liberals and many traditional conservatives, in the US and around the world, evoke the idea of disruption. They do so with good reason: Trump has challenged and unsettled legal, institutional, behavioural and ethical norms on a scale seldom seen in an established democracy.

Many of Trump’s supporters would, moreover, agree with the charge that he is a disrupter, the only difference being that, to them, this is a very good thing. They hate the china shop and want the bouffant-haired bull to punch the porcelain and defecate on the floor while he’s at it.

But there was, in 2016 and in the early years of his presidency, an equal and opposite attraction: not disruption but restoration. The promise of a great return was up in lights in the two powerful reactionary slogans of four years ago. There was the brilliant middle word in the Brexiteer’s Take Back Control. And there was the second A in MAGA – again.

In both cases, what was going to come back again was national greatness, conceived as a natural condition that had been unnaturally stolen. But it was also, for many working-class voters, a tangible world of work and community and validation. Particularly for a lot of white men without a college education, there was an acute sense of loss – the withering away of muscle jobs where you worked damn hard but had the pride of being a breadwinner, a union man, a direct participant in the creation of big, hard, powerful things like coal and steel and the industrial civilisation they built.

Even if you were not yourself one of those men – and most Trump voters were not – the promise made to them was important. It was this assurance of economic and social restoration that balanced and justified the guilty pleasures of mere disruption. It suggested that there was a decent, solid reality beneath the bluster and the boorishness.

In both Brexit and Trumpism, relatively small groups of rugged men – fishermen in Britain, coal miners in the US – carry a symbolic weight far greater than their numbers or their economic importance. They are the good, brave, salt-of-the-earth types who give a core of authenticity to all the mendacity and showmanship of the political project. What could be more honest than hauling a living from the rough seas or hewing it from the earth?

To be fair to Trump, bringing back coal is one of the few things he really did try to do

Trump engaged in his own kind of blacking-up, metaphorically a touch of coal dust with his orange make-up. Coal was a big thing for him long before he ran for the presidency. In 2012, he was tweeting that: “The US is stupidly closing all of its coal fired plants” and complaining of “Obama’s assault on coal”, a slogan he later inflated to “Obama’s war on coal”.

In 2013, he was tweeting that: “Obama’s coal regulations will destroy the coal industry, put Americans out of work, raise electricity prices & lead to blackouts.”

In the Republican primaries in 2015 he attacked one of his would-be rivals: "[John] Kasich has helped decimate the coal and steel industries in Ohio. I will bring them back". In the general election, he relentlessly – and very effectively – hammered Hillary Clinton for having said "We are going to put a whole lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business".

Clinton did use those words, but as part of an answer in which the main point was that these miners should not be forgotten or abandoned, but helped to find new jobs in clean-energy industries.

She was speaking, however awkwardly, a plain truth. At the beginning of this century, half the electricity in the US was generated by burning coal. By the time Trump won the presidency, that had fallen to less than a third. The decline was driven by Obama’s policies on climate change, but also by the relative cheapness of gas from fracking and of wind and solar power.

To be fair to Trump, bringing back coal is one of the few things he really did try to do. He handed the Environmental Protection Agency over to a coal industry lobbyist, John Wheeler. He pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord and scrapped the Obama's administration's limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

If you were one of the hard-hatted miners waving a “Trump digs coal” sign at a rally while the president roared “We are back, the coal industry is back”, this promise of restoration was a lifeline for you, your family and perhaps your whole town. Why would you not grab it?

But the only thing Trump has been digging for the coal industry is its grave. A recent analysis by the New York Times shows that while coal powered 31 per cent of electricity generation in the US when Trump entered the Oval Office, it now accounts for just 20 per cent.

Since his inauguration, 145 coal-fired units at 75 plants have closed and a further 73 power plants have announced their intention to switch away from coal. The rate of decline under Trump is actually much steeper than it was under Obama. For all the bluster, nobody wants to invest in a dirty, carbon-pumping technology when cheaper and cleaner options are available.

This is emblematic of the larger reality: there is no great restoration. Not of the old world of well-paid, unionised blue-collar jobs. And not of a world in which the privileges of white maleness were safe from demographic, social and ideological change.

For the traditional working-class, Trumpism was always a ghost dance, a last, desperate and desperately sad exercise in magical thinking.

This is why Trump is so much weaker now than he was in 2016. He is flying on one wing. The promise of restoration no longer balances the thrill of disruption. There is no credible pledge to bring back what is gone – so Trump can only double down on the one thing he has shown he can do: wreck what currently exists of the American republic.

He’s good at that and the closer he gets to defeat, the more of it he will do. But he is unbalanced in more ways than one. His appeal is no longer rooted in any kind of reality, even that of an inexorably vanishing world. It is unmoored – and he is unhinged.

Yet, ironically, he does now share something with those coal miners who placed their faith in him. His paradise, like theirs, is being lost and will not be regained.