On Tuesday, President Trump sat flanked by coal miners as he signed an executive order instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to review, and likely dismantle, the Obama Administration's signature Clean Power Plan. By making coal miners the face of the order, Trump was invoking a classic framing -- jobs vs. environmental protection -- and inviting well-worn caricatures about the residents of "coal country." But coal workers actually make up only a small percentage of the population of Appalachia, a region far more diverse than the stereotypes imply. Bob speaks with historian Elizabeth Catte, author of the forthcoming book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, about the myths and misunderstandings that shape our ideas about that part of the country.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. On Tuesday, President Trump sat flanked by a rugged semicircle of real-life coal miners. It was one of his latest executive order signing ceremonies, this one to have the Environmental Protection Agency review, which is to say dismantle, the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama administration policy aimed at lessening electricity generation's impact on climate change.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: In particular, I want to thank the miners. You know, my guys, they’ll get enough thanks. These people haven't had enough thanks. They’ve had a hard time for a long time.
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BOB GARFIELD: Ah, the miners, the salt-of-the-earth laborers victimized by climate hoax, globalism and soft-skinned elites. It was a familiar trope trotted out again and again during the presidential campaign.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: We’re gonna put our miners back to work and we’re gonna put our steel workers back to work, believe me.
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BOB GARFIELD: Yes, the coal economy was affected by Obama administration environmental correctness, but most of the jobs have disappeared as a result of automated mountaintop mining and price competition from abundant natural gas. Obama's Clean Power Plan, scourge of the fossil fuel industry, hadn't even gone into effect. Yet, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee have assumed an outsized role in the Trump narrative, inviting not just empty political promises but careless caricatures of the region and of the industry that we imagine to be its sole sustenance.
Elizabeth Catte is a writer and historian from East Tennessee and author of the forthcoming book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.
ELIZABETH CATTE: There’s probably around 30,000 people who work in the coal industry throughout the region, maybe 16 or 17,000 in West Virginia, so there are far more people in Appalachia who work in education, who work in healthcare, who work in sort of lower-wage jobs like retail or, or food service.
BOB GARFIELD: So the number of coal miners and even ex-coal miners is infinitesimally small relative to the electorate. The region kind of took the brunt of the criticism for Trumpism.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Yeah, so even before the election took place these localities in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky “coal country” were identified quite unambiguously as Trump country. Every prestige publication, from TheNew Yorker to Vanity Fair, had a profile about sort of down-and-out white voters in these regions. One thing that's driving this momentum is the success of, for example, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. And this book has been held up as sort of the Rosetta stone for understanding a unique kind of disadvantaged white worker.
But I think the other thing is this sort of historical purpose that Appalachia has always served, which was to be the antidote to progress. So whatever bad things are going on in the country, whether it’s sort of the unbridled racism that has filtered through this campaign or just extremely dire economic realities, it’s easier to compartmentalize them in a specific place or in a specific people. And Appalachians have always served this purpose.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it’s not that the anecdotes, the individual stories that are told aren’t true. It's just that they don't project to a whole region, eh?
ELIZABETH CATTE: I think that’s correct. Of course, reporters are coming into these regions and they’re getting stories and they're getting sound bites and, you know, you have this kind of collision of human interest stories versus urgent need to understand what many people perceive as sort of a new phenomenon, this sort of new political tilt. So, in reality, these stories are accurate. They reflect the experiences of people who live there. The problem is they're not really reflective of everyone who lives in Appalachia. People with sort of leftist politics are often left out of these stories, people who are environmentalists. People who are non-white are often left out of these pieces.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it seems to me that since Trump signed the order the coverage has been filled less with stereotypes and more just clearheaded economic analysis. Is it my imagination? Has it gotten a little better?
ELIZABETH CATTE: It’s gotten different. I’m not sure if it's gotten better, although you're definitely correct that we’re seeing more clearheaded sort of economic analysis. What happens is before the election a lot of these pieces that are about the region are based on this sort of conversation happening: Should we have sympathy for people who support Trump? Is this economic anxiety? What's going on with these people? We must understand them. And so, after the election you get a shift towards pieces that convey retribution for Trump, that are the opposite of sympathy. So you have articles like “No Sympathy for Hillbillies” or “Blue Exit” or “Be happy that miners are losing their health insurance.”
I think with these pieces share is the willingness to see Appalachia as only through a variety of extremes. There are great projects that are happening in the region that are trying to correct this, like “100 Days in Appalachia,” which is sort of a catalog of what's going on in the region during the first 100 days of the administration. But there is still definitely that pendulum that’s swinging where either Appalachians are innocent or villainous but nothing in between.
BOB GARFIELD: But they have not just been sitting idle for the last 35 years, waiting for a miracle to occur. They have, themselves, been trying to adjust to a post-coal economy, in what ways?
ELIZABETH CATTE: There is not an insignificant number of development agencies in Appalachia that are focused on what we would call “the transition,” so what becomes of Appalachia after coal. Unfortunately, [LAUGHS] a lot of these agencies are managed through the umbrella organizations that are on the chopping block for Trump's new budget.
BOB GARFIELD: We began this conversation discussing the tableau of the order signing, all these coal miners standing proudly behind the President. If that photo op were to reflect the real beneficiaries of the President's order, who, instead of the miners, would have been there?
ELIZABETH CATTE: Well, the irony is the beneficiaries are in those photographs. They’re the, the CEOs of the energy companies but they’re dressed like miners. These CEOs costume themselves as miners for photo ops. There are, you know, individuals who are actively working miners in those photographs, as well, so the people are there; they’re just hidden. And that’s sort of my general message for, for [LAUGHS] everything that you can look at in Appalachia.
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BOB GARFIELD: The reality is hidden in plain view.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Exactly,
BOB GARFIELD: Elizabeth, thank you very much.
ELIZABETH CATTE: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Historian Elizabeth Catte is the author of the forthcoming, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.