History often provides a single quote that encapsulates why a presidential candidate lost an election. John Kerry’s flipping and flopping 2004 campaign will always be remembered by “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Michael Dukakis was buried by the clinical answer he gave to a question about his wife’s hypothetical murderer.
If Hillary Clinton loses this November, what epitaph will be chiseled on her political tombstone? This week, many would point to her remark that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. …The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.” Even if the Trump campaign has made common cause with some bigots, this was an idiotic and baseless sneer that denigrated tens of millions of people.
But I would nominate another statement for inscription over the Clintonian mausoleum, one uttered not by Hillary, but by Bill. Speaking in Pennsylvania last week, Bubba warned, “The coal people don’t like any of us anymore,” meaning Democrats. He continued: “They all voted for me! I won twice and they did well. And they blame the president when the sun doesn’t come up in the morning now.”
How does that comment come across? As confirmation of everything middle American voters have long suspected about Washington gentry like the Clintons. As the corrugated condescension of a pointy-headed liberal who’s never had to dirty his fingernails in his adult life. As validation that metropolitan elites really do harbor disdain for those who have the audacity to live out past the burbs. As another Democrat for whom blue-collar workers are prized only for their votes.
Perhaps some coal miners do blame the president “when the sun doesn’t come up in the morning”—Bill’s half baked Arkansan aphorisms don’t even make sense: astronomers confirm that sunlight is still abundant in Appalachia—but that’s because their lives really have been diminished by his policies.
Under Obama’s stewardship, 83,000 coal jobs have been lost and 400 coal mines have been closed, according to the Daily Caller. Consumption of coal-generated electricity is down 29 percent since 2007, per the Energy Information Administration. The Department of the Interior announced in January a moratorium on all new federal leases for coal mining. The EPA mummifies communities in regulations. Unemployment in Appalachia is rampant, as is opioid abuse and suicide.
Some commentators from hardscrabble origins have recently argued that the current crisis of the white working class is self-inflicted. That’s partially true, but the problems affecting blue-collar towns, like skyrocketing suicide rates and opioid abuse—you might even call them a “basket of deplorables”—are far more easily spread if people aren’t working. The expansion of fracking, the 2008 recession, and, above all, President Obama’s war on coal have blighted West Virginia and sent Trump’s stentorian voice echoing through the mountains.
This economic crisis dovetails into a larger cultural grievance. Escape the Washington, D.C. gridlock and drive an hour or two southwest into Virginia, and you’ll find yourself in a different world, devoid of iPhone-waving fast talkers, where people even smoke cigarettes on occasion. This divide has been exaggerated by some conservative populists, who demagogically thunder on about the “real America.” But the gap is there, it exists, and it’s been noticed by those on its other side.
This is the key issue of this election: many working-class whites feel alienated from civic life, governed by those who misunderstand them, and through policies that crush their livelihoods. Now a Republican presidential candidate has verbalized their grievances. They might not love Donald Trump or share his values, but they do see him as a pyrotechnic jolt for a condescending political class. Call them “coal people” or “the deplorables,” but they’re voters who can impact our country’s future.
“What’s the matter with Kansas?” the progressive writer Thomas Frank wondered in a 2004 book, meaning: “Why does flyover country keep rejecting our genius liberal policies?” The answer is that those policies are helping to wreck its livelihood and Democrats don’t even realize it. So the Clintons sputter and sneer. Liberal snobbery is an ugly thing.