One question will ring painfully throughout America’s coastal bubbles and blue states long after Donald Trump’s Tuesday triumph over Hillary Clinton: How did this happen?
Racism. Bigotry. Apathy. Third-party voters. More clues are to be found in Blood on the Mountain, the new documentary about the historic deterioration of the coal industry in the energy battleground of West Virginia—where President-elect Trump secured a staggering 68.7 percent of the vote en route to sweeping the Rust Belt, and where Hillary never stood a chance against an angry, depressed, and economically desperate portion of the country.
Simpler answers to how the business tycoon turned reality-TV star won over so much of America certainly abound, like the fact that Trump voters were so overwhelmingly white he earned a shining endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan. In a state like West Virginia, as illuminated in the aptly timed Blood on the Mountain, Trump also represented a solution to a perfect storm of issues locals gravitated to with life-or-death urgency, with only one interest presumably in mind: their own.
Directors Jordan Freeman and Mari-Lynn C. Evans piece together a chronological history of Big Coal in the United States in their melancholic alarm-bell documentary, which offers a staggering look at how thoroughly the fuel business has exploited the lives of its own arguably unwitting labor force. In limited release this month, it’s clear why Freeman and Evans took the film to screen for free earlier this year outside of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland (another pro-Trump swing state). Trump isn’t mentioned in the film at all, but the shadow of his campaign promises to America’s coal and oil workers looms over the film like a shroud.
For most of its statehood, West Virginia leaned Democrat—until its citizens helped vote George W. Bush into office. Watching the film as case study it’s easy to see how coal workers might have been so forcefully driven toward Trump’s pro-fossil fuel, anti-immigration platform and into such violent opposition to Clinton, the establishment candidate who drew hostile crowds when she stopped by on the campaign trail this summer.
The blood of the title is the blood of the coal miners who have toiled, struggled, and died for their industry since the fuel boom of the 1880s. The film details one fatal historical accident after another, all spurred on in part by corporate greed and negligence for human lives, including the building of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in 1927 that is thought to have led to the deaths of as many as 1,000 workers from lung poisoning; the deadly Buffalo Creek flood disaster that unleashed 132 million gallons of black wastewater upon a residential valley, wiping out 17 towns and leaving their residents dead, injured, and homeless; and the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion of 2010 that killed 29 workers after owner Massey Energy failed to comply with safety standards.
“Human life was never given the priority that it should have been given,” says American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka, lamenting the coal industry’s disregard for the health and safety of its own workers. “Corporate responsibility has ignored those tired, hungry and yearning to be free,” offers Rev. Ron English. It’s not just corporate executives who are guilty of exploiting generations of coal-mining blue-collar laborers: Corruption and collusion between coal companies and the unions that were supposed to protect those workers is just as much to blame for decades of economic exploitation that still threatens their lives, communities, and livelihoods, the film argues.
“Coal mining is a dying industry,” admits one former miner, who notes that 80-90 percent of the industry’s holdings in the state are owned by out-of-state corporations with no connection to West Virginia and its people—and no obligation to ensure their well-being. A potent romanticism remains connected to the idea of the West Virginian coal miner, a tradition proudly embraced by the state and its denizens. And yet for years, Blood on the Mountain argues, the industry has eliminated jobs and done irreparable damage to surrounding communities by moving from below-ground mining to the practice of mountaintop removal—an environmentally damaging means of strip-mining that is devastating the natural ecosystems of West Virginia and exposing more and more residents to health risks reminiscent of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Corporate mining has so successfully entrenched itself into the local culture, various talking heads argue, that laborers believe that coal’s best interests are their best interests. Big Coal brings pro-coal curriculum into local schools, teaching children that coal is not only great, but essential for their futures. Instead of blaming natural-gas companies for outcompeting the dying coal business, we see members of the United Mine Workers of America worked into a frenzy by a union boss who rails against globalism and foreign trade: “Every developing country has been taking our jobs through these rotten stinking trade deals!”
“You had a whole system that reinforced obedience,” says Peter Galuszka, author of the book Thunder on the Mountain. “If you’re a coal miner in a Massey mine, it was very much a boss-directed culture. The boss being Don Blankenship.”
Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy known for dropping millions to secure the favor of state judges, gets major screen time in Blood in the Mountain. First seen stammering his way through an inquiry into his company’s culpability in the Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy, he later shows up yelling about the federal government and “environmental extremists” wearing garish red, white, and blue at a million-dollar Labor Day PR event in which Ted Nugent and Sean Hannity make paid appearances stumping for the coal company.
What’s clear watching the documentary post-election is how firmly the deck was already stacked against Clinton in West Virginia—and by extension, one easily imagines, its fellow energy states. She certainly hammered the last nail in her own coffin in March when, while boasting about her clean-energy policy, she swore an accidental oath to coal workers that she never recovered from.
“I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key into coal country,” Clinton said during a March 13 CNN town hall, “because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She would later make a point to visit coal country to explain herself, to explain that in killing off coal she had a plan to stimulate jobs for laborers in renewable and clean-energy industries. But the damage had already been done.
In May, Hillary took note when Blankenship showed up and joined a pro-Trump protest at her campaign stop in Williamson, West Virginia.
“If Donald Trump wants the support of someone like that,” Clinton responded the next day, “he can have it.”
Trump indeed won Blankenship’s allegiance, which the coal baron commemorated in a November 6th tweet that called for Americans to vote the reality TV star and his wall into the White House. He tweeted the endorsement from behind bars, halfway through serving a one-year sentence for conspiring to violate health and safety standards in the Upper Big Branch tragedy.