Dark Secret: Why Donald Trump digs coal

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairSep 10, 2018 | 14:17

Dark Secret: Why Donald Trump digs coal

'Trump digs coal!' is the legend emblazoned on many T-shirts at Republican rallies addressed by the American President.

They mean their words (Source: Reuters)

Now, we all know that Donald Trump does not physically dig coal — it is doubtful that he indulges in any extensive physical activity except rounds of golfing. Even Trump's supporters know this. However, the 'dig' in that legend is appropriate: it unveils a very American meaning of the word. Trump's detractors might make fun of the American President's capacity to wield a pickaxe, but Trump's supporters get the message, at least subconsciously: Trump likes coal, and he likes coal in a 'truly American' manner. He 'digs' it.


The entire rhetoric of coal in Trump's candidacy and the presidency that followed it is based on such subconscious communication.


Golf hole to digging coal - Where the twain do meet (Source: Reuters)

It is a good illustration of exactly why and how Trump has succeeded as a politician, and also — honestly — an explanation of the successful techniques of a similar breed of politicians elsewhere, ranging from Austria to Turkey to India. It explains why the facts that Trump's opponents cast at the pond of his rhetoric sink like stones, leaving hardly a ripple behind. It does not seem to help to point out that 'digging coal' is environmentally problematic. Nor does it help to show that, even if we 'dig' coal, it would not make much of a difference in industrial or employment terms.

Data shows that in the two years of Trump's rule, only 2,000 coal jobs have been added, despite all efforts to make businesses 'dig coal' — and a decline is expected next year. 

As it is, currently the coal sector employs only 53,000 people — a mere drop in the sea of un/employment. USA Today (July 25, 2018) pointed out that a coal bailout will cost the average American "more than $500" per year in electricity bills. CNBC (August 2018) noted that the trend of coal being pushed out of business by US natural gas production and falling costs for renewable energy projects is unlikely to be reversed. It is obvious to all that the coal industry, despite governmental boosts, cannot create the millions of jobs that have been promised.


None of this matters to Trump supporters.

This is not just because Trump 'digs' coal in such a truly American fashion — it also has to do with the symbolism of coal. Coal is the cowboy of the era of industrial capitalism — at least in the imagination of Trump's supporters. And there are good reasons for this.

A time of horses, men and coal (Source: Twitter)

Unlike oil or electricity, coal has to be physically handled. It needs to be dug out - and despite machines replacing miners, this is still how its extraction is imagined. Oil is pumped out, electricity is harnessed by dams and other devices, but coal is dug out! The machines are still seen — as they used to be, with reason, under classical or industrial capitalism — as aids to human labour, not as its replacement. This is particularly so in the case of coal mining, where machines were traditionally depicted as just making human labour a bit safer. They were metallic canaries in a cage being lowered into the pit!

Coal, it seems, still needs to be handled during its extraction. And it needs to be handled during its transportation. You cannot just pump it through pipelines or make it run through wires looping from house to house. And finally, it needs to be handled at work or in the home. Our fireplaces - even if most of them are just for show — still remind us of that.


It's warm but needs handling with care! (Source: Twitter)

In other words, coal is associated in the popular working imagination with classical or industrial capitalism. When some Americans imagine the Wild West, they see cowboys with six-shooters galloping across empty spaces.

When some Americans imagine classical capitalism, they see coal.

This is not an error. In his revealing book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell goes so far as to trace the decline of effective political activism and worker solidarity in the middle and later decades of the 20th century to the shift from coal to oil. He shows, convincingly to my mind, how both governments and oil companies were aware of this advantage — oil could be extracted, pumped and used with far less involvement of human labour than coal.

Oil has no feelings (Source: Reuters)

The 'workers' of oil extraction - far more than the workers of coal mining - are basically technocrats, and hence junior management. They pull a switch here, observe a computer screen there. Strikes, for instance, are difficult to orchestrate in an oil economy. In order to obstruct the transport of oil, you have to indulge in the terroristic act of blowing up a pipeline; but in order to obstruct the transport of coal, you just needed to load or unload slowly on docks or in stations.

No, Trump's supporters are not entirely wrong. They have — shall we say — class memories of a time when there was coal, which was also a time when capital required workers. 'Trump digs coal' appeals to them, for it suggests to them a future when they can work too — as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers once did. The slogan plays on the subliminal resonance of 'dig' and 'coal.'

Where Trump's supporters go wrong is in not looking at the bigger picture. They are right in demanding that capital needs to be ploughed back into human labour — which was much more the case under classical or industrial capitalism that it is — or can be — today under neo-liberalism or finance capitalism.

But 'digging' coal won't do it. Moreover, they seem to fail to notice that in the name of 'digging coal', Trump's regime has basically strengthened the hands of finance capitalism. Speculation is thriving - not only on Wall Street and in the banks, but also in some industries. The pharmaceutical industry is not doing so well because, suddenly, it has started discovering more cures; it is riding a wave of financial speculation, a wave on which high management staff love to surf.

Under Trump, America's stocks are singing (Source: Reuters)

Nothing like that is going to happen with coal.

At most, dejection with Trump's promises about 'digging' coal will lead Trump's supporters to fall into their two common traps — blaming immigrant workers or blaming foreign countries with cheaper labour, such as China.

What they won't face up to is the fact that finance capital needs to be regulated — and ploughed back into sustainable human labour.

But then, are many of Trump's opponents facing up to this fact either?

Last updated: April 03, 2019 | 14:15
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