West Virginia Politics is “Trumpier than Trump”
Don Blankenship, the disgraced former CEO of the Massey Energy Company, was convicted in 2015 of a criminal charge related to safety violations that led to the death of 29 miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. Like many CEOs, Blankenship only served a one-year prison sentence for what were extraordinarily heinous crimes. Most recently, Blankenship came in third in the Republican primary for Senator of West Virginia along with winning four counties.
According to a set of internal polls, Blankenship was leading his rivals in the Republican primary. (See this write-up by Five Thirty Eight for some possible issues with taking internal poll at face value.) However, due to factors including a condemnation of his campaign from Donald Trump, Blankenship’s “surge” slipped. But Blankenship may very well be the embodiment of West Virginia politics, one of the states most dedicated to Trump, having won 68.50% of the popular vote in the general election. Blankenship and his competitors all attempted to prove their loyalty and support for Trump. For example, rival Evan Jenkins nominated Trump for a Peace Prize. This culminated in Blankenship’s words, “I am Trumpier than Trump.” Blankenship is often condemned for his support of Trump. But the alternative Republican candidates Jenkins and victor Patrick Morrisey support Trump as well. His Democratic rival, Manchin, also supports Republicans and Trump in many instances. One of the more recent politicians hailed as a “progressive hero” of the state due mostly for his support of the WV teachers’ stike, Richard Ojeda, voted for Trump in 2016 because of Trump’s militarism, his “American First” racist nationalism, and because
“When you hear about illegal aliens getting benefits and you have people here starving to death and can’t get nothing, it’s just a slap in the face. When you start talking about bringing in refugees and when they get here they get medical and dental and they get set up with some funds—what do we get? So when people hear Donald Trump saying we’re going to take benefits away from people who come here illegally and give them to people who work, that sounds pretty good.”
Blankenship is often condemned for the 29 murders he committed. But no American politician’s hands are free of blood. Blankenship’s political rivals – Evan Jenkins in the House, Joe Manchin in the Senate – have supported far too many military actions against people throughout the Third World to morally grandstand about Blankenship being a murderer. The tremendous violence that establishment politicians have supported in the Middle East alone is, in truth, far graver in scale and scope then the horrendous action Blankenship committed. All of the candidates have approved of and participated in atrocities by big business and imperialism, but the crimes of Manchin and Jenkins – crimes that are the unspoken “American way” – go without prosecution, but also without any serious condemnation from West Virginia’s left.
Blankenship is often condemned for his racism, to the point where he has used the backlash against his racism as a way to appeal to the mass of reactionary white voters in the state. His campaign has released advertisements with some of the most base, straight-forward, and reprehensible racist language in recent history, with one video specifically condemning McConnell for “giving jobs to Chinapeople.” Yet racism is a bedrock of West Virginian politics, right and left. Here, Blankenship is linked to the famed West Virginian labor icon Mother Jones, whose racism is less known:
“One of the most striking things to me,” [Mother Jones] says, “is the gradual dying out of the American type. In fifty years the changes in type have been almost beyond belief. The Japs are not the only orientals to be feared. The Hindus will some day come be a serious menace. They are coming in large numbers now, though little has been said about them.” … Like other unionists, [Mother Jones] feared the importation of [non-white] strikebreakers. The phrase “dying out of the American type” echoes the renewed racism of these years. Back in 1902, she had written of an operator who had sent someone to keep an eye on her, “he sent a nigger to watch me.” And in her autobiography, she referred to the “lick-spittle Jews” who sold out Christ… Beyond the [liberal issue of inclusion], she probably never thought about racism and inequality as problems, which of course they were in the coal towns and in the union hierarchy.” (Gorn, Mother Jones, p. 357n59)
This “Yellow Peril” narrative is also found on West Virginia’s contemporary left, with purportedly progressive Democrat Lissa Lucas putting forward the same complaints as Don Blankenship, but with a different frame. Also condemning “giving jobs to Chinapeople,” though using different words, Lucas is additionally worried about West Virginia becoming a “colony” of China. Ojeda expressed a similar sentiment, also framing West Virginia as a “colony”, while in a summary of his campaign which never mentions racial injustice of any kind. Ojeda also fails to mention how “Appalachia” came to be, as a colony where white folks stole land and resources from Native peoples.
Blankenship is often condemned for calling himself a “political prisoner,” with this mostly mocked for the bad joke it is. But the left in West Virginia still ignores actual political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, and Ruchell “Cinque” Magee. Instead, white Appalachians often view themselves as politically oppressed, describe themselves as “second-class citizens,” or even argue they are victims of colonialism – while ignoring how they benefit from the colonization of Native land and the ways the United States dominates and exploits the rest of the world.
West Virginia is a very troubled place. It’s troubled by racist politicians with blood on their hands like Blankenship. It’s also troubled by the “progressives” who aren’t really too different. Appalachians who support anti-imperialism and decolonization are going to be few and far between, but radical anti-racists in West Virginia should be urged not to settle for Democrats-for-Trump such as Ojeda and Manchin. Instead, we should work to support socialist states and movements in the Third World, and also oppressed nations and communities here in the settler colony known presently as the United States.
This article comes from organizers with the Organization for the Liberation of Oppressed Peoples (LOOP); some of its members have previously been involved with left-wing activism against Don Blankenship before his Senate run.