Every age is burdened with the people who most explicitly characterize its grotesqueries and excesses, and every age deserves to see them deliciously taken down. Once upon a time, this kind of thing was done in high literary fashion—say, the way Lytton Strachey did it to Cardinal Manning in Eminent Victorians.
Today’s villains aren’t worth nearly that much spit and polish. For Don Blankenship—the erstwhile coal operator and federal convict now trying to worm his way into the United States Senate from West Virginia who is as good a symbol as anyone else of everything that’s foul about our time—a Netflix miniseries someday will suffice, or maybe a few YouTube videos.
Episode One will document his rise and culminate in the way his company ignored repeated warnings about safety violations, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 29 miners in 2010, the worst mining accident in America in 40 years. Another episode will focus on his lying campaign to destroy the career of a judge who had more decency in his fingernail that Blankenship will ever have in that whole corpulent body.
And it will work its way up to this Senate race—the primary will be held on May 8—where Blankenship trails but with still a large percentage of undecided. Who knows. Donald Trump is president. Weirder things have happened.
And all along the way we’ll get the running commentary of the world as Don sees it, such as his choice observations that all things considered he thinks China is a better place than the United States these days. “Americans confuse the words communism and dictatorship,” he said in an interview a few years ago, according to The New York Times. “The Chinese are running a dictatorial capitalism, and it’s very effective. That’s the way corporations are run. Corporations are not a democracy.”
We don’t often get it that plain and unvarnished from these people. He’d prefer a capitalist dictatorship. Capitalist dictatorships recognize the cold, hard realities of life, such as the fact that when you’re racing to extract as much carbon out of the ground as fast as you can, a few miners’ lives are so much spoilage factor. He knew what he was talking about: Though things have improved a bit in recent years, back when Blankenship spoke those words, according to The Economist, China’s coal mines were “tragic showcases of greed, corruption and contempt for life.”
Unfortunately for Blankenship, he’s stuck running for office in a democracy, or what remains of it, and so he seems destined not to make it to the Senate. The Republican establishment, the hated swamp, is even against him, running ads Even if he somehow prevails on May 8, it’s generally thought that he’d be the weakest of the three Republicans in November against Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin.
So the current chapter of Blankenship’s life will likely end two Tuesdays from now, but that hardly means we’ll be done with him, because as you know that isn’t how things work these days. He’s 68. The Times says he’s worth—get this—as much as $100 million. His old company paid him $18 million last year—while he was in jail—and may have made another $86 million when the company was sold. He lives in a $2.4 million mansion in Las Vegas (an interesting place from which to run for a West Virginia Senate seat) that has an infinity pool and a sculpture of three prancing dolphins. It’ll all make a great backdrop for the TV show that TLC will give him someday.
Meanwhile, down in the hollers, the only infinity pools are the bets being placed on when the economy might ever be good again. Along with the rest of the country, the state’s unemployment rate went down from the post-great recession peak of 2010; but in the last year, it’s ticked back up, from a May 2017 low of 4.5 percent to March’s 5.4 percent. And coalfield employment, which Donald Trump was going to fix single-handedly because it was all Obama’s fault, isn’t much to brag about.
In fairness, it’s up by about 1,400 nationally since Trump took office, from 50,7000 to 52,100. But that is way down from where it used to be. When Obama became president, mining employment was 86,400. It stayed in the 80’s until the fall of 2012 when it started sliding, mostly because of the competition from cheaper and cleaner natural gas.
In West Virginia, they love to blame Obama and the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan didn’t even kick in until late 2015. Of the 30,000 coal mining jobs lost nationally since 2012, two-thirds of them were lost before late 2015. But of course, nobody’s going to get anywhere in West Virginia politics these days talking like that.
It’s a sad situation. I was in Charleston, the capital city in the southern part of the state, in February. My friend parked his SUV in the garage behind the downtown hotel we stayed in. By the next morning, someone had broken into it. We called the cops. Happens all the time, they said. Somebody looking for something they could sell fast. A macabre nightly ritual, it seemed, of post-opportunity, opioid America.
Coalfield employment, experts agree, will probably never reach 80,000 again. The sooner the state comes to terms with this, the sooner they’ll be able to figure out what to do instead. Oh well; at least the unemployed will include Don Blankenship, although he’ll be on the rolls in Nevada, if he hasn’t moved to China by then.