Posts Tagged ‘Don Blankenship’

The Caudillo of the Coalfields

The sun rises over his mansion. He stands outside and picks up the morning paper and squints his puffy fat eyes into the glowing eastern sky. He glowers back at the horror of sunshine, then slowly slips back into his castle for another day of conspiracy theorizing on Facebook. He believes himself a nobleman, benighted one, one left in exile from the hilly country of realm, where the black seam is dug and sun glints in only when the winter clouds dissipate.

In truth, he is no more a nobleman than he is a mobster. A big boss man of a coal giant, he made himself rich and powerful at the expense of his skilled workers who toiled in his mines. He killed water supplies and whole ecosystems in the wake of his avarice. He added a sort of toxic accelerant to the corrupt politics of West Virginia, making what was already vice even more disgustingly sleezy. Democratic politician knelt to kiss his ring, but he grew tired of pretending he cared for anything to do with their party. So he built the modern right that took over West Virginia, and anyone who wanted to be anybody came to seek approval before the throne.

His name is Don Blankenship. He was born to a single mother in a rundown house in the rundown town of Delorne. They had no running water, the outhouse was their refuge for the refuse of life, and had he been born in in 1900, he might have been a raging radical of the left. For Delorne lies in that land of Mingo, where the radical miners marched and took up arms against the coal company police state that held them in debt peonage and held away all that idea of the unions from the workers. But one time, the miners marched, native-born miners who tanged the Queen’s English as they always had in this and of hollows joined their arms with those who spoke with Irish brogues, African American dialects, and accents of Italian, Czech, and Yiddish.

But he was born a generation that was beginning to see the end of it all. The mines were being played out, and the unions were an obstacle to company profit.

He worked his way through the poor public schools of the county and learned his craft in trapping muskrats. From their hides, he paid his tuition to Marshall University, where the studied accounting. Accounting is study of numbers and yields, and although never a star student, he made his passing grades. He worked in the mines some, but he never once learned solidarity with those who toiled. He wanted more than that. He wanted to be the boss man.

Muskrate trapping is funny business. It is something akin to the beaver trapping that made men brave this territory to make their fortunes back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You come up with ways to make the muskrats drown, or lacking such abilities, you use traps that grip the body and suffocate them to death.

And so trapper Don worked the creeks and the streams, still wild with muskrats, even after all those years of pollution from sewage and mining. The muskrats gave their lives to fill his pockets and pay his fees and rise him up into a better station.

A man of numbers and figures, Don became the McNamara of the mines. He rose higher as he filled the company coffers, and he broke those pesky unions. And one day, he became CEO of Massey Energy.

And then set about becoming the caudillo of the coalfields. He threw his money at the politicians, and the politicians danced. He was the king maker, and everyone feared him.

How many people died because of his avarice is difficult to account. Cancer from the bad water poisoned from the mines is took quite a toll. Bad lungs were epidemic among all miners, but where the dust spread all day, the lungs of the citizenry grew black too.

And for his murine benefactors not much good came from it all. Muskrats don’t do well swimming in cancer creeks anymore than people do drinking for them.

How many people died in his mines in disasters and workplace safety errors, well, is also up to conjecture. Let’s just say it wasn’t zero, and in the end, it would his avarice overriding the need for safety that would do him in.

But he ran riot as the kingmaker. He helped Karl Rove deliver West Virginia to George W. Bush in 2000, when the state had such a long tradition of never voting for nonincumbent Republicans for president that went way back to when Herbert Hoover lost to Roosevelt in 1932.

And realizing the political winds were changing, he set about using his money to build a Republican Party in West Virginia, but it would not be one based upon the traditional conservative ideals of respect for institutions and skepticism of populism. No, it would be built on the reactionary populism that Don Blankenship saw as own sort of “American competitionist” ideology.

He called himself a radical, and in one election cycle, he got his own hand-picked Republican supreme court justice elected—“For the sake of the kids,” was his campaign slogan, accusing the incumbent Democrat of being too easy on a child molester and of being a Marxist to boot.

“For the sake of the kids” became the rallying cry for this Blankenship-based Republican Party to take the state legislature in 2006. Republican candidates ran with his blessing. He pumped their campaigns full of cash. But that cash really began to stink by then, and his slate of radicals all lost.

And thus began the twilight of the caudillo of the coalfields. He continued as the CEO, but environmental protestors were onto him. He had already poisoned the Tug River when his company’s Martin County, Kentucky, slurry impoundment escaped its banks. Water was tainted, and so became Mr. Blankenship.

In the end, Blankenship’s desire to keep the mines “running coal” at the expense of all safety brought him in. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 29 good, hard-working miners. Obama was president. Joe Manchin was senator. Obama’s MSHA did its job. It fingered Blankenship’s disregard for safety as the main reason for the explosion. He allowed the ventilation system to malfunction, and miners were forced to work where the coal dust, methane, and carbon monoxide levels were allowed to build. He wanted the coal run. He needed more money. More money was more important than their lives.

He was prosecuted for his crimes, but he was found guilty of only a misdemeanor, conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations. The judge still put him in federal prison, a club fed sort of place in California.

There, he had time to stew over the conviction. He wrote a book defaming Obama’s MSHA as the real culprit behind the explosion. He drew harder on right wing conspiracy theories about how the world really works

And when freed from prison, he instantly set about making a documentary that relied heavily on this narrative, which had played on local television stations in West Virginia. By that time, West Virginia had decided that Obama was the cause of all its woes, and a certain portion of the public became receptive to his insane bellyaching.

West Virginia loved Donald Trump, voting for him by the second highest margin of any state in the union. Coal-mining Wyoming held the distinction of being Trump’s number one state. But Blankenship saw how Trump had played that victim card very well to win the presidency, and he knew that he could pay that card even better when he threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination of US Senate. He would be taking on what he thought of as the New Jersey-based Republican establishment that had gained control over West Virginia’s GOP. In truth, all that had happened is some New Jersey right wingers had been unable to get elected in their home state went to West Virginia to launch more successful political careers. Among them was Patrick Morrissey, the state’s attorney general, who had decided he also wanted Joe Manchin’s senate seat.

The Republican establishment in Washington wanted Evan Jenkins, a turncoat Democrat who had once been in the state senate but had managed to win a seat in congress as a Republican. His former Democratic bona fides haunted him all through the campaign.

It was a campaign based upon Blankenship’s id gone made. He stole Trump’s thunder in giving his opponents nicknames. Evan Jenkins became “Little Joe,” as if he were Joe Manchin’s doppelganger. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became “Cocaine Mitch,” a reference to the discovery of cocaine on one of McConnell’s wife’s family’s ships. He also called him a Swamp Captain and pledged his undying loyalty to Donald Trump. He played ads asking that they lock Hillary Clinton up for colluding with Russia, and he played the race card hard. He said that Mitch McConnell’s father-in-law was a “wealthy Chinaperson” and implied that McConnell only cared about making China great again.

Despite being the uber Trump in that race, he still lost to Morrisey. He still won a few really rural counties, where conspiracy theories are the main currency of the local GOP apparatchiks. He lost this race because Trump himself tweeted out that Blankenship couldn’t win, and instead of turning on Trump. Blankenship turned on the Republican Party.

He hired his production crew to make more crazy ads. He came up with a conspiracy theory that Patrick Morrissey’s New Jersey political operatives worked together with a Fox News host from New Jersey to ruin his campaign. He was so angry with it all that he changed his registration to the Constitution Party, which then offered him their nomination for the US Senate seat. He filed signatures with the West Virginian secretary of state, telling his followers that if he got rejected from the ballot it was only because the establishment of both parties was trying to stop him. Of course, what was actually against him was the state’s sore loser law, which prevents people who lose a primary to run as another party or an independent as a balloted candidate for the general election. The state supreme court threw out Blankenship’s complaint when he was denied ballot access by the secretary of state, and he raced to Facebook too whine to his followers about how the world was truly against him all that was right in the world.

Morrissey lost the general election. Blankenship is still filing with federal courts to get his conviction overturned. He has millions of dollars and greedy lawyers who will gladly take some his fees.

And he has his mansion in Nevada and his Chinese girlfriend, but he doesn’t have the power over the land of coal anymore. It sears his very soul to know this fact, for like Donald Trump he is a man who feels deeply insecure. He knows deep down that his money came from being an amoral, avaricious prick, and he knows he has done wrong. But he cannot look himself in the mirror and accept this fact and fully accept his exile.

I suspect he’ll try running for governor of West Virginia, or maybe if Donald Trump gets impeached, Don will throw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for president. It aches himself from the inside out that he cannot be the caudillo anymore, and if he can’t be the caudillo, maybe he can be the illustrious potentate of the whole nation. If only those mean ol’ liberals and Swamp Captains would just lay off him.

And so the benighted and exiled wannabe nobleman is left to his Nevada mansion to writhe the convulsions of his conspiracy theories. Perhaps he portends of the future for Mr. Trump, who also knows his own money largely comes from even more dubious means than sweatshop coal-mining and whose fortune is likely protected from the government’s levy by even more dubious tax schemes. Mr. Mueller or Maxine Waters are on the hot trails of all these potential liabilities, which are even more likely than his Russian collusion connections. And he must agonize all the live-long day that these liabilities could be exposed at any moment.

But I cannot help but reflect a bit upon myself. Like Blankenship, I am fully estranged from West Virginia politics. At one point of my life, I wanted to work in politics down there. I wanted to be fighter for the little guy, the ones whose lives were ruined by people like Don Blankenship. I got a degree in political science, and I went to law school to be a people’s tribune. I became instantly alienated from ever having any hope in that profession the second I stepped into law school, for I felt lost in all the esoteric nonsense about property inheritance in wills and what was a tort and what wasn’t. I suppose that deep down, I wanted to do politics because I loved the story and the drama, but I would never make it as an attorney.

And I cannot even feign a breath of Trumpish conservatism, nor can I pretend to be religious. By the time I was 23, I had intellectually rejected all theses of Christianity, but I was too afraid to admit to myself or others. And I certainly couldn’t play games as mainstream evangelical Christianity prostrates its before the altar of Donald Trump. I couldn’t hold my tongue and avoid saying that Trump is a horse’s ass, a violation that would probably cost me a Democratic nomination for virtually any office In virtually every part of the state.

I never had any hope of being a kingmaker or a people’s tribune. I accept that my native land and I will be forever politically estranged. And in this, I suppose I have more awareness than Mr. Blankenship, and it certainly cannot sear my soul the way it clearly does to him.

And so the tragic burlesque that is West Virginia politics goes on. Can a difference ever be made? Maybe, but for someone as melancholic as me, it is best that I let go and move on to safer station, where I can watch the whole scene in psychological safety.

That is where I am right now. The evening sun in December pierces the clouds. The gray skeleton trees glow glumly in their grayness. Not much snow this far in this greenhouse winter. Only the disgusting, nasty mud, and the chill rain fall from the sky. The arctic is warmer this winter. Don Blankenship made some of that all possible. He won’t admit it. He denies it like all his guilty sins.

And America goes on in ruins, but maybe there is hope. There has to be. I cannot allow myself to think otherwise.

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feral horse appalachian

Feral horses run in the wiry grass of Don Blankenship’s prairies. Once real mountains stood here, all crowned in ash and oak and hickory, but beneath them was a black rock. Over the centuries, men came and dug at the earth and sweated and died and then the bulldozers came and the mountains were gone. The state demanded that the coal operators do something to reclaim the land, so they planted some cheap grass and a couple of pine trees.  But the land was forever changed.

Over the years, the jobs all went away, and those who had a few pleasure horses took them to the new grasslands and set them free. Better to be “wild horses” on the range than dog food was the simple logic.

And the stallions round their mares in this new steppeland.  They nicker and fight the wars of that ancient Equus lambei, which a few romantics like to hope gives some sort of license to the native status of the modern horse on this continent.

At the same time, the state of West Virginia is trying its hand at restoring elk to these very same prairie lands. The elk were natives of the Eastern forests, and the ones being turned out onto these ranges are from Kentucky and Arizona. And those of Kentucky are still of the Rocky Mountain form of elk, not the long gone Eastern kind, which may now exist only in the muddled genetics of some New Zealand ranched herds.

The elk need the grass too, and worries are the horses will make the range too bare. And the elk will not make a comeback.

But the truth of the matter is neither species is native to land that never existed before. The glaciers never made it this far south, and the steepness of the terrain before the dozers came is testament to the antiquity of these mountains. They once stood like the Rockies or the Himalayas, but the millennia of erosion wore them down until the coal operators showed up to cut down their remnant. The glaciers never smoothed out the mountains, but human greed certainly did.

Meanwhile, Don Blankenship is back in politics. He is a former coal operator, a greedy, nasty one at that, the kind that was once excoriated in all those old union songs, but now as the mines employ fewer and fewer workers and UMWA is all broken and busted, he plays the working class victim.  All railroaded by “union bosses” and Obama, he didn’t do anything wrong, he tells the gullible.

He’s thrown his hat into the US Senate race. His ads call all his opponents liberals and abortion lovers. He plays up his conspiracy theory about Obama having it out for him. He feigns tears about Indiana bats that are being killed by windmills.

He says he’ll drain the swamp. Maybe, he will, but I have the idea that he might just fill it up with coal slurry. That’s what happened to poor Martin County, Kentucky.  Blankenship was CEO when his company’s slurry impoundment overflowed and filled up the Tug Fork River.

He sells the false hope that if you just get rid of a few more environmental and labor regulations, the coal industry will come roaring back.  He also says that if we just build Old Man Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, we won’t have any more problems with drugs. After all, the drug problem must surely come from brown foreigners, and not the pharmaceutical industry and those totally unscrupulous doctors who prescribed opioids for every little discomfort.

The politics he offers are the politics of the apocalypse. In land where no real hope can be found, a little false hope will do.

And the miners lose their jobs and their homes and their pleasure horses join the ranks of the feral bands.

The Bible talks about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but in West Virginia, the hoofbeats of that sound the impending doom have no riders at all.

They are the roving bands of the abandoned, left out to sort out a new existence on Don Blankeship’s prairies.

The snakeoil of politicians rings out on the airwaves, and every year, new horses get turned out, and the mares drop their feral foals.

The coal company’s rangeland gets denuded a little bit more, and the elk might not stand much of a chance.

In this apocalypse, death will come.  Sooner or later, the horses will starve on those pastures. A few good souls might get some of them adopted, but most will either starve or wind up shot.

Perhaps, this election will be the final burlesque of Blankenship, but he’s not the only coal country caudillo in West Virginia. The current governor is a more successful sort of politico of this stripe, and the legislature if full of people like him. The long suffering of the people will go on and on, and the horses will continue to be turned out into the wild,

Already, coal towns are advertising their “wild horses” as an attraction draw tourism. It’s a more benign falsehood than the one Blankenship is offering.

But it is not so benign for the horses or the coming elk. For them, the apocalypse is coming. They cannot know it, for if they did, they would run.

And their hoofbeats would ring out the warning of our impending doom.

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