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This article originally appeared on the Conversation.
President Donald Trump recently visited West Virginia for the fourth time since taking office. He’s more popular there than in any other state, partly because of his avowed passion for coal and coal miners.
As he put it at a campaign rally in Charleston, when he visited in May 2016, “I’ve just always been fascinated by the mines and the courage of the miners.” He also promised “to put the miners back to work.”
For decades, presidents, lobbyists and policymakers have invoked the image of coal miners. In researching the history of West Virginia’s coalfield economy, I have found many examples of coal miners being used as symbols of bravery, hard work and manliness to achieve political ends.
And it’s been like that for at least 60 years. The 1960 West Virginia primary, for example, was a milestone in John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency. At the time, many Americans questioned whether a Catholic could win the overwhelmingly Protestant state. But he did.
There, JFK shook hands with miners covered in coal dust and witnessed the effects of a growing unemployment crisis while his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, touted the nation’s prosperity. But, Kennedy said: “He hasn’t been to West Virginia. He hasn’t seen the thousands of miners who want to work and can’t find work.”
Having witnessed suffering in coal towns, Kennedy made fighting poverty a priority. His first executive order authorized a new food stamp program. The first American to receive this government benefit was an unemployed West Virginia coal miner.
In May 1961, Kennedy signed a law to stimulate the economy in areas with high unemployment. He said that the head of the new agency had already investigated “the problem in West Virginia and … in eastern Kentucky, southern Illinois, and parts of Ohio”—all coal-mining areas.
When Lyndon B. Johnson became president, he declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” which would include “a special effort in the chronically distressed areas of Appalachia.”
On a subsequent “poverty tour,” LBJ traveled to the “roots of Appalachian poverty in Martin County, Kentucky,” where people suffered, according to a White House film, because of the “losses in the coal mining industry.”
Work ethics and whiteness
Conservatives attacked the war on poverty before it even began. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a tense exchange at congressional hearings with William H. Ayers, an Ohio Republican, who claimed that “any set of standards” for benefits eligibility would mean there would not “be any white people in it.”
Conjuring up the image of noble unemployed coal miners helped protect these new policies. Robert Kennedy replied that if Ayers visited West Virginia, he would find many eligible white people.
When Rep. David Martin expressed his…