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Treacherous Inequality and ‘Appalachian Fall’

A graduate student employed a phrase in a recent seminar that I found arresting, “treacherous inequality.” My sense is that the word treachery and its variations are not much used in common discourse today, although the term surely is evocative. My dictionary defines it as a “violation of faith or betrayal of trust; perfidy.” In turn, perfidy means: “deceitful breach of faith or betrayal of trust.”[1] I think the student’s use of the word treacherous so struck me because President Donald Trump and his political allies have engaged in just such behavior throughout his term in office. As I write, for example, the President, still obviously ill with COVID-19 and being treated with a very potent steroid cocktail among other medications, has been offering Tweets, interview comments and video messages calling for the federal indictment of former President Barack Obama and current presidential candidate, Joseph Biden, on no evidence whatsoever. He has also sought to resurrect utterly false claims concerning former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email account that have been dismissed by past investigations and are, in any case, unrelated to his performance in office. Here is how a story in The New York Times presented Trump’s current fabrications:

The president castigated his own team, declaring that Attorney General William P. Barr would go down in history ‘as a very sad, sad situation’ if he did not indict Democrats like Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama. He complained that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had not released Hillary Clinton’s emails, saying, ‘I’m not happy about him for that reason.’ And he targeted Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director. ‘He’s been disappointing,’ Mr. Trump said. ‘Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win and we’ll just have to go, because I won’t forget it,’ Mr. Trump said, referring to the investigation into his 2016 campaign ties with Russia. ‘But these people should be indicted. This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country, and that includes Obama and it includes Biden.’ Mr. Trump has often argued that his political antagonists should be prosecuted, but in this case, he went further by indicating that he had directly pressured Mr. Barr to indict without waiting for more evidence. ‘He’s got all the information he needs,’ the president said. ‘They want to get more, more, more, they keep getting more. I said, ‘You don’t need any more.’[2]

In short, as he has done throughout his tenure in office, and even as he battles a virus that has killed more than 213,000 Americans and continues to kill roughly 1,000 Americans daily, Trump continues to lie and mislead concerning the pandemic and a multitude of other matters. In this way, he persistently betrays the trust of those he swore to serve. One may debate why Trump has taken this course and continues to pursue it, but there is no doubting his complete and continuing betrayal of the public faith and trust that accompany his elected office; he exhibits and embodies the very essence of treachery.

Trump’s knowing duplicity is by now undeniable, but the student who used the term connected this President and his Party not only to two-faced behavior, but also to growing inequality in our society. On that point, I happened to be reading a recently published volume concerning Appalachia, Appalachian Fall.[3] The book was the product of a group of eight Ohio Valley-based journalists, including three past winners of the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, that sought to assess current socio-economic and political conditions in Central Appalachia particularly. The volume is comprised of a series of thoughtful analyses or dispatches, as the authors dub them, that provide a thoroughgoing description of the historical evolution and current conditions of this subregion of Appalachia.

The contributors offer a portrait of a region and a population in crisis and reeling from the continued, decades long decline of the coal industry on which they had long relied for their economic and social sustenance. In eleven essays, readers learn of the costs imposed by the opioid crisis initiated by the pharmaceuticals industry on an already hard-hit population, and of the ways in which coal billionaires have sought to use successful, sustained and profoundly untruthful communication and advertising campaigns, such as “Friends of Coal” and “War on Coal,” to convince local residents that mining is central to their personal identities and that its decline is the result of government environmental protection action, rather than decades of quickening automation, changing industrial needs and market competition from natural gas and alternative energy forms. Readers also learn how many coal mine owners have simply refused to assist the miners who have given their productive lives helping them prosper, when those individuals fall ill with Black Lung disease, by deliberately tying claims up in the courts and administrative proceedings, offloading them onto the United Mine Workers Union for that small share of workers who still possess union status, or declaring bankruptcy and shuttering operations, leaving such costs to local, state and national governments.

In clear and concise prose, the authors also demonstrate that many mine owners have declined to pay taxes owed to local governments in Central Appalachia until forced to do so.  This practice has badly affected communities whose revenue bases had already been severely eroded by declining mining operations and employment in any case, forcing them to cut services and consolidate schools, thereby quickening the downward spiral and population exodus they were already experiencing. In addition, the essays in Appalachian Fall compellingly contend not only that many coal corporation leaders have undertaken these steps knowingly, but that they have also frequently elected not to ensure safe conditions for their workers, and when fined for such infractions, chose not to pay those sums until forced to do so via protracted, and expensive, court proceedings.

The ultimate picture these authors paint is of a family-oriented, hardworking and resilient population that has often been cast as the creators of economic and social woes that were, in fact, fashioned by others. That is, miners did not produce the unsafe conditions to which they have too often and for too long been exposed; their employers did. Appalachians are not responsible for the wrenching transformation in their way of life in recent decades and they cannot and should not be blamed for somehow being inadequate when they are not able to “transition” to alternate employment that, in fact, does not exist in the places they call home.

The cruel fact confronting these communities, in the authors’ collective and persuasive view, is that not only did the long-standing extraction economy in their region not enrich average citizens, but it has also left them with a deeply despoiled environment, an aging and disproportionately ill population and in a situation in which the true progenitors of this morass, a small number of so-called “Coal Barons” and corporations, have thus far been able very largely to escape responsibility for the difficult conditions they created.

These actors have done so, in part, by successfully offering a view of social change and of society, shaped by completely false proselytization, that has encouraged many voters in the region to blame their woes on governments—and more specifically, the Democratic Party—and minorities and immigrants rather than the true originators of the situations their communities now confront. Finally, these dispatches suggest that not only has the industry been successful in shifting responsibility for its actions to residents or other actors who had no or little hand in creating them, it has actually multiplied the negative effects of its own current death spiral by allying successfully with the Trump administration to worsen safety and health conditions in such mines as continue to operate and by allowing their owners to degrade the environment with near impunity.

This all adds up to a treacherous betrayal of an entire region’s population by a share of corporate elites with the complicity of Trump and his administration for the past three-plus years, and by the GOP for several decades. Even more provocatively, the authors of Appalachian Fall contend that

More parts of the country are also now experiencing the sort of concentrated economic disparity that has long defined Appalachia, and current research shows a high correlation between high inequality and voter support for authoritarian candidates. … Political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart write about the ‘existential insecurity’ that arises when parts of the country are left behind: ‘The economic stagnation and rising inequality of recent decades have led to increasing support for authoritarian, xenophobic candidates.’[4]

Ultimately, the growing inequality and knowingly deceitful statements and arguments that have prompted a share of Appalachian citizens to support Trump and other leaders making such claims or, equally important, have encouraged a share of those residents to opt out of political life altogether, are a recipe for deepening distress and diminishing opportunities. That is so, because they are explicitly designed by their purveyors to advantage only a few. More, the lies of today’s GOP and coal industry do nothing to change the social, economic and political obstacles now in place that make it extremely difficult for Appalachia’s citizens to address the many challenges they now confront. More broadly, if the fast-growing trend toward inequality in the United States continues, much of the nation will suffer the same sharply increasing deprivation and poverty in coming decades that Appalachia has long endured.

The lessons of a treacherously attained material and social inequality whose creators hide that reality by telling lies, exploiting fear and othering, are today manifest and ugly, not only in Appalachia, but elsewhere in the United States. The phrase “treacherous inequality” is apt and close to the bone. The ballot box in the coming national election may be the best remaining mechanism for Appalachians and their fellow Americans to stop this malevolent game that profits a tiny few while harming countless others. Replacing Donald Trump and those who have supported him will allow our country to begin to rebuild democratic possibility in the face of long-lived and too well-practiced political treachery and impunity. One may hope Trump and today’s GOP represent the apotheosis of governance by betrayal and that the systematic dismantling of this regime of lies is now near.

Notes

[1] Brown, Lesley, Ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1993, p. 3379.

[2] Baker, Peter and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Lashes Out at his Cabinet with Calls to Indict Political Rivals,” The New York Times, October 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/us/politics/trump-calls-to-indict-political-rivals.html, Accessed October 9, 2020. 

[3] Young Jeff and The Ohio Valley Resource. Appalachian Fall: Dispatches From Coal Country on What’s Ailing America. New York: Tiller Press, 2020.

[4] Appalachian Fall, pp. 14-15.

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