Like politicians, language sometimes fails to keep pace with the times. Consider the phrase “Taking coals to Newcastle,” dating back five centuries to the days when Newcastle, England was coal capital of the world.
The adage came to represent the absurdity of bringing something — in this instance, coal — to a place where it was already in abundance. The phrase endures, though there are no more such mines in England, and Newcastle, humbled by history, is now a port where foreign coal is off-loaded by the ton.
But in this political season, and particularly in the aftermath of the recent West Virginia Primary, the phrase and its backstory have a special resonance for the presumptive candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. For Trump, who imagines he can easily unwind time, bring back the shrinking coal industry, and restore America’s preeminence as a manufacturing center, Newcastle may stand as a stubborn reminder that history has no reverse gear.
For Clinton, it is a warning that her trademark bluntness – as when she said that the days of the coal industry were numbered – could and probably did cost her dearly. In sum, Trump has a fine ear for telling people what they want to hear, no matter how nonsensical, while Clinton can be politically tone-deaf.
A word of background: A century ago, the UK had 2,600 deep mines producing 207 million tons a year. In December of last year, the last mine closed. Miners wept. A parade featured a black-robed figure of death carrying a scythe. They must have seen it coming.
By the mid-1980’s, the industry was moribund. Margaret Thatcher, facing striking miners, broke the unions’ back. But that confrontation reflected a changing global economy as well, and a realization that the industry was facing perils well beyond politics. In today’s global economy, it cannot compete with coal from Russia, Columbia, Australia – and the US.
For Trump, with his constant berating of existing trade deals and his castigation of foreign subsidies and tariffs, the culprit is always identifiable, the solution, obvious: stand firm against other nation’s anti-competitive behavior and we will reassume our rightful place as the world’s manufacturing center.
Whether it is coal, clothing, toys or beef, his simplistic formulas suggest that, freed from foreign impediments or pesky regulations, America will once again realize its manufacturing supremacy and its destiny. Lost jobs will return. American workers will be respected.
The middle class will rise again. “We’re going to get those miners back to work,” he said. “ … the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, …Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”
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