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It’s Time for ‘Experts’ to Start Treating West Virginians Like Human Beings

The fall of Don Blankenship is a lesson in nuance, not narrative

It's Time for 'Experts' to Start Treating West Virginians Like Human Beings

Don Blankenship was soundly defeated in Tuesday's West Virginia primary.

Jeff Swensen/Getty

If West Virginians were actually the mindless, toothless, hate-seething dipshits depicted in the endless succession of “This Is Trump County” exposés, the right-wing Republicans who tend to turn out for primary elections should logically be extra-mindless and dipshitty. That wasn’t the case on Tuesday, and now the former coal baron, ex-con and overall giant symbol, Don Blankenship, will likely go the way of Roy Moore.

While serving a year in prison for his culpability in the deaths of 29 West Virginia coal miners, Blankenship passed the time by writing a mind-bending apologia, self-published under the Trumpian title of American Political Prisoner. In Blankenship’s sick imagination, this counterfactual whopper was the prelude to his dramatic comeback: Just months out of the hooch, he had his sights on unseating his old and bitter foe, Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, in this fall’s midterm election, and ride to Washington on clouds of glory.

The bulk of American Political Prisoner is exactly what you’d expect from such a tome, and such a man. Addressing his fellow West Virginians, Blankenship elaborates at length upon his absurd claim that the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010 was actually caused by (you guessed it) federal regulators, not by Massey’s richly documented negligence. The true victim of the catastrophe was (you guessed it again) the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” himself – trashed by the liberal media, convicted before his trial by President Barack Obama, implacably hated for his career-long “efforts to take the chains off West Virginia’s economy” by putting a stop to the “war on coal.” Not only was Blankenship “fully innocent,” he assured his future imaginary constituents, he was “more than 100% innocent.”

Toward the end of this weird document, though, there’s a surprising little grace note. After thanking folks for “reading this booklet,” Blankenship signs off thusly:

In closing I will say “Happy Trails.” “Happy trails” is a code word in my family. As my kids became 6 or so years old, they were sometimes embarrassed if I told them in front of their friends “I love you—be careful.” We began to use the words “Happy Trails” when saying goodbye. … Happy Trails keep smiling until then.

On Tuesday, West Virginia Republicans emphatically said “happy trails” right back. Blankenship’s dreams of political redemption were dashed with a third-place finish in the primary, a resounding rejection that left national Republicans – who believe they can beat Manchin in the fall with a non-ex-con – panting audibly with relief.

If anybody was more deflated by the result than the Dark Lord himself, it was the Democrats and liberal Twitterati who were rooting (sometimes openly) for Blankenship to win the Republican nomination and then, presumably, get swamped by Manchin in November. Despite the fact that almost every poll showed him running third (as he finished), liberals seemed to expect it, just as fervently as the GOP leadership (including President Trump) feared it. After all, this was West Virginia! The place that, though it barely registers a blip on the electoral map – especially compared to, say, Florida or Ohio or Pennsylvania – voted for Trump and found itself permanently tarred as the capital of “Trump Country,” a mine-scarred gash on the U.S. map that epitomized the implacable hatreds, surpassing ignorance and self-defeating voting habits that combined to lift Trump to the presidency.

The reporters who parachuted into Charleston to cover the primary appeared to spend most of their time looking for people who fit the profile (and, not surprisingly, found some). Top honors were seized by Tom Lamas of ABC News, who found a voter who said he’d lost three cousins in the Upper Big Branch tragedy but was voting for Blankenship anyway: “I want an honest crook, and that’s Blankenship,” he obligingly told Lamas. Pundits were free to be even more savagely biased than the reporters, and none cut loose quite like number-crunching Nate Cohn of the New York Times, who looked at the early results on Tuesday night – when most of the totals came from absentee ballots, and showed Blankenship lagging far behind his two opponents – and called them “a nice window into what this election would look [sic] have looked like if it were held a few weeks ago and with a particularly well-educated/reliable electorate.” (“Wow way to offend an entire state,” replied “@MJ.” Cohn subsequently non-apologized.)

It wasn’t just the “liberal media” that took the opportunity to denigrate West Virginians for nominating Blankenship before they didn’t. RedState‘s Leon Wolf, appearing on Tuesday’s edition of All In With Chris Hayes, predicted that the state’s Republicans would opt for Blankenship out of pure, dumb spite: “Here’s somebody liberals really hate – let’s vote for him!”

West Virginia Republicans sent these people an emphatic message on Tuesday: “Fuck you and your prejudices.” They not only punished Blankenship for both his ugly past and his shamelessly demagogic campaign, they also rejected the state-level nativism of Rep. Evan Jenkins, who lost the primary to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Throughout the campaign, Jenkins hammered Morrisey for the mortal sin of having relocated from New Jersey. At The Federalist, Jayme Metzgar ridiculed Jenkins’ one-note message, observing that he was “playing the ‘native’ card as hard as he can,” but also predicted that it might work: “It’s an appeal that resonates in a state where people often feel attacked and belittled from the outside,” wrote Metzgar.

In his recent Rolling Stone profile of Paula Jean Swearengin, the activist who challenged Manchin from the left in Tuesday’s Democratic primary – and captured a more-than-respectable 30 percent with a shoestring campaign – Justin Nobel astutely observed that while “much has been made of the fact that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in every single one of West Virginia’s 55 counties,” almost nobody outside the state seems to remember that Bernie Sanders also beat Clinton in all 55 counties in 2016. The state’s “Trump Country” reputation did not change one whit, either, when its teachers – in all 55 counties – went on strike, illegally, for nine days this February. The underpaid educators, whose ranks (and legion of supporters) included plenty of proud Trump voters, won a historic victory for American labor. They lit a fire that quickly spread to other red states where teachers have been shafted for years in the name of tax cuts for the wealthy.

In a just universe, the thumping that West Virginia Republicans gave Blankenship on Tuesday would finally, mercifully, and accurately put a stop to all those viciously reductive Trump Country caricatures. (Happy trails!) But it won’t. There is no room for nuance, no tolerance for complex and contradictory realities, in our political discourse now. There are only heroes and villains, blues and reds, friends and enemies. And everybody knows which side West Virginia comes down on. Except they don’t.

This story has been updated to clarify that Don Blankenship finished third, not last, in Tuesday’s primary. We regret the error.

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