President Donald Trump did not say anything particularly new or novel about his economic agenda during Tuesday evening’s not-a–State of the Union address to Congress. He did, however, offer the clearest, most succinct version of his basic promise to voters throughout the country’s hollowed-out industrial towns. Under his leadership, he said, “Dying industries will come roaring back to life.” Period.
This is the distilled essence of Trump’s whole economic message. The dead shall rise again. Sheets of American steel will roll like they did when the Bee Gees were on the radio. Coal will be pulled from the ground and burned for power. Americans will drive cars full of parts made north of the Rio Grande. Somehow, all of this will be accomplished through great new trade deals.
This promise has always been cruelly hollow. Some old-line heavy industries may see small bumps thanks to Trump’s policies, but the jobs they once provided are not coming back. Insofar as the president’s supporters have really pinned their hopes for a revival on his flimsy pledges, they are about to be utterly let down. Consider coal, which Trump has said he will resuscitate by ending Obama-era environmental regulations. That plan is bound to fail, since coal is dying largely thanks to market competition from cheap natural gas. Given that Trump has also promised to expand fracking, his administration may end up exacerbating coal’s problem. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pedaled the “war on coal” narrative for years, has finally started to admit that easing environmental rules might not fill the mines back up with workers.
In a world where even China has managed to reduce its coal use three years in a row, nothing is going to bring Appalachian mines “roaring back to life.”
I don’t know whether Trump secretly realizes that. Maybe he believes his own rhetoric about economic renewal. Or maybe he really is heartless enough to con vast stretches of coal country and the Rust Belt with empty schtick, like a classroom full of Trump University students. (This certainly is the go-to assumption on the left.)
My question is about what happens when those voters realize Trump’s promises aren’t coming true, when three years from now the mills are still closed and the mines are still shuttered. Will voters give him credit for merely trying to help by weakening environmental regs and taking a slightly tougher stance on trade? Has he won their loyalty by speaking their language? Or will people hold him accountable for results? I don’t know the answer to those questions—but in a lot of ways, our country’s political future depends on them.