Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 stunned the nation in part because white, working-class voters helped him crack open the Democratic blue wall of Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Trump succeeded in these states and among the white workers in them because we live not in a post-truth world, but in a post-union one. Strong unions would have helped convince white workers to turn out and vote for Democrats, and would have offered them an alternative to Trump’s narrative that blacks and immigrants are to blame for stagnant wages. But Trump capitalized on declining union strength in key Midwestern states that had previously been dependably Democratic.
An early harbinger of Trump’s Midwestern victories was West Virginia, once a reliably progressive state. West Virginia was the base of the United Mine Workers (UMW), a racially progressive union that was one of the few to organize biracial locals in the South during the Jim Crow era. Miners joked that “we’re all black down there,” because even the white union members emerged from the mines with black coal dust coating their faces.
But West Virginia is no longer true blue, but deep red. Its political transformation has gone hand in hand with the decline of unions, especially the UMW, within the state.