On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion ripped through Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, twisting metal like Play-Doh and killing 29 men. Children lost fathers. Wives became widows. A community was devastated. It was the worst mining tragedy in four decades and it was preventable; the mine violated safety standards and amassed thousands of violations. Now, after serving a year in federal prison for his involvement in the disaster, the man at the top — former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship — is rapidly becoming frontrunner for the GOP’s Senate nomination from West Virginia.
According to reports, many GOP leaders are dismayed by Blankenship’s ascent. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team McConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE, senior senator from Blankenship’s birth state of Kentucky, is said to be backing Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE as his choice to wrest the Senate seat from Democrat Joe ManchinJoe ManchinVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters MORE. But it looks to me like Don Blankenship is perfectly suited to represent the modern national GOP.
It’s telling who assisted Blankenship as he faced public wrath and legal jeopardy after the Upper Big Branch tragedy. He brought in a team of GOP heavy hitters: Karl Rove’s former lawyer, a PR firm run by a former Bush communications chief, and the former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under Bush. It was, in other words, a group as mainstream-GOP as they come. They crafted a strategy that will sound familiar. Concoct a wild-eyed conspiracy theory and blame the federal government. President Obama was in charge and Obama-blaming was a no-brainer.
This strategy didn’t get Blankenship completely off the hook. Jurors found him guilty of a misdemeanor for conspiring to ignore mine safety regulations, and a judge sent him to prison. But by aiming ire at a familiar GOP foe, the strategy did muddy the waters enough to get us to the point where Senator Blankenship is not an insane possibility. In that way, the GOP establishment is responsible for Blankenship’s partial public rehabilitation.
More significant, however, is the way that the GOP has systematically destroyed trust in the government, the media and the judicial system. Judges are routinely assailed as partisan unelected tyrants. The “mainstream media” is said to lie outright in a grand conspiracy against “real Americans.” And the federal government has become a dirty word ever since Ronald Reagan declared as the scariest words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Current GOP leaders have participated in this destruction of institutional trust, but the fire they lit and stoked has burned out of control.
Now when a criminal such as Blankenship, considered a murderer by many, claims a federal government conspiracy, there is no one left standing with credibility in the eyes of the GOP base to say otherwise. Who is left that the base will believe? The carefully researched government report saying that Blankenship was responsible for the explosion? Politicians such as Manchin, who said at the time that Blankenship had blood on his hands? Red flags raised by the miners themselves? Nope. Many will believe Don. A government conspiracy against a West Virginian sounds right to them. If they hear otherwise, it must be because of a liberal conspiracy theory.
Blankenship was a known union buster. He claimed regulation stood in the way of his creating jobs, when in fact it stood to keep him from reaping the greatest profit. He treated fines and sanctions for failure to follow the rules as the cost of doing business. He called climate change a hoax, with a self-interested focus on the bottom line. Blankenship took the GOP’s standard fare to its logical conclusion: an active flouting of worker protections, in the service of his own bottom line.
During the 1980s, Massey pumped 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry into old mines near Blankenship’s former home in Mingo County, West Virginia. The slurry, laden with heavy metals, reportedly poisoned the local aquifer. Blankenship knew what he was doing; an engineer’s legal testimony was that Blankenship wanted to save money in impoundment costs. He built a private water line up to his hilltop mansion. So while he profited from coal production that poisoned water in towns below, he made sure his own water would be OK.
That’s a pretty good metaphor, actually. GOP leaders have profited from poisoning the well of democracy for their own people, fully expecting that their power and post-electoral lobbying jobs will ensure a comfortable lifestyle for their own families. But perhaps they should ponder how well even their own children will fare if our country is run by people such as Don Blankenship.
Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of a bipartisan morning video show being launched by The Hill this spring. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.