The teachers’ strike in West Virginia, that has tenatively ended, has a lot of outsiders scratching their heads.
How can it be, they wonder, that a state so politically red that it voted 70 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, and that has a Republican coal baron governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, mobilize such a radical and effective industrial action? How to square that with the fact that West Virginia is a right-to-work state, where corporations enjoy an edge over unions?
The answer lies in populism and colonialism.
Trump is a Republican in name only. Over the course of his life, he has switched from Republican to independent to Democrat and back to Republican. This was not the result of an evolution of views but rather political expediency, as is evidenced by Trump’s first year in office. He has proposed as many liberal ideas — such as his recent tariffs and tough talk on guns and the NRA — as conservative ones, such as his support for tax cuts and a military buildup.
Trump is neither a Republic nor Democrat. He is a populist — he tells people what they want to hear. This has suited him well in business, and he’s transferred it to politics.
Trump told West Virginians he’d bring back coal jobs, without offering a clear plan to do so other than by punishing foreign rivals — a traditionally liberal tactic. At the same time, he promised to protect Christian values and institutions — a traditionally conservative platform. As such, he has rather managed to stumble into becoming the perfect West Virginia politician: appearing socially conservative and economically liberal. That’s just what a populist would do to win the base of support that put Trump in office.
A truism of politics is that voters don’t elect people to inspire and lead them. They elect the people who seem the most like them who promise to give them the most. That’s why West Virginians — and a lot of other people — voted for Trump.
This love of a populist leader — a political savior, if you will — is a direct outgrowth of West Virginia’s history as a politically deprived economic colony of big corporations.
Through the years many have written, as West Virginia state senator and congressional candidate Richard Ojeda did recently, in a tweet storm, that much of West Virginia’s political and historic arc has followed that of a colony. Up to a point, this is true. An economic characteristic of a colony — that is to say, a region and people that are ruled from afar — is that it sends away raw goods and buys back finished goods. It would be incorrect to say that colonies “export” their raw goods because that would imply a system of fair exchange with a trading partner in which both parties benefit. That is usually never the case for a colony, which is more often than not exploited by the colonizer.
Indeed, moneyed interests outside the state have extracted West Virginia’s valuable mineral resources since the 18th century — salt, coal, oil, natural gas — to their great profit, while West Virginians have not benefited equally from the trade.
But that’s where the colonial analogy in West Virginia stops working because not all colonies were created equally. The way they were born, and grew over the centuries, has shaped the way they are today.
When England was establishing its empire around the world, it built colonies that were both economic and political. Multinational corporations such as the East India Company received royal charters to economically colonize India, for instance, extracting value from the country while propping up puppet rulers with its private armies.
As time passed, the Crown added governance to these economic colonies. That means they ran the government and the military, established a civil service and bureaucracy to provide services, built massive infrastructure works — in aid of their economic interests, of course — and brought shiploads and shiploads of Englishmen and women to administer and populate their colonies.
They had a real and large day-to-day presence in their colonies. This is not to argue the colonizers integrated with or granted equal rights to their subjects — they did not; they typically remained at an elite level and treated their subjects as lessers, even while providing previously unavailable resources, such as schooling and healthcare. Nor is this meant to argue that empire was a net good for the colonies.
However, the subjugated people of these combined political and economic colonies had benefits that those in economic-only colonies did not. In economic colonies, such as West Virginia, the outside interests — corporations, rather than conquering nations — acted as the de facto government, enjoying effective control over local officials through money and power, without having to administer the state or provide benefits to its residents. There were company towns, to be sure, but statewide, colonial governance never came to West Virginia. In this way, the native people of colonial India were better off than West Virginians.
This model of corporate colonizers controlling puppet governments was widely employed through the developing world in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in Latin America, where big American companies — often food corporations, sometimes working hand-in-hand with the U.S. intelligence agencies — effectively controlled the local government and reaped massive profits while bringing affordable pineapples and bananas to Americans’ breakfast tables.
Because West Virginia was an economic colony, residents were never shown a model of upward mobility that Indians saw. Even though they faced racism, talented and resilient Indians could enter the British system and rise through it, to a point. Indians went to Oxford and Cambridge.
But eventually, the benefits of colonialism did not satisfy the human need for self-determination, and the great political and colonial empires collapsed under rebellion.
In a way, the purely economic colonizers were much smarter than the Englands and Belgiums of the world — they did not have to expend the huge amounts of human and financial capital required to build and administer a colony. And they were less vulnerable to political rebellion. If they continued to finance new governments and provide jobs to the people, they could survive and outlast changes in administrations. Perhaps this is why West Virginians have not waged an economic rebellion and kicked out coal companies owned by out-of-state firms.
Instead, today, West Virginia’s teachers are staging a sort of political rebellion to demand better wages and benefits. The flashpoint of rebellion in 2018 West Virginia is PEIA, rather than the tea tax in 1773 Boston or the salt tax in 1930 India.
At the heart of West Virginia’s rebellion — certainly riding the wave of it if he did not start it — is Ojeda, a Democrat from Logan County who is running for the open seat in the state’s 3rd Congressional District. He is the very definition of a West Virginia populist, whipping up the marchers at the state Capitol and railing against the moneyed interests and their captured lawmakers, calling them “bootlickers.”
Most importantly to his election chances, he resembles West Virginians. He is someone “who sounds like you, talks like you, looks like you, struggled like you—who’s standing up and speaking truth to power,” Dennis White, a campaign worker, told Politico.
But the populist is not a fan of the Populist in Chief. Ojeda said he voted for Trump, a choice he now regrets. Why? Because it turned out he only told West Virginians what they wanted to hear to get elected.
“He hasn’t done [expletive]. It’s been a friggin’ circus for a solid year,” Ojeda told Politico. “All he’s done is shown that he’s taking care of the daggone people he’s supposed to be getting rid of.”
Yet once again, as striking educators chant Ojeda’s name in the Capitol rotunda because he promises to stand up for them, West Virginians embrace another populist. History has a hard pull.
Frank Ahrens, a West Virginia native and WVU graduate, is a public relations executive in Washington D.C. He was a Washington Post journalist for 18 years and is the author of “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.” Contact him at www.frankahrens.com.