The disaster in East Palestine has revealed Trumpism to be populist in the front, and corporatist in the back.
After a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, national attention was slow to turn to the crash. That has now changed decisively. In the past 10 days, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, former President Donald Trump, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg have all visited the town. A lively national political debate has also emerged, but it’s one that, like the burning rail cars, has produced a lot of heat, but not a great deal of light.
The disaster has become a proxy battle where existing political divides are playing out—and where the failings of both of the contemporary parties are on clear display. The Democratic Party struggles to respond effectively to a crisis with empathy rather than technocratic policy lectures. The Trump-era Republican Party, meanwhile, says all the right things and advocates for all the wrong ones.
The conversation on the right is especially revealing. Some factions of conservative media have accused the mainstream press and Democratic establishment of ignoring the story, though in fact Fox News was just as late as its competitors. Nonetheless, Trump and other MAGA-minded Republicans, like Ohio’s newly elected senator, J. D. Vance, have embraced East Palestine as an example of how the Democratic Party has abandoned white working-class areas of the industrial Midwest. Tucker Carlson has gone farther, arguing that the response has been slow because the town is conservative and largely white.
The derailment is a curious type of crisis, because the material effects are so unclear. Unlike some other recent rail catastrophes, no one died in the initial derailment and fire—contrast that with the 47 people who died in a 2013 wreck in Quebec, near the U.S. border. The longer-term environmental effects are still uncertain. State and federal authorities claim that the water is safe to drink and that the chemicals that burned shouldn’t have long-term health harms. Many residents, who were evacuated, experienced odors and rashes, and saw the flames, are understandably not convinced.
Both the diagnosis and policy ideas that the MAGA Republicans have advanced offer little hope. Speaking in East Palestine on Wednesday, Trump claimed that the Biden administration had offered assistance only because he had come to visit. “They were intending to do absolutely nothing for you,” he said. Vance made a similar charge. But Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, though not close to Trump, said he had declined federal assistance: “Look, the president called me and said, ‘Anything you need.’ I have not called him back after that conversation. We will not hesitate to do that if we’re seeing a problem or anything, but I’m not seeing it.” The EPA did eventually move to take over the disaster response, likely in part because of pressure from Trump—but that’s different from ignoring the situation.
Vance has offered a more interesting perspective, describing a disaster that “stands at the intersection of corporate power and government power.” He’s right, and he’s also right that many residents of the region don’t trust the federal government. But these points run into the fundamental paradox of MAGA, which is the mullet of politics: populist in the front, corporatist in the back. Vance has said he wants to see higher fines for corporations like Norfolk Southern, the railroad whose train crashed. Yet when Trump was in office (as the Biden White House has been eager to point out), his signature initiatives included rolling back environmental regulations, cutting fines to corporate wrongdoers, and reducing government oversight. That even extended to eliminating rules around safety for trains transporting chemicals.
Trump has discovered that he can get away with taking actions that don’t actually help if he’s able to show up and make people feel he’s on their side. His ability to do that is one reason that East Palestine twice voted heavily for Trump. Democrats seem incapable of communicating effectively to voters in places like East Palestine, despite having the better arguments about corporate accountability and environmental safety.
And neither party has much to offer after the initial cleanup, though the intense attention on the wreck might help produce some immediate assistance to East Palestine. The town depends on the railroad, which produces some inherent risk even with good safety rules. The prospects for new economic development are dim. Trump peddles resentment, racial and otherwise, as a salve. Biden’s enormous stimulus plans may reshape the American economy but are unlikely to make much of a dent in small, depressed towns like East Palestine. “We are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw wrote in a statement over the weekend. That’s a promise he probably can’t keep. Recovery may be possible, but thriving is remote.
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