The environmental disaster in East Palestine, OH presents an obvious metaphor for our society coming off the rails, crashing and burning while we fail to address the underlying problems that caused the accident. The residents of East Palestine, a blue-collar town that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, are rightfully angry, but as per usual, the far-right is using the tragedy to tap into white grievance, one of their favorite playbooks. If they thought they could get away with blaming the “radical left,” “Antifa,” or the “woke mob” for the accident they surely would. Fox News and the rest of the right-wing ecosystem even tried to stir residents into a rage over President Biden visiting Ukraine and Poland rather than East Palestine, ignoring the fact that the Trump’s administration axed hundreds of safety and environmental regulations, some of which might have helped prevent the accident.
Donald Trump’s trip to East Palestine seemed like a microcosm of everything wrong with his presidency and the MAGA Republican party. He pretended to be the town’s savior, the champion of small-town America and working people, but he is none of the above. He handed out MAGA caps and bottled water, but otherwise contributed nothing of relevance. He was joined on the platform by his ever-vacuous son, Don Jr., and Ohio’s newly elected MAGA Republican senator, J.D. Vance, seemingly pretending to represent his “Hillbilly Elegy” constituents. Suffice to say, the citizens of East Palestine deserve real representation and support in their time of need, not a cynical sham pandering to Trumpian white grievance.
According to rail workers and their union leaders, the Ohio derailment is only the latest example of similar accidents constantly taking place across the U.S., the result of years of underinvestment, cost-cutting, and pushback against safety protocols in an industry controlled by just a few major companies. As one rail workers union representative said, “It is difficult to have confidence that the railroads will invest money and implement safety protocols that will ensure the safety of the public and their employees, because they are always reluctant to do so when cost is their primary concern.” And as President Joe Biden tweeted, “Rail companies have spent millions of dollars to oppose common-sense safety regulations. And it’s worked. This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill — it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost.”
Republicans Gut Regulations to Please Their Donors but Don’t Want to Take Responsibility for the Consequences.
It’s fair to say that neither “coastal elites” nor the right’s other usual suspects are to blame for East Palestine’s problems, but rather a segment of elites that Republicans don’t like to talk about, namely the top 1% that owns and controls a majority interest in Norfolk Southern and other large companies like it—i.e., the Republican donor class. Norfolk Southern, the railroad company that owns the derailed train, has a market cap of over $50 billion and claimed 2022 operating revenues of $12.7 billion, up 14% from 2021. It ranks number 332 in the Fortune 500. The company has pledged $6.4 million in aid to East Palestine families in addition to paying the cleanup costs, but as a point of comparison, in 2022 the company spent $3.4 billion in stock repurchases and $1.2 billion in dividend payments.
Although we don’t yet know the long-term consequences of the accident, people’s lives in East Palestine have been severely impacted, not unlike what happened in Flint, MI a few years back. Given the chemicals involved and the damage already done, it’s unlikely that either Norfolk Southern or the government can make things right at any cost. Damage to people’s health, especially children, may be irreparable, and property values, which in many cases constitute people’s life savings, have been decimated. No matter how many politicians and government officials travel to East Palestine and make a speech to further their own self-interest, the town’s residents will likely suffer the consequences of Norfolk Southern’s failures—which are really those of the larger political and economic system in which it operates—for many years to come.