Democrats should call the GOP's East Palestine bluff
Republicans suddenly say they support regulations. Let's see it they mean it.
By Noah Berlatsky
The GOP propaganda media bubble constantly churns up and churns through moral panics. From migrant caravans to M&M wardrobe changes, critical race theory to vaccines that purportedly suddenly kill you, Tucker Carlson and various lesser Goebbels wannabes spew constant warnings of apocalypse based on nothing but the infinite bigoted gullibility of their audiences.
The fact that these “issues” are constructed entirely out of lies makes them more, rather than less, dangerous. Since they aren’t real problems, they have no real solutions. Politicians can’t reasonably or effectively address threats that don’t exist, which means that Carlson, etc., can continue to ramp up rage and panic forever, to viewers who feel ever more helpless and angry.
The nonsense is the point. But something different is going on with the outrage about the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. And it presents an opportunity for Democrats.
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The GOP stumbles upon a real issue
Fox and other conservative media outlets have been focused throughout the month on a February 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine. Twenty of the 151 cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride. No deaths were reported, luckily, but residents were forced to evacuate, and though they have mostly been cleared to return now, there remain concerns about clean air and water. Some 43,000 fish and other aquatic animals are estimated to have been killed by the release of chemicals.
You may notice a subtle difference between the train derailment and what footwear M&Ms are wearing. The train derailment is an actual problem. More, it’s an actual problem which is legitimately the responsibility of the federal government. Almost despite itself, the GOP is behaving kind of, sort of, like a quasi-normal political party. It’s identified a failure that the administration in power could’ve more proactively addressed, and it is doing something that looks like actual meaningful advocacy for afflicted people.
The specter of the GOP momentarily looking responsible has led to some concern among Democrats that this might damage Biden’s presidency as Hurricane Katrina damaged George W. Bush’s. Democrats have mostly responded by playing defense. They’ve argued, quite accurately, that the Republicans are engaged in massive hypocrisy. While he was president, Donald Trump made it a priority to reverse Obama-era regulations enforcing improved train brakes. He also loosened regulations on transporting natural gas by rail, and blocked an Obama-era proposal to require two crew members in locomotives.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has been a particular target of Republican ire and did himself no favors by waiting weeks to visit East Palestine, pointed out that Trump and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, did not visit the site of any train derailments during his own presidency, even though there were thousands, some of which involved fatalities.
Democrats and progressives have also highlighted the ugly racial politics of the right’s rhetoric around the disaster.
Tucker Carlson has been claiming that Biden is neglecting the disaster because the community “is overwhelmingly white” and “politically conservative.” He said that people in East Palestine were “forgotten” — language echoed by Trump when he visited the town, at least when he wasn’t touting “Trump water” and handing out MAGA hats in a local McDonald’s.
The truth, of course, is that white people are much less likely to be exposed to hazardous materials than are people of color. A 2021 study found that people of color, and especially Black people, are exposed to ambient fine particulate air pollution, the biggest environmental cause of excess human mortality, at much higher rates than white people. A 2019 study found that systems which were out of compliance with EPA drinking water standards were 40 percent more likely in places primarily occupied by people of color.
Jackson, Mississippi, a majority Black city, still does not have safe drinking water. Trump hasn’t visited that community though, and Carlson hasn’t featured them on his broadcasts. That sort of systemic racism is baked into the GOP. That hasn’t changed, and isn’t likely to. But in embracing a cause that involves actual fixable harms, the party has backed itself into intermittent rationality.
Brian Kilmeade, on Fox & Friends, admitted that he was “stunned” by the huge number of train derailments, and horrified at how costly and dangerous they were.
As Media Matters notes, Fox has spent decades trying to gut regulations on everything from the environment the cryptocurrency. But suddenly Kilmeade was speculating that “maybe the regulation needs to be there.”
Similarly, Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, said it was “absurd” that the train was marked as non-hazardous — and therefore avoided tighter regulations — because it had less than 70 cars carrying dangerous chemicals.
DeWine and Kilmeade are outliers at the moment; most Republicans haven’t put forward specific proposals. But this gives Democrats an opportunity to seize the initiative and maybe do something good for the American people, or at least expose Republican demagoguery for what it is.
Make them vote
Democrats haven’t always been as proactive as they should have been in regulating rail. The party has been slow to respond to growing monopolization in the industry. Biden could have reinstated Obama-era rules without congressional approval, but he didn’t. And just a couple of months ago Biden blocked a rail strike which was largely about safety issues. Workers get no paid sick leave, which means trains are often understaffed and workers go on the job even when they aren’t physically and mentally fit.
The Senate actually had a majority in favor of imposing paid sick leave on the railroad companies; the vote was 52-43, with six Republicans voting for, and the reliably awful Joe Manchin voting against. Thanks to the filibuster, the measure failed. But given the attention the issue has now gotten, unions are calling for them to try again. And while they’re at it, maybe Congress could boost EPA funding so the agency has the power to force polluters like Norfolk Southern to pay for their carelessness and negligence.
The GOP may well balk; the party of oligarchs hates regulating oligarchs. But then Biden, Buttigieg and the Democrats can rightfully say that the party of oligarchs is blocking progress. At worst, you have a talking point against Republicans. At best, you can actually help people.
The right has, perhaps inadvertently, focused on an issue that Democrats can and should address. Railroads need more regulation; workers need to be empowered to improve safety; companies need to be made to spend much, much more on environmental cleanup. If Republicans are claiming to care about these issues, Democrats should make them put their votes where their mouths are.
Ronna McDaniel plays dumb about Trump
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RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel went on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. She was very lucky that host Dana Bash refrained from asking her tough followup questions.