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Up in Smoke

Republicans Won the East Palestine Messaging War Because Democrats Never Showed Up for Battle

But here’s how Biden, Buttigieg, and the rest of the party can take control of the narrative about the train disaster in Ohio.

Brooke LaValley/Pool/Getty Images
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday

For the last three weeks, the political right has owned the story of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, thanks in part to the initial dearth of mainstream media coverage of the disaster and the Biden administration’s own quiet response. Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk declared that the lack of action was evidence of a “war on white people.” Tucker Carlson mused about what would have happened “in, well, the favored cities of Philadelphia and Detroit.” The subtext—which was barely subtext—was that the media and the government were ignoring “the poor, benighted town of East Palestine, Ohio,” because it was overwhelmingly white. His Fox peers Brian Kilmeade and Sean Duffy were only a little subtler, suggesting that the government merely doesn’t care about Republicans: Kilmeade prayed that “you just hope this has nothing to do with the fact that Ohio is a red state,” while Duffy speculated that residents were told to return home because “70 percent of them voted for Donald Trump.”

That is, the East Palestine story has been an empty vessel for right-wing culture-war narratives: Democrats are too woke to keep you safe; they’re conspiring with George Soros and fat cat railroad bosses to poison your children; Pete Buttigieg’s shoes are too fancy. This is all straight out of the Trump faux populist playbook: Provide a narrative that capitalizes on the frustration and disaffection of voters without proposing any policies that would actually help these people.

And there lies a vacuum that Democrats can fill, and finally wrest some control of the narrative. The right says the government is too focused on political correctness to care about Real People. So why don’t Democrats call their bluff by putting forth clear, simple proposals to help East Palestinians? Dare the right to oppose them.

This all started because the initial response to the February 3 derailment from Biden officials, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in particular, was to downplay it. Buttigieg did not publicly address the derailment until February 13, while a Cabinet-level official did not travel to East Palestine for nearly two weeks, when Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan arrived in the small town. This gave the appearance of a cover-up and allowed grifters like Carlson to make the case, night after night to millions of viewers, that the government wasn’t telling the truth about what happened in Ohio.

Biden administration officials have been on the back foot ever since, struggling to keep up with media coverage of the aftereffects of the massive toxic event and unable to push back on the right’s own narrative. This has led to a preposterous situation in which Republicans have taken the mantle of environmentalism—albeit in a sinister and perverted fashion—despite the fact that the GOP is the party of pollution and deregulation. Donald Trump, who showed up in Ohio to hand out Trump water and Make America Great Again hats, literally rolled back regulations on train brakes as president. And yet he still beat Buttigieg to the site of the crash.

Buttigieg has been in cleanup mode this week, visiting East Palestine on Thursday and acknowledging that he “could have spoken out sooner.” Still, the transportation secretary has largely hewn to the same line for the last three weeks, arguing that the administration has been doing the necessary work in East Palestine, but it’s just been losing the messaging war. He has a point, to an extent: The federal government has had boots on the ground for weeks. Still, Democrats have been losing the messaging war because they don’t have a message of their own. (Blaming Republicans, as some Democrats have done, doesn’t quite work: Yes, the Trump administration rolled back braking regulations, but the Biden administration didn’t exactly rush to put them back in place.)

There is a path forward, however, and it’s one that Democrats should have taken sooner: demand accountability for Norfolk Southern, and prevent future disasters.

EPA administrator Michael Regan took a step down this path during a recent appearance on CNN. Asked by Jake Tapper what he would ask Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Regan pivoted. “I don’t have any questions for the CEO of Norfolk Southern,” he said. “I have some orders for the company. And the orders are that the company will comply with our order, which compels them to take full responsibility, full accountability for the trauma they have inflicted on this community and the damage that they’ve caused. And the EPA will use all of its authority to do so.”

It’s a belated response, but it’s close to the right one. Democrats have struggled to find a narrative on the derailment in part because they haven’t named any villains. Regan does so clearly: This is Norfolk Southern’s fault, the derailment is what happens when you put profits ahead of safety, and the railroad will pay for the damage they’ve caused.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. The next step is to articulate a set of regulations that would make railroads safer. The conspiracy theories swirling on the right, and Republicans’ claims to care about environmental damage or public health, have flourished because there is no counternarrative on the left. It’s utter political malpractice that Democrats have not yet put forth a plan to prevent disasters like these. As Ryan Cooper writes in the Prospect, “It is actually not that difficult to prevent trains from running off the tracks. The rail worker unions know how to do it: Rigorously maintain and inspect the tracks and the trains, keep the lengths down, add more staff, and keep up with the best automatic safety mechanisms.”

This is a no-brainer: The disaster in East Palestine has led to a massive increase in coverage of train derailments, drawing attention to the dangerous consequences of deregulation. Republicans can blather all they want, but they don’t have a plan to fix anything. All Democrats have to do is say they’ll make the trains safer.