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MAGA’s Ugly, Hateful Response to Bridge Horror Is About to Get Worse

If they can try to turn the tragic Baltimore bridge collapse into a culture war, they’ll go anywhere—hurting their own people in the process.

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene at the U.S. Capitol on February 6

One of the ugliest features of MAGA politics is the eagerness to seize on large-scale accidents, disasters, and pandemics to spread conspiracy theories, invent new culture-war obsessions, and pit one region of the country against another.

As Covid-19 raged in 2020, President Donald Trump sneered that “bailouts” for Democratic states were unfair to Republicans and mused aloud about using quarantines to protect red states from diseased blue state residents. Last year, when a train hauling toxic chemicals derailed in eastern Ohio, MAGA personalities transformed it into an insidious parable about woke Democratic elites supposedly scheming to abandon the virtuous white heartland.

Now, after the disastrous collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, MAGA figures and some GOP politicians are reviving that playbook yet again, in some cases with hateful, conspiratorial gusto. But this time the absurdities are of a next-level sort. That’s because the disaster, by severely hampering Baltimore’s port operations, is impacting regions and industries that rely on the port to export goods. Those include areas sometimes called “MAGA country,” places in the agricultural and industrial heartland throughout the Midwest.

In short, the Baltimore collapse demonstrates with unusual clarity that when it comes to calamities of this sort, we really are all in it together. That, of course, is exactly what the MAGA worldview seeks to deny at all costs—and is once again trying to do here.

This week, Pennsylvania GOP Representative Dan Meuser slammed President Biden for calling on Congress to fully fund the response to the Baltimore collapse. Meuser insisted it’s “outrageous” that Biden wants to fund repairs in their “entirety,” and even demanded that some of this money must be taken from “ridiculous E.V. expenditures.”

Presto: Meuser—who helped run Trump’s 2020 campaign in Pennsylvania and sowed doubts about Trump’s loss—converted the disaster into a zero-sum culture-war standoff between repairing essential transportation infrastructure and combating climate change.

Similarly, Representative Nancy Mace blamed the collapse in part on the “Green New Deal.” Mace insisted that too much of the bipartisan infrastructure law funded decarbonized and public transportation, supposedly taking money from “traditional roads and bridges.” Her lament is odd, as she voted against that infrastructure bill and all its spending on roads and bridges (while taking credit for funds it lavished on her home state of South Carolina).

Some Republicans are arguing that because the collapse wasn’t a natural disaster, we should look to insurance coverage and the shipping company whose cargo ship slammed into the bridge. In fairness, some Democrats have also made similar suggestions. But the Democratic stance is also that new federal funds absolutely should be appropriated, because it’s critical.

By contrast, Meuser, Mace, and others are signaling that hard-right Republicans may try to thwart any and all additional federal funds that lawmakers do try to appropriate, no matter how urgently needed they are. Some Republicans are already declaring this explicitly.

Which is absurd. When a bridge famously collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, Congress quickly produced a package of federal aid in response on a broad bipartisan basis.

Some GOP lawmakers are already treating future funding of the Baltimore response as a future concession on their part. Representative Jeff Duncan says Congress should not spend “one more dime” of additional infrastructure money before a border wall is built, as if the need for disaster relief can be used to extort Democrats into funding MAGA priorities in return.

It should go without saying that Baltimore’s plight does not deserve to be smeared with degenerate culture-warring, demagoguery, and extortive threats. Disasters strike all parts of the country. And in this case, the horror doesn’t only impact the immediate area. It has hamstrung operations at the Port of Baltimore, whose operations are essential to export traffic that comes from other regions, including storied Trump country.

For instance, billions of dollars in autos, coal, agricultural and construction machinery, soybeans, and many other products pass annually through the Port of Baltimore, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. A lot of those products come from states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (whose western part abuts northern Appalachia and the industrial Midwest), that data shows.

What’s more, the federal aid package that members of Congress are currently drawing up will not merely repair the collapsed bridge. It will also in part replenish the Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently spending money to get the port operational again, a Democratic aide says. In other words, federal funds are essential to enabling the port to function so that those exports from other parts of the country, including from plenty of MAGA-GOP territory, can return to normalcy as quickly as possible.

And some federal aid passed by Congress will also be poured into the federal Emergency Relief Program, according to the Democratic aide, a fund currently undertaking rebuilding projects in response to recent extreme weather destruction in red states like Arkansas, Kentucky, and Montana.

“States all over America depend on this bridge and the Port of Baltimore to get the coal, wood, steel, construction equipment, and farm machinery they need to keep the economy moving,” said Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat. “America is one nation with one integrated economy.”

It should be pointed out that some Republicans do appear prepared to step up with a bipartisan response. But as noted above, some MAGA-adjacent Republicans are using this as an occasion to manufacture the impression that disaster aid would enable Democratic profligacy or spending on lefty wish-list items on other fronts.

It gets still worse. Some right-wing media personalities are floating whack-job theories blaming the collision on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; on our supposedly open borders; and other MAGA preoccupations. Some “online influencers” and GOP politicians indulged in trivializing nitwit speculation and targeted Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg with other assorted hateful smears.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid labeled these responses “a grab bag of right-wing grievances, barely coated racism, and flat-out lies.” In addition to the racism, the real subtext here is that the disaster is an outgrowth of progressive pathologies, and whatever that region gets, it deserves.

It is not a new thing for Republicans to treat disasters in blue areas as less deserving of our collective attention than disasters in red areas. But Trump supercharged these tendencies. Brian Beutler urges us to remember that during Covid, Trump didn’t merely neglect blue areas of the country; he used the pandemic to actively threaten retribution against parts of the country that didn’t support him.

This kind of thing has become a feature of MAGA politics, as opposed to an incidental by-product of a particular governing vision. Trump flaunted his treatment of blue America as a zone of disease and debauchery that all but deserved to be abandoned to a fate of mass death and suffering by dint of its moral inferiority to MAGA America. Make no mistake: His very public relishing of his power to do this was central to this performance and, one imagines, to its appeal to the MAGA masses.

It will all get worse if and when the battle over the money really heats up—and news organizations are reporting that a showdown is coming. One can imagine Trump himself getting involved in that battle—indeed, as Beutler also points out, we deserve to know now what his intentions as president toward the region’s long-term relief effort truly are. More threats and extortion, perhaps?

Republicans and right-wing media figures who are demagoguing the Baltimore bridge collapse aren’t quite doing what Trump did during Covid. But their antics fall somewhere on the same spectrum of malicious public conduct. It’s the ultimate absurdity that, in this case, the disaster really is a problem for MAGA country as well as for Baltimore and blue America. Which is to say that, as offensive as this idea might be to MAGA sensibilities, it is very much the problem of all of us.