ENVIRONMENT - When Donald Trump accepted the GOP presidential nod in Cleveland in July 2016, he might have been picturing a place like East Palestine, Ohio — just 85 miles southeast of the massive podium where he was standing — as he promised voters he’d “deliver a better life for the people all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected, and abandoned.”
The Columbiana County village had watched its population shrink from 6,000 to 4,700 over a century in which its industrial factories and pottery makers shut down and small shops struggled to compete with the Dollar Store, as East Palestine became mostly home to long-distance commuters across the border into Pennsylvania. That fall, county voters rewarded Trump’s vow with nearly 69% of their votes.
Trump’s 2016 promise to remember “the forgotten Americans” won him Rust Belt states like Ohio and swept the Republican into the White House, where his blue-collar coalition was promptly ... well, forgotten. The signature policy wins by the one-term 45th president — a tax cut that targeted corporations and the wealthy and a deregulation drive to boost profits over the environment — arguably did more to hurt East Ohio than help it.
No wonder Trump wants a do-over.
The lingering health fears over the Feb. 3 wreck of the Norfolk Southern train carrying cancer-causing chemicals and the ensuing images of a toxic mushroom cloud over East Palestine is a crisis that the Former Guy sees as an opportunity to jump-start his so-far-low-energy bid to return to the White House.
Fox News is reporting Trump aides say their boss is planning to visit East Palestine and meet with community leaders there on Wednesday. Team Trump is clearly hoping to seize on a wave of carping about neglect of Ohio’s white working class from far-right pundits and pols like extremist GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. They’ve suddenly learned to love the environment ... if only as a way to bash President Joe Biden as an elitist.
On the surface, Trump’s slated Ohio trip is — dare I say it — a rare outbreak of smart politics from a man who so far has been running an exceedingly dumb campaign to return as our 47th president. But only on the surface.
In fact, if residents of East Palestine — a modern news desert of downsized or disappeared news sources, which allows misinformation to fester — truly knew the reality, a delegation of townsfolk would likely greet Trump with Tiki torches and pitchforks bought from the Fuller’s hardware store.
Because the truth is that handed the awesome power of the presidency to actually do something for “forgotten Americans,” Trump’s Oval Office actions protected the rich and the powerful — none more so than the nation’s wildly profitable railroads — over the “ignored, neglected and abandoned” everyday people of places like Columbiana County. Any visit wouldn’t be a victory lap, but more like the tendency of a criminal to return to the scene of his crime.
Trump acted specifically to sabotage a nascent government effort to protect citizens from the growing threat posed by derailments of outdated, poorly equipped and undermanned freight trains that were increasingly shipping both highly flammable crude oil from the U.S. fracking boom as well as toxic chemicals like the ones that would derail in East Palestine.
Maybe it was Trump’s bitter spite toward the man who tried to launch that regulatory drive — Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. Maybe it was the more than $6 million that the railroad industry, including Norfolk Southern, donated to GOP candidates in 2016, plus millions more spent on lobbying.
Whatever the reason, Trump had been in office for less than a year when he moved to kill the 2015 rule change initiated by the Obama administration that would have required freight trains to upgrade the current braking technology that was developed in the 19th century for state-of-the-art electronic systems. In killing the rule, Trump bought the argument from lobbyists for Norfolk Southern and the rail industry that the upgrade would have cost them $3 billion — six times what the Obama administration found it would cost.
"In 2019, for example, the Trump administration moved to not strengthen but relax regulations on shipping fracked natural gas through communities like East Palestine."
With the investigation into the East Palestine wreck still in its early phases, it’s not clear if the modern brakes — originally required for installation by 2021 — could have prevented the toxic derailment or whether the specific Obama rule would have applied. But experts do believe the new brakes could have mitigated the wreckage — and thus the release of so many hazardous chemicals. And the rule reversal wasn’t the only time that Team Trump sided with Big Rail over the forgotten Americans who live on the wrong side of their tracks.
In 2019, for example, the Trump administration moved to not strengthen but relax regulations on shipping fracked natural gas through communities like East Palestine. The same year, Trump’s White House also killed an Obama-era proposal that would have required two crew members in freight-train locomotives. It probably won’t shock you to learn that the men Trump appointedto run the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had both been top executives in the lucrative freight industry.
But then, so much of Trump’s bluster about rescuing working-class Americans was nothing more than that. In 2017, the GOP candidate hosted a large rally in East Ohio’s struggling Youngstown, where he promised the crowd that the state’s factory jobs are “all coming back. They’re all coming back.” Spoiler alert: Manufacturing jobs didn’t come back but shrunk under Trump, while doing better since Biden became president in 2021.
Given that dismal track record (pun intended), why have some of the loudest voices on the Ohio train wreck been far-right Republicans like Greene who — with stopped-clock correctness — has been tweeting about the “ecological disaster,” or the state’s new GOP Sen. J.D. Vance, who told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that America’s leaders “have decided to disregard the people of East Palestine?” Never mind that Vance himself said nothing about the accident for 10 days or that, when he did, he claimed his office was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency when that office hasn’t even been involved.
In fact, Republicans aren’t wrong to point out that areas like East Ohio have been treated very badly, by government (and also industry, which they don’t mention). And the Biden administration has also given them an opening with its response that has both been too slow and in some ways underwhelming. Team Biden’s recent moves to amp up testing and send the EPA administrator are a late start. But it’s still baffling why a Democratic administration hasn’t fought or looked for a way to reimpose the tougher safety rules that Trump killed.
It’s beyond hypocritical for Trump to bring his Harold Hill-huckster shtick to East Palestine when residents are still experiencing headaches and breathing foul air from the kind of catastrophe he didn’t lift a finger to stop from the Resolute Desk. But also it’s a bit baffling why Biden or his Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — who seems to be channeling his inner McKinsey & Co. these days — haven’t gone to Ohio.
Especially when Trump and any other Republicans hoping to make political hay off of East Palestine’s misery are coming to town empty-handed. None of the anti-Biden critics on this issue have offered a solution, because they can’t. The only fix for the kind of runaway abuses of modern capitalism that cause these environmental catastrophes is government regulation, aided by empowering worker safety with strong unions — two things that the Trump-led GOP has opposed at every turn. As Maya Angelou said, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
A president should see opportunity for change in the black smoke and rubble of this disaster — not the failed ex-POTUS but the current one. I would again urge Joe Biden to go to East Palestine and promise the good people there the things that Donald Trump can’t and won’t — much stronger safety rules and enforcement, better-staffed trains with empowered union members, and a government that does things for the people who elect it. The current White House needs to hurry up and remember the folks that Trump forgot.
(Will Bunch is the national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer -- with some strong opinions about what's happening in America around social injustice, income inequality and the government. This story was featured in CommonDreams.org.)