From the minute it became clear that US media were going to offer little more than lackluster, largely uncritical coverage of the catastrophic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, it was only a matter of time before the greasiest operators in Republican messaging would start cynically exploiting the outpouring of genuine concern, fueled largely by organic outrage on social media, to promote the most insipid and racist possible interpretation of events.
Fox News didn’t disappoint. It ignored the February 3 derailment almost entirely until roughly the same time all other major media—including MSNBC—were finally shamed into covering it, around 10 days later. In fact, MSNBC and Fox News pundits finally began mentioning the Ohio derailment at exactly the same time: the 8:00pm EST time slot on Feb 13.
While Mehdi Hassan’s coverage for MSNBC was correctly critical of both political parties for the roles they have played in creating the conditions for disasters like this to occur on the nation’s railroads with greater frequency and destructive magnitude, it was only a matter of time before the narrative mutated into a partisan pissing match between the two major cable networks arguing with each other about which party screwed up more and when.
And what a waste of 10 days it was for supposed progressives in US media. Think about how easily major Democratic figures such as Pete Buttigieg, liberal networks like MSNBC, or potential 2024 primary challengers could have seized upon this obvious case of corporate negligence and greed to make a clear, passionate case for strengthening unions, curtailing Wall Street malfeasance, implementing better (and more strictly enforced) safety regulations, and a host of other things Republicans oppose. Even setting aside the moral argument about how events like the derailment in East Palestine are indicative of a larger regime that pollutes the poor and institutionalizes sacrifice zones just for profit and cynical political gain, one would think Democrats may want to use this opportunity to show how Republicans’ white-knuckled opposition to such things demonstrates, especially in times like these, that they don’t have the public’s interests at heart.
But, of course, Democrats cannot do that, because they too are captured by these same corporate interests, and they have also been complicit in facilitating the corporate destruction of the railroads—albeit, in fairness, less so than Republicans. But captured they are. As reporting in The Lever has made clear, federal regulators from both parties weakened regulations. The Trump White House repealed a law requiring trains carrying hazardous materials to replace their Civil War-era braking systems with new Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brake technology, and the Biden administration, fearing delays in the “post-COVID” supply chains, did nothing to reverse this disastrous decision.
“There’s class warfare, all right,” Warren Buffett, modern-day rail tycoon, once famously said (Buffet owns Berkshire Hathaway, which owns BNSF Railway, the most profitable of the Class 1 freight rail companies), “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” When the rich continue to make war on our working class, and when they find virtually endless bipartisan support for their war effort, it opens up the door for the worst, most craven hucksters in the media to play the “outsider” card. You’ve seen this playbook before: it’s a large reason Donald Trump won the 2016 election. Democrats abandoned the working class with deeply unpopular, corporate-written trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); they support union-busting charter schools; they want to make union busters the head of the Department of Labor; and they currently have a man who cut his teeth working for McKinsey & Company running the Department of Transportation.
It’s true the Biden era has seen a modest shift in tone—the President often speaks to the pride of unions and the value of working people. And there is some substance behind the rhetoric: Biden has abandoned talk of the TPP and charter schools, for example. But on the biggest test of his pro-labor bonafides—the potential railroad strike of late 2022—Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress openly and viciously sided with management over the worker, blocking the right of workers to strike and effectively giving the rail companies the green light to continue the same cost-cutting, profit-maximizing practices that workers were prepared to strike over—practices, many workers have said, that are the root cause of the hazardous, untenable situation on the railroads, and that will lead to more accidents, more derailments, more catastrophes.
Just the same, in the immediate aftermath of the controlled explosion that understandably left thousands of nearby residents frightened and outraged, PR-wise, the White House, Congressional Democrats, the Department of Transportation, and Democrat-aligned media were a total no-show.
As The Nation’s Jeet Heer noted in his column expanding on this point,
On February 5, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine warned, “Everyone in Pennsylvania and Ohio who’s in this area, you know, you need to leave. You just need to leave. We’re ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death.”
On the very day that DeWine was uttering these dire words, Buttigieg appeared on three Sunday news shows: CNN’s State of the Union, NBC’s Meet the Press, and ABC’s This Week. Remarkably, on none of these programs was Buttigieg asked about the ongoing East Palestine disaster—despite the fact that, as transportation secretary, regulating train safety is one of his responsibilities. Nor did Buttigieg feel it incumbent on himself to raise the issue and offer what guidance and assurances he could. Instead, Buttigieg’s ubiquitous TV appearances were taken up with the transparently hyped-up issue of a Chinese weather balloon that entered USA airspace—quite possibly as a result of unpredictable wind patterns.
Cue the demagogues. For the past week, Fox News has turned the disaster into an election campaign for rustbelt Republicans, namely for J.D. Vance, former fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that’s little more than a lobbying arm for Corporate America. (Ironically enough, AEI was shut down by President Truman in 1949 for being a clandestine lobbying arm of the railroad industry.)
The narrative Fox News went with was classic right-wing populism: vaguely gesture to corporate greed, but ultimately blame Democrats––and Democrats only––while trafficking in “white genocide” subtext. It’s a similar gambit to the one Tucker Carlson and Vance have employed when discussing the fentanyl crisis:
And their anti-immigrant racism:
Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade heavily implied that the Democrats’ lackluster response to the derailment is because the victims were largely Republican (see: white):
It goes without saying that the White House’s response has been lackluster because the victims are poor, not because they are Republican; their party affiliation is entirely incidental. As the blasé response to the poisoning of Black children throughout the country with lead pipes makes clear, indifference to environmental poisoning of poor people is both multiracial and bipartisan.
One must be careful not to overstate how much the corporate capture of Democrats is responsible for Republicans and rightwing media exploiting the East Palestine disaster for political gain and use it as an excuse to push Great Replacement narratives to their viewers. These reactionary currents of racism, anti-Semitism, anger, and conspiratorial thinking would exist regardless of what Democrats do. But liberal absence from the initial narrative, the White House largely ignoring the issue in the press, Democrats’ inability to articulate a counter-vision—all of this makes these reactionary appeals more attractive.
Norman Solomon’s definition of neoliberalism as “a worldview with victims but no victimizers” resonates more than ever. In the event that tens of millions are watching a chemical plume of smoke and watching a torrent of media reports largely repeating, without pushback, Norfolk Southern’s claims that everything is hunky dory, they correctly surmise something is fishy, something isn’t quite right. We have victims but no victimizers. In this moral vacuum, demagogues sweep in and give you a Victimizer—in this case, Woke Democrats—bashing them for all the wrong reasons and ignoring all the good reasons, because the good reasons very much apply to both parties. The crime is not the runaway corporate capture of the state’s regulatory apparatus, not greed, not union-busting—because Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance very much like these things—but a conspiracy to harm white people for the crime of being white. Why? What sense does that make? It doesn’t have to make sense; it’s appealing to the lizard brain. The point is to have two sets of images side by side on the TV screen: a plume of chemical smoke and J.D.’s large head insisting it’s because East Palestine residents are god-fearing Real Americans.
Humans are pattern-seeking mammals, our brains want narrative, an author to the harm we see around us. And in the absence of Democrats being able to articulate a real one—in this case, union-busting, regulation-repealing corporations—the worst people on earth will fill in the blank with a dark, racist pseudo-narrative.