Republicans have a long track record of creating real-world disastrous outcomes from misbegotten policies and politics and then blaming those outcomes on Democrats. The fiasco in Afghanistan after Donald Trump negotiated the U.S. withdrawal was only one of many recent examples. So when conservative policies specifically allowing corporations to neglect worker and public safety—such as Trump’s repeal of railroad safety regulations in 2017—result in a major public disaster like the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, you can predict like clockwork that their response will be: It’s Biden’s fault!
Of course, that’s now the story we’re hearing from Fox News, and in particular, the Tucker Carlson Zone, which is running with a narrative that the slow and questionable response at the scene was the fault of the Biden administration (and not Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who goes unmentioned), which doesn’t care about rural Ohioans because they’re Trump voters. And predictably, the white nationalist-adjacent bloc like Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk promptly took that ball and ran with it: Biden is waging war on white people!
Carlson pumped the anti-Biden line all week, leading him to even pretend concern over environmental issues, as Judd Legum notes. He told his Fox News audience of millions that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is “not too concerned” about the trail derailment and subsequent spill and toxic plume because there is no connection to climate change, so the administration is unable to use it “to sell solar panels.” The real reason for the disinterest, he sneered, was that these rural whites were Trump voters:
[T]hose clouds of toxic smoke flew up and out and that toxic smoke almost immediately began killing animals. Dead fish washed up on shore. As one hazardous material specialist put it, we basically nuked the town with chemicals.
So, then representatives from the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, arrived to restore calm. Yes, an EPA spokesman explained chemicals from the derailed train did enter the local watershed and yes, they did kill fish, but the drinking water supply remains totally safe. The fish are dead, but go ahead and fill your thermos and brew some coffee. Everything’s fine.
Now, we don’t know if the locals in East Palestine are drinking water tonight, but we can tell you the Biden administration doesn’t seem too concerned about it either way. Donald Trump got over 71% of the vote in the county in the last presidential election. That’s not exactly the Democratic Party’s core demographic. Fentanyl, toxic waste spill, whatever. They’re not our voters.
Of course, Carlson seems to have amnesia regarding partisan responses by the White House to disasters, such as the time Trump tried to withhold disaster relief funds to California following the horrific 2020 wildfires because of what he called “mismanagement” of the forests that included a failure to sweep them (but then changed his mind under pressure), or how he would make governors from states run by Democrats or his few Republican critics beg and scrape and “ask nicely” in order to get federal relief funds. But then, Carlson has never seemed overly concerned about being confronted with his own hypocrisy.
Nonetheless, there were very real reasons related to Trump policy decisions that caused this derailment. As Laura Clawson reported, this train had derailed previously, and was just a disaster waiting to happen. But there were no regulations that would have made Norfolk Southern change its behavior even afterward.
Marisa Kabas explained at MSNBC how the rail line was able to transport these volatile chemicals without designating them hazardous materials because of a loophole in the law, and the derailment itself was caused by a braking failure that would not have occurred had Trump not deregulated the rail lines in 2017:
In 2014, following a series of derailments and explosions, the Obama administration weighed new rules for trains carrying hazardous materials. But after caving to mounting pressure from major railroads, “the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials, including the chemical involved in this weekend’s disaster,” The Lever reports.
One of the new rules that made it through was the use of new brakes by 2021. Known as modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems, these brakes stop trains faster than the Civil War-era braking systems that the railroad industry currently uses. Specifically, ECP brakes “decrease the chances of a catastrophic pileup, reduce the number of punctured cars in an accident, [and] allow train operators to stop faster if there was an obstacle on the tracks.”
None of this reality, of course, has been mentioned at Fox News or any of the other right-wing media outlets that are piling all the blame on the Biden administration—which, as Kabas explains, does share some of the blame, but mostly for failing to have acted swiftly to repair the hole in rail regulations that Trump ripped open.
Instead, they have picked up on Carlson’s implication—not only are these Trump voters, but they’re white!—to weave a whole new conspiracist narrative. For both Carlson and the far right, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is used as their primary scapegoat, and their evidence, as with most scapegoating narratives, is dubious at best.
Charlie Kirk in particular has led this torchlight parade. On his podcast at Steve Bannon’s Real America’s Voice operation, Kirk claimed that it was all part of a war on white people:
CHARLIE KIRK (HOST): Not a single member of the Biden regime would dare to go to this portion of Ohio and breathe in the air because they know it’s dangerous. They know that it is actively poisoning the citizens of eastern Ohio. So, why is it that they kind of shrug their shoulders and they say, yeah, okay, whatever? It’s very simple. It’s because the war on white people continues. Why would you care for the white working class voters in eastern Ohio? You haven’t cared about them in other reasons or other portions.
And I will prove it to you. If this train derailment happened in downtown Atlanta in the densely populated Black neighborhoods, this would be the number one news story. It would be Flint water crisis 2.0. There would be clamoring and activism and talks for reparations. And Buttigieg, meanwhile, is out there saying, listen—while this derailment is happening, while the act of poisoning is happening, he’s saying, look, the problem is that workers are too white.
The clip of Buttigieg he then plays, though, has nothing to do with train derailments or safety regulations: Buttigieg is shown answering a question about train-line construction hiring in urban areas, and how previous practices have unnecessarily created racially charged situations. Using his logic, in fact, one would assume changing the practice would benefit the local white working-class residents of East Palestine, too.
Kirk, however, spins all this to put words in Buttigieg’s mouth:
Buttigieg is out talking about how workers are too white. For the last couple of years, I have been warning about this crusade against white people. And people shrug their shoulders, say, oh, Charlie, why does that matter? I could tell you why it matters—when there is a crisis now and the leaders hate working class whites, they’re not going to scramble to save your life. They’ll lie to you and tell you to go back home while you’re poisoned.
Kirk continued with the same theme later in the week, claiming that East Palestine residents were being punished for voting Republican. He added:
My recommendation to Trump and his campaign is they should go to East Palestine. Not do a rally, just visit. Do a press conference. Just bash on Buttigieg, bash on Biden. Say that if he was president, this would be a top priority. These are his voters. There is no political downside because, obviously, there’s really nothing you could do. He could, you know, host a fundraiser, do relief.
Sure enough, in short order, Trump announced that he will be returning to the scene of his crime by holding a rally in East Palestine this week.
This is all part of a larger narrative of paranoid conspiracism being used by right-wing pundits to whip up the levels of fearfulness in their audiences about their personal and civic security—one that can then be exploited by the far-right extremists plotting in real life to attack the American infrastructure. Carlson inadvertently referred to this in his rant Monday, when he connected the Ohio derailment to other infrastructure crises:
There have also been many recent attacks on our power grid. Very few of those attacks have been widely reported. Last year, there were more than a hundred attacks of them, in the United States, attacks on our power grid. In North Carolina this winter, for example, nearly 50,000 people lost their power in freezing weather when somebody shot up two energy substations. And so on. Why is it not a big story? Oh, it’s not a story at all.
Ironically, while it may not have been a big story at Fox News—no surprise—the Moore County power outages were a major story for many journalists, including us. Those attacks—as well as the power grid attacks elsewhere around the nation, including the Pacific Northwest—have been of particular concern for journalists tracking the activities of far-right white supremacists, whose plans for attacking the power grid have been the radar for well over a year now. Recently, a neo-Nazi couple in Maryland was arrested for plotting to attack Baltimore’s power grid. Fox News’ website reported on it, but it evidently never made it into its broadcast reports.
Ah, but Carlson’s narrative has always claimed that far-right domestic terrorism doesn’t really exist, and that concerns about it are a “hoax.” So instead of acknowledging the factual reality behind the power grid attacks he weaves into his narratives, he instead connects them to one of his long-running conspiracy theories: namely, his suggestion that fires and other disabling events at food manufacturing plants are maybe part of a sinister conspiracy to attack ordinary Americans. This theory, it should be noted, is wholly based on entirely explicable events that are neither extraordinary—they happen commonly—and not occurring at any increasing rates.
What drives such conspiracy theories beyond right-wingers’ eagerness to find any kind of stick with which to beat the Biden administration is the tendency among conspiracists to see patterns where they do not exist, particularly among random and otherwise perfectly explicable events and phenomena.
The same tendency is at work in conspiracy theories like the “chemtrails” mythology, which claims that nefarious government elements are spreading chemicals that sicken the population and affect the weather through the ordinary jet streams that appear behind airline traffic in the sky. When people begin making connections between otherwise random and unrelated phenomena, it helps them form a narrative to fit their preconceived view of the world as a hostile place out to harm and suppress them.
As Kabas says:
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but right now the people of East Palestine should be at the heart of everyone’s concern as they battle what could be the early stages of lifelong illnesses and the destruction of their way of life. This is a moment that calls for political unity. It’s not an occasion to try to own the libs, but in absence of leadership or tangible wins, it’s all conservatives have.