Ideological realignments don’t happen overnight. Former President Donald Trump’s visit to East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday was not notable for its rhetoric or its optics. Instead, Trump’s visit to a community that features the type of Rust Belt diners where, since 2016, journalists by the dozen have been dispatched to do cultural anthropology served as another waypoint on the Republican Party’s ongoing shift to become a party centered on non-college-educated voters.
The disaster in East Palestine has received national attention, particularly in conservative media, after a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed just outside the east Ohio town located near the border with Pennsylvania. It wasn’t so much the derailment that captured national attention, but the controlled burn of vinyl chloride released from freight cars in the aftermath of the accident. The apocalyptic images of clouds of black smoke reaching into the sky provided compelling visuals to go along with the health concerns of residents and evidence of fish die-offs in local streams as chemicals spilled into the ground from the wreck.
The derailment also sparked a furious reaction from the right, as it presents a potpourri of issues for Republicans to grapple with — corporate power, the growing skepticism toward public health authorities post-pandemic, and, of course, simple partisan critiques of a Democratic president. But it wasn’t just partisan critiques. As Jon Schweppe, the director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank, told Vox, “What’s nice about it from my perspective — it’s not uniquely, ‘This is all Biden’s fault.’ It’s not just politics. There’s an understanding that there are other forces at play that led to this happening.”
While Republicans can freely blame President Joe Biden and his administration for its response — with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg facing particular scrutiny — the East Palestine disaster also presents an opportunity for the GOP’s populist wing to further break from party orthodoxy and target corporate America. In this case, the easy target is Norfolk Southern, the railroad conglomerate that owned the derailed freight train.
Saurabh Sharma, the president of American Moment, a public policy organization that aims to influence the next generation of professional conservatives to become more populist, said, “I think that this tragedy that happened in East Palestine is an opportunity for Republicans that have been looking for opportunities to distinguish themselves from the neoliberal set in the party to do so.”
The question is whether they will take the opportunity. In his brief remarks Wednesday at the local fire station, Trump gestured broadly at the railroad industry. “Norfolk Southern needs to fulfill its responsibilities and obligations,” he said in rambling remarks that also criticized US funding for Ukraine and dwelled on when Ohio State University decided to resume its football season during the Covid pandemic in 2020. Trump is one of many Republicans who have criticized Biden for going to Kyiv this weekend to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in advance of a long-planned trip to Poland rather than visiting East Palestine. These range from other presidential hopefuls to Fox News commentators and even East Palestine’s mayor, Trent Conaway, who said Biden’s trip to Eastern Europe was “a slap in the face.”
Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance also appeared at the event. Vance has been active in the response to East Palestine in recent days, vocally criticizing both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its lack of guidance and Norfolk Southern for its failures to clean up chemicals in the area.
Trump has also faced criticism from the Biden administration over the accident, which has tried to connect the derailment to a deregulatory effort around train braking systems undertaken by the Trump White House.
Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and longtime Republican operative, saw the East Palestine event as simply Trump seizing a PR opportunity rather than emblematic of a broader trend within the Republican Party. “We’re in a situation where the former president is one of three people in the race and he’s having trouble getting attention,” said Donovan. For Donovan, the significance of the visit was about “what’s in the news today and what’s on Tucker [Carlson] last night and going in search of it, more than the populism and anti-corporatism.”
Yet it also did capture a certain bit of the conservative zeitgeist within what Schweppe called “elite populist circles.” As he put it, “There is a growing sense that all of these corporations are against us — not only are they trying to screw us over on the woke stuff, but generally, they just don’t care about ordinary people.”
Sharma noted that this happened only months after some Republicans joined with progressives in December to oppose a Biden-backed effort to settle a railway strike that was opposed by some unions. The strike, Sharma said, presents an opportunity for the right to draw attention to “a case of corporate malfeasance that doesn’t have an easy culture war angle.”
The question is whether the East Palestine accident drives Republicans to embrace those populist issues. As one Republican familiar with the response told Vox, there are “cross-cutting cleavages.” The Republican said while “corporate graft and greed” can be blamed, there are other easy villains, including “bureaucratic incompetence” and the indifference of “cultural elites,” that fit easily within existing conservative messaging.
Even Sharma didn’t see the GOP response to the accident as being part of a revolution, but of a long slow evolution in Republican thinking on these sorts of issues. For him, the measure of the impact of the conservative response would not be in “grand, sweeping policy proposals.” Instead, it would be whether the accident “now enters the lexicon of how a certain kind of Capitol Hill staffer or conservative public policy analyst thinks about a given legislative proposal.”
He said the next time the railroad industry pushes Congress for further deregulation, this will be on the minds of the relevant GOP actors in a serious way. After all, Trump’s first White House may have taken deregulatory steps around freight railroads, but would his second do so as well?