Joe Biden Should Have Been in East Palestine Before Donald Trump

The Democrats’ absurdly slow response to the recent Ohio train derailment repeats an all-too-familiar pattern of liberals creating openings conservatives are able to exploit.

Former president Donald Trump visits East Palestine, Ohio, following the disastrous train derailment, February 22, 2023. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Earlier this week, ahead of either President Joe Biden or Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Donald Trump paid a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, and denounced the administration for its response to the catastrophic train derailment that devastated that community earlier this month. Flanked by newly elected Republican senator J. D. Vance, Congressman Bill Johnson, and a number of local officials, the former president — visibly in 2024 campaign mode — blasted Biden and declared, “What this community needs now are not excuses and all of the other things you’ve been hearing, but answers and results.”

A recent Politico article, headlined “Trump’s visit to Ohio derailment gives Biden’s team some breathing room,” advances the case that the trip may prove politically advantageous for the Democrats. This framing is incredibly perplexing. Visiting the site of the derailment might have been an easy slam dunk for Biden, who, among other things, could have used the occasion to denounce the greed of rail monopolies. Instead, by not visiting, Biden has needlessly created a political opportunity for Trump and the GOP to exploit — yet again opening up space for the Republican Party to present itself as the genuine voice of America’s working class.

The Politico piece quotes numerous sources critical of Trump who dismiss his visit as a stunt and underscore the less-than-stellar Republican record on rail safety deregulation. Buttigieg himself has remarked, “A lot of the folks who seem to find political opportunity there are among those who have sided with the rail industry again and again and again as they have fought safety regulations on railroads and [hazardous materials] tooth and nail.” (On the heels of Trump’s visit, Buttigieg did finally show his face in East Palestine yesterday.)

Amid this tiresome tit for tat, there is certainly some truth. With support from Senate Republicans, the Trump administration scrapped proposed new brake requirements that experts say could have reduced the severity of the recent derailment. On the flipside, the Obama administration caved to industry pressure in 2014 by introducing a series of disastrous loopholes into its own rail safety legislation. Opportunistic and cynical as Trump’s visit may be, moreover, his characterization of the administration’s response isn’t exactly incorrect. As the Lever’s Andrew Perez writes, summing up the Democrats’ lackadaisical attitude and posture of feigned powerlessness:

The Biden administration was slow to publicly respond to Norfolk Southern’s toxic train disaster in Ohio — and when they did, White House officials and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at first struggled to explain why they weren’t racing to improve railroad safety standards. At one point, Buttigieg even implied he had little power to force the rail industry to upgrade its safety equipment and procedures.

Thanks to a well-deserved backlash, figures like Buttigieg have belatedly begun to harshen their rhetoric toward the rail industry. (Union leaders remain decidedly unimpressed.) Regardless, the administration’s foot-dragging — ultimately rooted in the same deference to industry lobbyists and donors found on the Republican right — has created an opening for Donald Trump where none needed to exist.

Beyond Trump himself, the Right’s own politicians and intellectuals clearly sense an opportunity. In a post for the American Conservative, conservative commentator Sohrab Ahmari is giddy about the derailment-related interventions of figures like Marco Rubio and J. D. Vance, writing:

Rubio and Vance are making an important break with not just the establishment GOP — but even many of their fellow populists, who complain about corporate power and then turn around and lament the rise of the modern administrative state. In doing so, the latter camp harkens back to the individualism and romance for the small that have long been features of American resistance to corporate misrule. But complex economies require complex regulations and regulators who are empowered to tame market actors whose gargantuan size would otherwise permit terrible abuses, against which the little guy is defenseless. . . . By putting their finger on profit-maximizing hyper-efficiency as the potential culprit behind East Palestine’s suffering, Rubio and Vance are following in Teddy [Roosevelt’s] venerable reformist footsteps — and showing what serious populism looks like.

One need not even agree with Ahmari’s effusive characterization to see that the Democrats have a potentially serious problem here. When conservatives are able to stake out ground as scrappy populists defending community and confronting market malfeasance, it rarely redounds to the benefit of America’s liberals. Trump’s own improbable victory in 2016, after all, ran squarely through onetime bastions of Democratic power such as Michigan and Wisconsin — and would have been impossible without his workerist appeals and salvos against NAFTA (fraudulent though they ultimately were).

In this sense, the aftermath of the catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio, repeats a pattern we’ve seen all too often in recent years in which Democrats needlessly create openings that even callous opportunists like Donald Trump are able to exploit.