Ohio’s perfect storm
Daniel Lazare warns that, with Trump skilfully championing poor whites, with weak trade unions and a ‘left’ intent on tailing Biden, the danger of a rightwing dictatorship grows
Virtually all forces are combining to push US society further and further to the right.
The speakers at an anti-war rally in Washington two weeks ago were so top-heavy with libertarians, isolationists and bitcoin-pushers that the ultra-right will likely be the chief beneficiary if the US ends up burning its fingers in Ukraine, just as it burned them in Afghanistan and Iraq. With strike action still negligible, the Federal Reserve is meeting with almost no working class resistance, as it jacks up interest rates, holds down wages and discourages job formation. Crime is up and fatal mass shootings are running at double last year’s rate, which is why support remains strong for the sort of aggressive policing that resulted in the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols two months ago in Memphis, Tennessee.
Then there is the political furore that began on February 3, when a freight train exploded in eastern Ohio - unleashing a giant fireball and saturating a small town (with the unlikely name of East Palestine - population 4,761) with toxic fumes. Coverage of the disaster was initially slight, since the press was too busy with Chinese ‘spy balloons’ and Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev. But, with state and federal agencies providing conflicting advice as to whether the water was safe to drink or not, conservative pundits started charging that officials were giving the local population short shrift because it is too white and too pro-Trump. Suddenly, a perfect political storm began forming out of nowhere.
Noting that Michael Regan had vowed to combat environmental racism when Joe Biden named him to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, conservative pundit Jesse Watters wondered on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News: “Is this his idea of fighting environmental racism - spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people in Ohio?”1 Charlie Kirk, host of a popular rightwing podcast, accused the Biden administration of waging “war on white people”.2 Tucker Carlson, whose nightly Fox programme is the country’s top-rated cable news show, added:
East Palestine is overwhelmingly white, and it’s politically conservative. More than 70% of the voters in the surrounding country supported Donald Trump in the last election. That shouldn’t be relevant, but, as you’re about to hear, it very much is.3
Finally, Donald Trump paid a visit on February 22, at which point news coverage went positively ballistic. Accusing the White House of “indifference and betrayal”, he delivered pallets of his name-brand water and said he was waiting for the president to “get back from touring Ukraine”, so he could attend to problems back home. Clearly in his element, the once (and perhaps future) president told local residents: “You are not forgotten. We stand with you, we pray for you and we stay with you in your fight to help answer and [obtain] the accountability you deserve.”4 Local townsfolk were as appreciative as they were dismissive of Biden: “What’s he doing? Popping balloons from China,” one commented in The New York Times.5
The Guardian dismissed Trump’s appearance as “the kind of political rabble-rousing that’s become typical in the aftermath of any American disaster”. But it acknowledged that “the race and class-baiting happening here is also eerily reminiscent of the Republican party’s poor-white-victim strategy of 2016”.6
In fact, it was as if the spool of history was unwinding to mid-2016, when Trump was appealing to non-woke whites, whom Hillary Clinton airily dismissed as “a basket of deplorables” for their views on blacks, women and gays. This time around, it was Biden who had his mind on loftier matters - ie, defending ‘democracy’ against Russian ‘autocracy’ - but the dynamic was otherwise the same. Only Trump thought to visit ‘flyover country’, where liberals refuse to go. Only Trump endorsed their protests, while The New York Times suggested they were exaggerating.7 The fact that neither Florida governor Ron DeSantis nor former UN ambassador Nikki Haley thought to make the trip, despite declaring for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, shows that neither has anything like Trump’s political smarts or his upside-down class-consciousness: ie, his sense that only he can win over the ‘forgotten man’ with a programme based on xenophobia, isolationism, anger at bourgeois liberals above and resentment toward poor urban blacks below.
If correct, he will again prove himself to be a force to be reckoned with. Trump has already dominated American politics for seven or eight years and, if his scene-stealing performance in Ohio is any indication, he may well do it for seven or eight years longer.
So much the worse, of course, for East Palestine (pronounced ‘Palesteen’). What makes the incident so perfect is that it combines all the forces ravaging America into one. There is liberal elitism, the de-industrialisation that has reduced countless small-town manufacturing centres to hollowed-out wrecks, plus economic deregulation and ruthless corporate profiteering that has made derailments more likely rather than less.
There is also a dysfunctional political system - dysfunctional for the working class, that is, but not for the ruling elite, which continues milking it for all its worth. America has not had a mass working class party since Eugene V Debs polled 920,000 votes in the 1920 presidential election, while sitting in a federal penitentiary for opposing World War I. That is more than a century without even a Sir Keir to rally the proletariat, much less a genuine socialist. As a result, workers find themselves at the mercy of an all-encompassing bourgeois dictatorship that soars aloft on two wings: one centre-right and another that is so militantly conservative that it is increasingly racist and fascistic. Both wings strive to outdo the other in terms of bellicosity - devotion to America as number one, and determination to sacrifice safety for corporate profits. Both are thoroughly incompetent when it comes to managing industrial society, as East Palestine shows.
Transportation, to cite just one example, is a mess. A land of highways, strip malls and bumper-to-bumper traffic, the US has devoted itself to motor vehicles like no other country since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908. As a result, Americans drive 35% more than the French, 44% more than Germans or Brits, and 17% more than even Canadians.8 Their cars are a third bigger than European vehicles and emit twice as much carbon dioxide per mile. While deaths inside such rolling fortresses have held steady since 2009, fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists have risen by around 50%, because super-sized SUVs are so much more powerful.9
Rather than benefiting Americans, hyper-mobility has thus made them poorer, fatter and shorter-lived, forcing them to spend more time behind the wheel, so that oil companies, auto makers and highway buildings can all make a profit. Hyper-mobility has also rendered small towns like East Palestine poorer and more isolated by making them all too easy to bypass. Where once such towns were filled with factories and train terminals, they now feature gas stations, drive-through banks and pizza joints, car dealerships and little else. Pedestrians are scarce, because distances are too great to walk, while poverty continues to climb. At $44,000 per year, median household income in East Palestine is already 38% below the national average and is likely to decline further thanks to the February 3 disaster.
Per-capita rail travel - 90% below that of France, Germany or the UK, according to World Bank data - has meanwhile cratered since Covid‑19.10 But freight trains have enjoyed a rebound, since they are still the cheapest way of transporting high-volume industrial commodities like coal and chemicals.
But that has not only brought stepped-up profits, but aggressive cost-cutting and layoffs. It has also resulted in heavier and longer trains - the one that exploded in East Palestine stretched nearly 1.8 miles - that are more difficult to stop. In 2014, Barack Obama ordered freight companies to install new braking systems, aimed at preventing derailments, but then scaled back the requirement under intense industry pressure. Following heavy lobbying by rail companies and multi-million-dollar contributions to Republican congressional campaigns, Trump - that great champion of the working class - then rescinded the regulation altogether in 2017.
The Obama administration also rebuffed its own safety experts by refusing to expand the definition of “high-hazard flammable trains”. Even though the 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames and then generated a giant fireball, once its contents were released and incinerated, it was not classified as high hazard, because the vinyl chloride it carried is regarded as only a ‘class 2’ compound despite being both flammable and carcinogenic. Hence, Norfolk Southern - the $52-billion company that is its owner - was not required to install modern electronically-controlled braking systems, even though they would likely have reduced the severity of the crash.11
“The longer, heavier and faster you make the trains without any commensurate adjustment in safety protocols,” a Canadian safety expert observed, “the thinner your risk margins are getting.”12 Norfolk Southern’s own statistics show that accidents have risen 25% since 2019, even as profit margins have soared.13
Rail unions have not been completely supine. But they are hampered by conservatism, fealty to the Democrats and, with a dozen unions covering bits and pieces of the workforce, fragmentation as well. When 100,000 railworkers threatened to strike last November, because staff cuts and round-the-clock schedules made it all but impossible for them to even visit a doctor, Biden sided with the bosses by imposing a contract that provided for no increases in paid time off. Conceivably, the unions could have defied the White House and Congress - including ‘leftists’ like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who backed the administration to the hilt. But the days when Debs brought much of the economy to a standstill by calling a strike against the Pullman Porter company in 1894 are long gone. Today’s rail union leaders are incapable of anything more forceful than a barrage of angry emails.
The upshot in East Palestine is that residents are sniffing the water that comes out of their taps, checking rashes in the mirror and gazing into creeks filled with fish and frogs floating belly-up. The smell reminds some of burning tyres or plastic and others of model airplane glue or nail polish remover. “So, in five years, am I going to have liver cancer?” one woman asked after seeing farm animals sicken and die. “Am I going to be able to see my kids graduate?”14
East Palestine is vulnerable in another respect as well, which is to say to capitalist politicians like Trump and JD Vance - Ohio’s newly-elected Republican senator, who stood at the ex-president’s side during his visit and who promised residents that he would not forget them as well. Vance is an investment banker, who shot to fame as the author of Hillbilly elegy, a best-selling 2016 memoir of his hard-scrabble youth in southern Ohio. But he is also a protégé of ultra-right Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, famous for declaring, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
Which is why East Palestine is in such trouble. Freedom has expanded for investors like Thiel and companies like Norfolk Southern, while democracy has narrowed to vanishing point for everyone else. Unless the working class takes matters in hand, the perfect storm in East Palestine suggests that the trend can only continue.
See p5: www.nscorp.com/content/dam/QuarterlyEventFiles/4q-2022/4q2022_all_presentation.pdf.↩︎