I planned to write about Donald Trump’s visit to East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday, though I knew I couldn’t actually watch his speech. I just assumed it would dominate the news. It didn’t, and thus I didn’t write about it. And now I am—but not directly. I have come to think Trump’s Ohio flop might matter.
The right has tried to blame President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, ridiculously, while racializing the train derailment tragedy—working-class white people neglected by… these two white guys? My head hurts when I try to understand this line of argument. Honestly, it was easier—though equally stupid and mendacious—under President Obama.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent laid out the details on Tuesday. Among right-wing media mouthpieces making this case, it wasn’t just Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, but this stood out: “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white, and it’s politically conservative,” Carlson recently said of the roughly 4,700 residents of the disaster zone. “That shouldn’t be relevant,” he added, but “it very much is.”
Sure it is, Tucker.
So when Trump decided to show up, I assumed it was 2016 all over again: the renewed racialization of issues Republicans hadn’t openly owned before Trump.
But instead, Trump let his people down. Yes, he handed out “Trump water” and told what he called the “forgotten” Americans, “We stand with you.”
And Fox shared this: “Joining the former president throughout his visit were East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway; Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; State Rep. Monica Robb-Blasdel; and Ohio State Sen. Michael Rulli in addition to other statewide and local officials.” Local officials you never heard of and, oh, J.D. Vance.
It was otherwise a short news blip. Buttigieg got somewhat more attention the next day.
Of course, there wasn’t sufficient coverage, either day, of how Trump undid Obama-era rail regulation, or otherwise weakened environmental protection.
East Palestine, Ohio, is a small place with a big problem that was caused by Republican deregulation and corporate evil. But Trump didn’t rise to the occasion this week. Thus I think it’s become a staging ground for the 2024 Republican primary.
Trust me: I’ve said publicly and privately that I think Trump will be the 2024 GOP nominee. I think Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the Scott Walker of this cycle (the former Wisconsin governor was hugely overestimated in 2016). I can’t see anyone who beats him. Unless he beats himself.
But Trump seemed tired and underwhelming on Wednesday. It was honestly the first time I thought he could lose the primary.