Politics Invade the East Palestine, Ohio, Train Crisis

To Democrats, the train derailment and chemical leak in the hamlet of East Palestine, Ohio, is a story of logic, action and consequences: Rail safety regulations put in place by the Obama administration were intended to prevent just such accidents. The Trump administration gutted them.

To Republicans, East Palestine is a symbol of something far larger and more emotional: a forgotten town in a conservative state, like so many others in Middle America, struggling for survival against an uncaring mega-corporation and an unseeing government whose concerns have never included the likes of a town of 4,718 souls.

Carrying those irreconcilable narratives, politicians have begun parading through East Palestine with their own agendas to pursue. On Wednesday, it was the former president and current presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, handing out branded water and campaign hats, while assuring the supportive crowd, “You are not forgotten.”

On Thursday, three weeks after 38 Norfolk Southern rail cars carrying toxic chemicals skipped the tracks in East Palestine and, days later, a plume of vinyl chloride was intentionally released over the town, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived, having spent days jousting with Republicans over safety regulations.

Conspiracy theories have only deepened the trauma, bouncing around far-right podcasts and conservative celebrities’ social media accounts before reaching Congress via Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the once-fringe Republican from Georgia whose alliance with Speaker Kevin McCarthy has brought her to the center of congressional power.

“East Palestine, Ohio, is undergoing an ecological disaster because authorities blew up the train derailment cars carrying hazardous chemicals and press are being arrested for trying to tell the story,” she wrote on Twitter over dramatic footage of the fiery plume and its aftermath. “Oh but UFO’s!”

The Trump campaign on Thursday abetted the narrative with a day-by-day timeline of “Neglect and Betrayal,” including “Feb 5: Shoots the spy balloon down” and “Feb 13: Dodges questions about unidentified objects downed on Sunday,” followed by, “Feb 16: Delivered a response to unidentified objects in the sky and screened the movie ‘Till.’”

Batting down another conspiratorial rumor, the East Palestine fire chief, Keith Drabick, had to spend time this week assuring people that medical identification bracelets being passed out to residents in case they showed signs of debilitation were not tracking devices for the government.

The fever pitch of distrust was understandable for a community that saw what appeared to be an apocalyptic plume of chemicals rise from the wreckage on the rail line, then filmed dead fish and frogs in East Palestine’s streams and complained of headaches, sore throats, coughing and skin rashes — all as government officials assured them the air and water were safe.

“The fact that President Biden has refused to come to this small town when he’s supposed to be Scranton Joe, a small-town hero of the working man, and he can’t even show his face in a town of American citizens that need his leadership, that need the government’s help terribly, he proved what everybody, I think, already knew in this country, is that he’s not the leader for this country,” Mr. Rourke said Wednesday night. “Donald J. Trump is the leader that we all know he is, and he is the leader of this country.”

On Thursday, Mr. Buttigieg showed up after weeks of Republican taunts demanding to know why he had not bothered. But it was Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump confidant, who garnered much of the attention from residents and local politicians as he toured the accident site and signed memorabilia.

“Politicians come in and they make a big show and then they don’t come back,” he said, promising, “This is a come-back situation.”

Mark Walker and Aishvarya Kavi contributed reporting.

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