A President for Palestine
Donald Trump’s visit to East Palestine is a reminder of how the 45th president made politics human again.
(Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
Two nations occupy one land.
The first is wealthy and secure, a high-tech electric beacon of globalized democracy. It is at once outward-facing and highly self-interested—sure of its assertions and closed to all who will not or cannot embrace them.
The second is older, in its way. Both lay long claims to the land and its true history, but it is the second nation’s people who have been living in the same place, in the same way, for unbroken centuries—though its longstanding folkways are gravely threatened by the other nation’s arrival and expansion. It is a poorer nation, its people composed largely of laborers and farmers.
The two have been in conflict since the start of the last century—some would argue longer, and it is easy enough to trace the contours of the current troubles back through generations of social, religious, and economic clashes.
It is not infrequent that this cold war becomes hot. The children of the second nation are common targets of the first, but the underdog has hardly been guiltless in a brutal and interminable struggle.
Yet for all its faults, the second nation simply does not have the power to do real harm to the first. In the grand scheme it can only be hurt, and it often is. And when the situation (as it often does) approaches a crisis point, the people of the first nation will only watch with pity, if not much interest, as the second goes up in flame and a pillar of smoke.
This is the scene into which Donald Trump descended in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this week.
On February 3, thirty-eight cars of a Norfolk Southern Railway train ran off the tracks in the small Ohio village. Eleven of the thirty-eight contained toxic chemicals, which quickly seeped out into the land and water, even catching fire in places. In the most dramatic moment of the episode, a controlled burn of the highly dangerous vinyl chloride cast a massive cloud of thick, black smoke in the sky over East Palestine. Fish turned up dead en masse in visibly contaminated water, and residents for miles around reported sickness and other adverse effects.
The Washington regime—the first nation, nominally sovereign over the whole—could not be bothered with the crisis. The head of the EPA took weeks to make his way out there, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg waited even longer. Joe Biden was away in Keev, pouring the fruits of American labor down the bloody and byzantine channels of Ukrainian public spending. The $50 billion company responsible for the disaster was likewise missing in action—first committing to, then skipping out on a public meeting to address the concerns of the victims of its negligence.
It took Donald Trump swaggering into the East Palestine McDonald’s to change the narrative. The former president—who in remarks at the town fire station assured the people affected by the disaster, “You are not forgotten”—strolled into the fast food restaurant with an entourage and a smile and asked the woman behind the counter, “What’s your specialty[[sic]today?” The dad joke landed, and the whole staff listened attentively as Trump ribbed that he knew the menu better than anyone there. He ordered food for the whole fire and police departments, and he handed out MAGA hats to an adoring crowd.
In moments like the visit to East Palestine, it is not hard to understand what Trump’s early supporters meant when they said he was “not a politician,” and why this mattered so much to them. It was not just a simple hope that his coming from outside the swamp would keep the candidate clear of the usual D.C. pitfalls.
What matters more than anything is that Trump is a kind of person who exists outside of politics. He is the same kind of rich dad you might find in any country club two or three towns over from East Palestine. He is the kind of old-school businessman who still holds a good bit of sway in a place like that. Though they are all heightened in degree almost to absurdity, Trump’s core characteristics are legible to Middle Americans in a way few other politicians’ are. He is familiar to his base voter in a way that Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis never could be.
It is not for nothing that the people of Columbiana County voted for Trump by nearly 45 points—almost exactly quadruple Mitt Romney’s 2012 margin.
It is fashionable to mock the politics of bread and circuses, but the fact of the matter is that people need to eat and deserve to be entertained.
Trump’s great philosophical contribution to the American right was to move the theory of politics away from the abstract realm: in foreign policy, in trade, in immigration, and more, to set aside the abstract ideologies of recent decades in favor of a politics rooted (at least partly) in the real.
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But in practice, too, this was Trump’s great strength: for better and worse, he made politics human again. That is good for electability as much as for social health, and it is heartening to see Senator J.D. Vance—who was already in East Palestine and accompanied the president during his visit—following Trump’s lead on that front.
Yet Trump showed practical weaknesses in East Palestine as well. He has lost much of his magic behind the podium, and while the fire station remarks were right on the substance, they conveyed none of the vigor and righteous indignation of the speeches Trump delivered in the early stage of his first successful campaign. Even amid some classic shining moments, there is cause for real concern about whether the electoral shockwave of ’16 can ever be recreated.
But in a future in which more trains will derail and more smoke clouds bloom, the tribunes of the second nation may yet offer hope. If nothing else, they can offer a McDouble.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.