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McFeely: Gov. Burgum's spine wilts under MAGA pressure

North Dakota governor enters McHenry tragedy fray, despite evidence lacking that violence was politically motivated

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Forum New Service columnist Mike McFeely
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FARGO — North Dakota's governor joined forces with the slimiest of the MAGA movement, which says something either about his political ambitions or his intestinal fortitude. Or both, one could suppose, because it takes no courage to be a Trump-worshipping flamethrower.

Gov. Doug Burgum felt it necessary to provide a statement on the tragic death of Cayler Ellingson in McHenry, North Dakota. The teenager allegedly was run over by an SUV driven by Shannon Brandt, who told authorities Ellingson was a Republican extremist calling for his friends to come after Brandt.

The supposed political angle to Ellingson's death was uncovered in investigation documents reported by Forum Communications Co. The story went national, with Republicans using the tragedy as a prop to accuse Democrats of political violence.

MAGA grifters like commentator Jack Posobiec and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — and they were far from the only ones — jumped on the opportunity to attack Democrats as being responsible for Ellingson's death.

There are millions of Americans who today believe Brandt is a "political terrorist" (Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene's words) who ran down a right-wing extremist in an act of political retribution.


Just one problem, though. There so far is no evidence that Ellingson's death was politically motivated. None. Brandt, who'd allegedly been drinking, made the allegation in a statement to police. It's an allegation. Nothing more.

In fact, North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind told The Forum on Thursday that law enforcement "has not uncovered any evidence to support that claim that was made by Mr. Brandt."

"There is nothing to corroborate" Brandt's claim of political violence, Niewind said.

More on the Ellingson-Brandt story
Court papers say 41-year-old Shannon Brandt confessed to a 911 dispatcher and police that he fatally struck 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson with his vehicle following a political dispute.
Prominent Republicans have tweeted about 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson's death, and some are questioning why Shannon Brandt was not charged with murder. Gov. Doug Burgum even issued a rare tweet about the case.
This is a situation that deserves better than the hot takes we're getting from Twitter demagogues and cable news creeps.
The facts of the case so far do not support Shannon Brandt’s claims that he and Cayler Ellingson argued about politics or that the teenager was calling for people to come after Brandt, North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind told The Forum on Thursday.
A close family friend of 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson said, "He is what everybody would want when they have a baby."

There are still facts to uncover, but there's a quickly rising chance Brandt made up his story. There's a chance he concocted a fairy tale to try to save himself.

This would put Burgum in a sticky wicket if he was capable of self-reflection.

When the governor posted a statement on Twitter giving condolences to the Ellingson family, he added the following: "Violence is never the answer to disagreements of any kind, including political, and those who perpetrate it must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

There are three obvious explanations of why Burgum would make a statement about a pedestrian-vehicle death in McHenry and link it to political violence while calling for maximum charges against Brandt.

One, he's a right-wing snail cut from the same cloth as Posobiec and Cruz. This seems unlikely, but Burgum is smart enough politically to know the value of snuggling with MAGA.


Two, he has higher political aspirations than being governor of North Dakota and he's building a resume. It's long been rumored in political circles that Burgum wants to be president and a Republican can't get there without MAGA.

Three, he's a coward. This one has legs.

It's no fun for a wealthy CEO like Burgum, used to being told he's beloved and never wrong, to have the anger of the MAGA wingnuts unleashed upon him. The phone calls to his office. The emails. The Twitter and Facebook messages.

Did he issue a statement so they'd stop yelling at him? It's easier than trying to face the storm. Give the red hats a scrap of bloody meat to get them off your back.

The correct thing to do, if Burgum felt the need to do something, would've been to offer a statement of condolence and add that he awaits law enforcement's investigation into the facts of the case. Back the blue, right? Calm the waters, right?

Nah. It was too expedient to add "including political" as a wink-wink to the radical right-wingers. He's on your side, boys, so stop calling his office.

Because, like all Republican politicians other than Liz Cheney and a handful of others, Burgum is afraid of the wingnuts. He's afraid to stand up to them, afraid to call them out. It's easier to jump on the insane train to make them go away.

Burgum knows better. But when your spine is made of lemon Jell-O because the MAGAs are sending you nastygrams, the governor did what was necessary to stop the pressure.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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