The blurring of facts is disservice to all

Recently our state became the focal point of the culture war because of the death of 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson from Grace City, who was allegedly struck by a vehicle driven by Shannon Joseph Brandt after a street dance in McHenry.

Initially facts around the story were scarce, but it eventually trickled out that the incident was allegedly precipitated by a political argument. The aspect that has drawn the eyeballs of the nation on this flyover tragedy was Brandt himself making claims of Ellingson being a “Republican extremist” who was about to set loose other rabid right wingers on him because of their dispute.

Most lawyers would have probably cautioned someone in Brandt’s position to stay silent, and it’s because he didn’t that this whole situation became more than the small-town drunk driving accident it would’ve been. Brandt may have been still drunk when he made his claims, but what he said was the rationalization that he felt was the best way to frame his actions. We don’t yet know what exactly was at issue in their encounter before it turned fatal, but his claims and admissions are all investigators and the public have.

His claims of Ellingson’s alleged extremism and of the political nature of their dispute quickly proved to have no merit based on the Highway Patrol’s investigation, and from statements from those who knew the young man in the community who by all accounts didn’t have a political bone in his body.

The average 18-year-old American is more than likely still determining who they are and the kind of person they want to be, and whatever political notions they may have had as much thought applied to them as the clothes they throw on in the morning. Yet Brandt claimed Ellingson was on the phone calling other right-wing thugs to gang up on him. No such Proud Boy thugs existed. Ellingson was only calling his mother for help.

Much of the coverage of the incident wasted no time downplaying Brandt’s provided motive, dismissing the outrage coming from the who’s who of right-wing Internet hacks and Twitter Congressman. From the AP to Rob Port, they all declared the whole notion of a political angle to the story to be debunked and evidence of nothing more than the cynical opportunism of right-wing actors.

I found the coverage attempting to mitigate the political aspect of the story to be a little bizarre, and more than slightly dishonest in their framing.

It’s not like Ted Cruz or Jack Posobiec invented the allegation of a political motive out of thin air; that came directly from Brandt himself in his statement to investigators and his own 911 call after the incident. The fact his claims were unfounded does in no way make the fact he made them not true. To say otherwise is a blatant attempt to stave off the political fallout from the story until after the midterms have come and gone.

The real questions that should be asked is why did Brandt see that young man as a threat, and why did he think labeling his victim as a “Republican extremist” was a reasonable explanation for his actions? The most reasonable explanation could very well be that Brandt is pulling a “Jussie Smollet,” hoping and praying that the large societal meme of the deplorable evil right winger could save him from consequences.

As the Smollet case illustrated for us, it probably is correct to show some restraint to avoid endorsing political narratives around tragic events such as this. However, this restraint was nowhere to be seen when Smollet spun his web of falsehoods around his supposed lynching, or during the Kyle Rittenhouse saga, constructed as it was on a house of lies. That didn’t stop either story from being wielded like a cudgel during the last election cycle by politicians, pundits and even the current residents of the White House.

Speaking of Joe, he’s a major reason there was anything about the death of Cayler Ellingson for the right-wing outrage machine to latch onto. The elephant in the room of course is Biden’s speech declaring “Extreme MAGA Republicans” an enemy of “democracy.” This speech was such a broad demonization of the electorate that he was forced to walk it back somewhat in the days after, not that many of his supporters in the national press or his handlers in his staff thought he went far enough in his condemnations.

I’m not saying that the president is responsible for the actions of a man from Glenfield, North Dakota, he’s never met. But if indeed Cayler Ellingson had been the exact right-wing boogieman that Biden warned us about and that Brandt had apparently cultivated in his own mind, would that have made his actions more understandable? Would authorities have given Brandt a medal instead of charges and bail conditions? When the powerful paint so many as “enemies of democracy,” I guess it shouldn’t be surprising.

This tendency to downplay the role that the rhetoric from politicians and pundits plays in influencing people entirely depends on the players involved. Former president Trump was often blamed for stoking “stochastic terrorism,” with his critics scrambling to tie the actions of lone wolf spree killers to his speeches and tweets no matter how tenuous. But don’t you dare insinuate any of the inflamed and hostile rhetoric coming from the current president or anyone else has anything to do with the spate of violence and aggression directed towards anyone to the right of Mao.

I would hope any reasonable person would condemn politically motivated violence, regardless of who the perpetrator and the victim are. In this instance, the alleged killer is using politics as his own rationalization for his actions. That so many are obfuscating this is disturbing, and speaks more to their political priorities than anything else, which will do nothing but stoke the flames burning in the hearts of many.


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