After fake story, Fergus Falls gets its do-over

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Getting trashed by a reporter for Der Spiegel in a now-discredited profile of a city that — accurately — went big for Donald Trump in 2016, might be the best thing that ever happened to Fergus Falls.

A city of 14,000 (almost) can’t buy the kind of attention that Fergus Falls is getting from being victimized by Claas Relotius, who made up quotes and people for his story. Now, Der Spiegel has sent a reporter to the city to report more accurately, particularly the part about there being more to the city population than the city’s role in putting the president in office.

And today, the New York Times joins in, parachuting two reporters and a photographer into town to find out what the people at the Viking Cafe think. Yes, there actually is a Viking Cafe.

“I’m one for forgiveness,” Mary Bates, 85, told the inquiring reporters.

Fergus Falls might be “the most forgiving city in the Western Hemisphere,” Der Spiegel’s new reporter said in assessing the city. Fergus Falls, at the very least, inspires exaggeration.

“The election results speak for themselves,” the Times said of the 64 percent of the Otter Tail electorate who voted for Trump in 2016. That’s an odd assessment, given that the Times, as most national news organizations, spent the aftermath of the election dropping into rural America to try to figure out what the heck the people were thinking.

But the results don’t speak for themselves; that’s the mistake Relotius made, assuming that a campaign that appealed to white nationalism, a campaign that stirred up anti-Somali immigrant fears in stops in Maine and Minnesota the weekend before the election, indicated the vote responded to that nationalism.

Maybe it did; maybe it didn’t. Relotius couldn’t find proof so he made up the proof. But that didn’t really answer the original question he was dispatched to answer any more than the subsequent trips to cover his fallout has.

The Times suggested Fergus Falls was going to vote for Trump no matter what he stood for, because he’s Republican and Otter Tail County votes for Republicans.

Unlike other American counties that voted for Mr. Trump, there was not a wild political swing in Fergus Falls, making it a strange place for Mr. Relotius to choose to profile. Otter Tail County had also supported Mitt Romney and John McCain. And well-trod story lines about factory closures and population decline, often cited in accounts of Mr. Trump’s success, did not apply in Fergus Falls, where the downtown is bustling and the population is steady. (A Target store closed recently, despite community efforts to save it, but that was after Mr. Relotius left town.)

All that left residents wondering: Why did Mr. Relotius write what he did? And since he wasn’t going to tell the truth, why did he even bother coming?

So we are left to our own devices to figure out what particular appeal Trump held in Otter Tail County, what values Fergus Falls was embracing — or ignoring — in embracing him.

“What happened, I think, was that he was trying to look for a cliché of a Trump-voting town and he simply didn’t find it,” said Christoph Scheuermann, the replacement Der Spiegel correspondent who was sent to cover the town’s “true story” as the Times put it.

Cliche. Like stopping at the coffee shop, talking to a few folks, packaging it up, sending it to an editor, and thinking you’ve told a town’s true story, good or bad.

So at the end of all of this, we still don’t know specifically why Fergus Falls loved Donald Trump so much, the answer to which would tell us more about Fergus Falls than a quick cup of coffee in the Viking Cafe.

Communities are complex things in a world that loves its simple explanations.

  • Mike Worcester

    //Yes, there actually is a Viking Cafe.

    And it’s an awesome place 🙂

  • Gary F

    “And at the end of all of this, we still don’t know specifically why Fergus Falls loved Donald Trump so much.”

    The media still haven’t figured it out. Maybe that is part of the reason.

    • I think everyone can add 2 + 2. The problem is people are going to say things like “it’s the economy” because they can’t really say “I don’t like all these Somalis moving into Minnesota.” Who would want to.

      But that’s what Trump — his strategists armed with the polling and data to focus on what works — pushed and pushed hard in the last days of the campaign, including the final stop at the hangar at Sun Country. Trump rode that horse because that horse worked, and it’s disingenuous in its history to claim it didn’t.

      So to assume that there was no affinity to white nationalism because Fergus Falls has some artist lofts and a cultural scene, as shallow as the portrait Relotius tried to paint. They are not mutually exclusive.

      • wjc

        Exactly! I’m not sure why a nuanced view of people in small towns and large cities has become so difficult.

      • Erik Petersen

        So you’re saying Relotius was fake but accurate huh.

        • See, the problem there is you had to change what I said in order to, I guess dispute it. See the irony.

          What I’m saying is what I said and shouldn’t need parsing.

          “Maybe it did; maybe it didn’t. Relotius couldn’t find proof so he made up the proof. But that didn’t really answer the original question he was dispatched to answer any more than the subsequent trips to cover his fallout has.”

          The assertion in the Times article that Relotius found just the opposite of what he went there to find isn’t entirely proven. True, he didn’t find what he went there to find (I’m talking values and beliefs, not symbols of values and beliefs). But the evidence is scant that he found just the opposite.

          • Erik Petersen

            It certainly seems like you believe there are a bunch of racist nationalists in Fergus Falls, and lament that Relitous’ mitigators at Der Speigel (and NYT) have to walk that back because of the fakery when you believe it to be actually true.

            Your premise is fake but accurate.

          • The term I used is white nationalism and I specifically wrote above that the question of whether that white nationalism and Trump’s anti-Somali speeches late in the campaign played among the Fergus Falls voters is a legitimate question.

            I specifically wrote “maybe it did; maybe it didn’t” but the question hasn’t been answered and it’s a legitimate one in the exploration of why people voted for Trump.

            I don’t have the answer to that. You don’t have the answer for that. And if you’re saying that you don’t believe white nationalism or the anti-Somali sentiment has anything to do with it, I accept that as your opinion. If you’re declaring it as fact, I’d say you are more closely aligned to the research and journalism values of Claas Relotius than you presently may believe.

          • Sonny T

            The hangar speech was bad. But likely had nothing to do with the vote in Fergus. It would be a big reach to tie the two together. Unless there is some evidence I am unaware of.

          • Why would you think it’d be a big reach? The evidence that it’s not is that Trump’s campaign strategists obviously had data showing it was effective, and he won. The hangar speech wasn’t an outlier.

          • Sonny T

            Is any “campaign strategist” taking responsibility? In this country race is a losing card, thank God.

          • Seriously. Race is a winning hand and has been since Lee Atwater played it on behalf of George Bush. People are ALWAYS looking for someone or some group to blame their lot in life on.

            That’s what Steve Bannon understood.

          • Sonny T

            I don’t recall that being a directly racist appeal. Grossly insensitive given our climate and history, but blatantly racist?
            Again, in our country any directly racist appeal will be punished, and has.

          • You’re referring to the Willie Horton ad? You don’t?

            The thing with calls to our inner racism is that it always comes with a side of deniability. Atwater wasn’t stupid. He knew politics and how to message (as did Bannon). He was just racist.

            Admittedly Bannon had it easier than Atwater because everything had to be even MORE coded back then.

            But coded it was

          • Sonny T

            “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” –MLK


          • Well, sure, it’s a nice sentiment. And a nice dream.

            but it’s still just a dream.

          • Sonny T

            You are missing his point. To judge a person’s views based on race, and not the validity of those views, is wrong.

          • Sure, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the topic at hand. Unless you’re arguing that the Willie Horton ad was not the poster child of dog whistle politics and coded language, in which case, I don’t have anything for you.

          • Sonny T

            No argument with that. But we want to be careful tossing around the word racist. It’s too important to dilute. When Obama talked about people with their guns and bibles, was there any question what color people he was referring to? Does that make him a racist? Nah.

          • I think people are fully capable of understanding when an appeal to race constitutes racism and when a conversation merely involves a discussion of race.

            There’s no need to worry about denying the obvious for fear of hurt feelings.

            Atwater (and possibly Bannon) may well not be racist. But they know a lot of voters are. George Bush (through Jon Meacham) said as much when he lamented the ad, but said it’s what you have to do to get elected.

          • Sonny T

            “A lot of voters are” Not seeing it. Not where I live. Not where I work. How many people around me are racist? Let me see… about…zero. Don’t know any.

          • You’re white, I take it?

          • Rob

            If you meant to say race is a winning card, you’re right. That’s exactly why T. (“There’ll be so much winning!”)Rump is in the White House.

          • Sonny T

            It’s a winner all right. It’s flung around by liberals like candy at a parade. Poke a liberal and they shout race. Like when the doctor hits you on the knee

          • Rob

            You’re right. There’s nothing about all of T.Rump’s racist, bigoted comments and actions that suggests that these comments and actions are racist and bigoted. What the hell was I thinking?

          • That comment needs a rock just to hold it down.

    • The Resistance

      The Washington Post fact checker has figured it out:

      President Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims over 700 days

    • Jerry

      Fergus Falls had a fairly strong Klan presence in the past, so I think that explains a lot.

    • Postal Customer

      Sure the media figured it out — it’s racial tension, racial animus. It’s all about things that are racial. You know, racial things. Not racist, but racial. Big difference.

      • Joseph

        And a failure to be open to change. Clinging to the past, when working a factory job was good paying career and everybody in town was white, and everybody you ever knew was white.

  • Rob

    I’m not sure what the mystery is. As noted in the post, FF is a Republican area, at least in regard to its votes in POTUS elections. So the fact that a Republican (albeit one who wore his bigotry and misogyny on his sleeve, instead of talking in code the way past Republicans have) carried the area again in 2016 just isn’t worth spending a lot of time dissecting. No matter how odious and unqualified T.Rump was, he was still a Republican – and that clearly T.Rumped everything else.

    • // just isn’t worth spending a lot of time dissecting.

      I couldn’t disagree more. What you’re describing is a political inertia. But the fact the “party’s” values and principles have changed betrays that belief. Much the same way that evangelicals have had to prostitute many of their religious values to maintain their affiliation with the candidate.

      Those are great stories very much worth dissecting.

      • Jeff

        You’re assuming they had principles to begin with. In the last 30 years or so it’s been all about winning. The ends justify the means. And hey with Trump they got almost everything they wanted, big tax cuts, deregulation, clamp down on immigrants, did away with the ACA, make America white again etc.

      • Joseph

        Growing up, my parents had a saying about people who vote Republican. (And mind you, I’ve heard them say this saying since the GWB administration, so it predates any of the Obama/Trump politics):
        “People who vote Republican will vote for anything with an “R” next to its name, including a literal monkey.”

        I think there is some truth to that saying. A lot of people, elder-boomers and older, really do believe that the GOP is always right, and what the GOP says must be good for America. They don’t put any further thought into it. I’ve seen this with extended family, and I’ve seen this in the community around the St. Cloud area. Many people don’t care for politics, don’t follow it, and don’t think about it. They were raised Republican (back in the 1950’s and before) and what was good enough for their parents to vote for (back then) is good enough for themselves now. Jeff makes some good points as well about the importance of feeling like ‘winning’ and generally selfishness is to these people as well.

      • Rob

        Meh. The party’s values and principles haven’t changed much in recent times. The Southern Strategy, Law and Order and Build The Wall are all of a piece. There have been some more moderate Repub candidates now and then, but I would contend that the racist and misogynist aspects of the party – and its war on the poor and disadvantaged – haven’t undergone any significant permutations, other than to become even more overt with the ascent (or more accurately, descent) of T.Rump.

        Now, in an area that’s been solidly Democratic in its POTUS voting, but that instead voted for T.Rump, I could see spending journo time dissecting the situation.

  • I have said this before, and I’ll say it again here because a.) it’s sort of relevant and b.) I find it fascinating: Minnesota and Wisconsin did not vote for Donald Trump in the same way as Michigan and (especially) Pennsylvania did. In Minnesota, Trump came close to winning because so many, many people who normally vote Democrat voted for someone other than the nominee. He improved on Romney here by fewer than 2000 votes, but Clinton ran behind 2012 Obama by about 180000 votes! In Wisconsin, Trump actually received *fewer* votes overall than Romney, but for a variety of reasons we needn’t rehash (well, you can if you want, I’m just throwing out the numbers) Clinton ran over 200000 votes behind 2012 Obama – so despite sliding back in raw vote total, Trump won Wisconsin, because of how amazingly poorly Clinton’s Wisconsin game went. This, to me, doesn’t really paint a picture of two states in which Trump was able to energize a “movement” of people, to flip one and nearly flip the other, which vote totals in Michigan suggest and in Pennsylvania more strongly suggest happened. There is no big Trump movement here (not that he can’t fly in and pack an arena of course). As others today have summed up… Fergus Falls voted for the Republican, because he was the Republican, because Fergus Falls always votes for the Republican, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.

    • // many people who normally vote Democrat voted for someone other than the nominee

      The Iron Range, basically.

      // and that’s pretty much all there is to it

      and that’s a hell of a story that few people are actually tackling, ahtough I think there was a story somewhere — Times maybe — about how the Republican Party is essentially dead and now there’s only the Donald Trump party left.

      To get there, those same voters have to completely ignore — and in many cases: reverse — previously values and philosophies in order to vote for the guy with the “R” next to his name.

      That’s the story: “why”.

      I don’t think we’ve gotten a good answer.

      • wjc

        I don’t think we will get a good answer until someone publishes a thesis that captures the wide variety of motivations that people had when voting for the current occupant:

        1. He wasn’t Clinton.
        2. I don’t want to say I’m racist, but in the privacy of the voting booth…
        3. I expected more from Obama or the Congressional Republicans so now I’m going to give a finger to the whole process (The Ventura Effect).
        4. The world is going to hell, so I’m looking for entertainment while that happens.
        5. He’s a successful businessman, right? He should be able to do the job.
        6. He tells it like it is.
        7. I don’t like Mexicans taking our jobs.
        8. I’ll never vote for a Democrat, even if the Republican is horrible.

        The list can go on for quite a while, and I would think that all of the above played a role in how people decided to vote for Trump. There will never be a simple answer, IMHO. Just as I can’t see a simple reason for why Congressional Republicans can continue to support Trump when he acts in ways that they would have melted down about if Obama had done anything similar.

        Humans seem to have an infinite capacity for rationalization.

        • Erik Petersen

          #1 is the biggest reason

          • JamieHX

            Maybe; maybe not. But in any case, the beginning of that sentence should be: “…Many voters (including many Sanders-ites) believed the quarter-century worth of lies that Republicans have been telling about and demonizing Clinton with, and so they voted for Trump because…”

        • Joseph

          “Just as I can’t see a simple reason for why Congressional Republicans can continue to support Trump when he acts in ways that they would have melted down about if Obama had done anything similar.”

          The answer you are looking for is short-term power. The R’s are happy to kneel in fealty to him for as long as they see him energizing a base of disaffected working class whites who will vote for him (and thus, R’s as well) and keep the R’s in power as a party. For power, they will do anything. (This is true of most people serving in either house of Congress regardless of party to at least a moderate, to extremely large, degree. Serving the people comes third, after 1) staying in power and 2) fundraising to support 1) and ensure better committee or party leadership positions. This is not true for all who serve; some are truly public servants in the job for the right reason. But they are a small minority. )

      • Sonny T

        Maybe the voter isn’t as tethered to any one party as we imagine.

        • I see little evidence that there’s much crossover. But I’ll look at what you’ve got to suggest otherwise.

          • Sonny T

            I thought it was well-documented that many Dems crossed over, especially working class.

            Don’t forget Ventura won with an avalanche of defections from both parties. This is pretty good evidence.

          • Not really. ANY third party candidate is going to pull from two other parties. That doesn’t really signify anything except there was an additional candidate in the race.

            What we don’t know if whether the difference in votes from one election to the next came from the same voters. Or whether voters stayed home and were replaced by others who had sat out a previous election. Obviously there aer some who might’ve voted Obama and went for Trump — that’s still difficult for me to see how that’s possible, but it’s possible, I suppose. But I haven’t seen the data that shows the extent to which that’s true.

            The state is changing in many ways. The Iron Range for example, is probably in a long term evolution to a red area of the state, and I think it’s fair to say that’s probably mostly on economic grounds because of the failure of that area of the state to diversify its economy. There’s also the evangelical factor in which abortion is the only issue that matters and I think that’s obvious in the bible belt sections of the state. But those are all legit angles and stories that are worth pursuing and have been done to an extent.

            With both of the Der Spiegel stories on Fergus Falls, I don’t think anyone yet has explained the makeup of the vote and I think it’s hard to get to because people tend not to be very honest about these things and tend to say the things that will most put them in a good light.

          • Postal Customer

            Somewhere between 6.7 and 9.2m voters went from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. That was more than enough to flip WI/MI/PA.


          • JamieHX

            Really shows the ignorance of much of the electorate.

    • Postal Customer

      But the Obama coalition, especially in 2008, was whiter than most people realize. He won a lot of white folks across the great lake states that Clinton failed to inspire. Trump inspired them. So there’s more to it than simply Fergus Falls is a Republican town.

      • Rob

        Also a bit of misogynism going on. But of couse, that’s not an admission any voter would make to a journo or a pollster.

        • JamieHX

          More than a bit.

  • By the way, the latest Der Spiegel story on Fergus Falls is a piece of lightweight work. The author didn’t even try to answer the question that prompted the assignment in the first place.