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Friday Mailbag: Hot sauce, Rick Becker obsession, the stolen election lie, and mugshots

North Dakota is an outlier in hot sauce fandom. A reader accuses me of being obsessed with Rick Becker. People are still buying the stolen election lie. Also, can we change how we use mugshots? If you'd like to send correspondence for this column, send it to rport@forumcomm.com.

Photo: Rick Becker table stunt
State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, set up a table and asked citizens to challenge his argument against North Dakota mask mandate.
(Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service, via Twitter)
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MINOT, N.D. — In most of the United States, according to a survey by Instacart, the most popular hot sauce is Huy Fong Sriracha.

But not in North Dakota.

We like to go our own way. Here, it's Village Hot Sauce, though as the intrepid journalists at KVRR note , it's not really hot sauce. It comes in a tub. It's salsa, which is how we consume it in our household. Prairie Public reporter Danielle Webster argues that it's not even all that hot . And, no, it's really not, but as columnist Tammy Swift recently noted , we North Dakotans don't like spicy that much anyway.

Still, for a not-hot not-sauce, this Village stuff is pretty tasty. "I will absolutely eat this stuff until I hate myself," Webster says .

Village ought to use that for marketing.

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Anyway, to this week's mailbag! If you want to send me correspondence for this column, do so at rport@forumcomm.com. If your submission is used, it may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Jim writes, in response to my recent columns about the end (for now, anyway) of Rep. Rick Becker's political career: "Why are you so obsessed with Rick Becker?"

Follow political discourse long enough, and you'll inevitably see this refrain. It's a deflection. A rhetorical tool that allows the person deploying it to skip over criticism or facts they find inconvenient and instead make the author or speaker the problem.

I get the same accusations for my writing about disgraced former President Donald Trump.

I can't speak for others, but the way I approach my job in the news media is to write about what's interesting to me. That's a lot of stuff! But in the Trump era, and especially since the disgraceful events of Jan. 6, 2021, what's been on my radar the fracturing of the Republican Party, both nationally and right here in North Dakota, as well as the shift away from principled conservatism to populist culture war.

How could anyone cover that in North Dakota without writing a lot about Becker, the founder of the Bastiat Caucus of Trumpy Republicans, and Trump himself?

Politics is my beat, and there aren't many more important political stories in our state, or in our nation, right now than the political realignment going on within and without the GOP.

So that's what I'm going to cover.

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Todd writes: "I read your editorial this morning, discussing Mike Rounds’ edification of the Trump loss. I agree. The election for Biden was won, clearly, on the 'hate' of Trump, and, yes, Trump really lost. Many cannot get over it, as they liked what was happening with the economy, completely denying the fact that our government went $6 trillion into debt (reportedly) during the Trump years. He wasn’t as great a businessman as he proclaimed. I have told many of those Trump worshippers that he is 'poison' and that if he runs again in 2024, he, alone, may destroy the Republican Party. The party cannot endorse him, and, if he should run as an independent, Democrats will unite, once again, against him. Thanks for all of your editorials; they are honest and frank."

I agree with Todd that Trump is poison for the GOP. I don't think he'll destroy the GOP. The Republican Party will turn 168 years old in March, and its candidates are very likely to take over control of at least one chamber of Congress in this year's midterms. But I agree that Trump is an anchor around the neck of the party, not a boon to it. He's a problem, and if he's the party's nominee in 2024 he could very well lead the GOP into the wilderness.

I understand why millions of Americans voted for Trump in 2016. I can even understand why so many did so again in 2020, despite four years of chaos in the White House. What I cannot fathom is why so many continue to support him after Jan. 6 and his ongoing attempts to destroy the democratic underpinnings of our republic.

The digital era has, in various ways, allowed vast swaths of humanity to live in an alternate version of reality that allows them to avoid the often dismaying truths of actual reality. Politics is no different. Millions and millions of Americans, ensconced in a bubble of like-mindedness provided by cable news and social media algorithms, are so divorced from reality even a small bit of truth-speaking from as tepid a political figure as Sen. Mike Rounds is fodder for outrage.

Speaking of which ...

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House in 2018.
Bloomberg photo by Yuri Gripas

"If you believe the receiving of thousands of ballots in the middle of the night all for one candidate and from the military members, who are pro-Trump, which I know because I have family in the military you must be some kind of special stupid," Renee writes.

"Anyone who can look me in the eye and say they believe the 2020 election was legal, without fraud, is a damned liar! That includes you, obviously! With that belief it's obvious there will never be a fair election ever again. Learn your Chinese!" Wes adds.

In the history of politics, Trump's efforts to undermine American confidence in the electoral system with a steady river of lies, to the point where his own supporters, like Wes, say they're not going to vote anymore, has to be one of the stupidest strategies of all time.

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It ranks right up there with Republicans and conservatives fanning the flames of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, only to watch right-leaning voters die from COVID-19 at rates that are multiples of other political demographics .

(Trump doesn't get blame for that. He's encouraged people to get vaccinated.)

We've already seen the political fallout from this stupidity. Republicans would probably control the Senate right now were it not for Trump's sour grapes discouraging Republican voters in Georgia's run-off.

Here's the thing: Many of the people who are pushing the election conspiracies the hardest don't believe them. Case in point: Sean Hannity, who is without a doubt one of Donald Trump's loudest boosters. Documents disclosed in the congressional inquiry into Jan. 6 show that Hannity was acting as an adviser to Donald Trump (Fox News would fire him for that if the cable network had any integrity). One of the most recent disclosures showed that Hannity was begging Trump to stop talking about the stolen election .

Why? In part because Hannity knows that's a loser strategy, as we've already established, but also because Sean Hannity, whatever he may say on his television or radio shows, doesn't actually believe the election was stolen.

I would argue that most of the prominent personalities in conservative media know the election wasn't stolen. Whatever else you want to say about these people, they're not stupid. They aren't promoting the stolen election lie because they believe it. They're doing it because they know that's what their audience wants to hear.

"Your column today was excellent," writes Jay in response to my piece on mugshots and the sad story of a Carpio woman who was put through the wringer by incompetent prosecutors. "The problem of overcharging and conviction-by-accusation has always existed, but it has become worse in the social media age. Prosecutors love to charge flimsy felonies over evidence-based misdemeanors because 1) they use the trumped-up felony as leverage to force the defendant to plead to the reduced charge, and 2) it helps deflect from criticism from cops and on social media (friends/relatives of the alleged victim and others) that prosecutors are lily-livered criminal-coddlers. Real lives get trampled by this process, and obviously it's worse when the newspapers and 6 o'clock news get a hold of it."

Eric also liked the column, but sent along this bit of criticism: "As much as I appreciated your story and agree with its theme and conclusion, I was disappointed by the fact that it was accompanied by a link to the original story with the mug shot and a side-bar reproduction of the mug shot so one didn’t even have to click on the link."

To address Eric's criticism first, I'd argue that the toothpaste was already out of the tube. That mugshot was already online. I can't change how another media outlet used it. I didn't disclose anything new, but since I was using that particular story, and that particular mugshot, as an example in my argument, I thought it important to let my readers see precisely what I was talking about.

I can't change what's happened in the past, but I can certainly use the past as an example of why we ought to do things differently in the future.

Also, Jay is right in every point he makes. Social media has changed so much about the way humans behave, and that includes how prosecutors pursue cases. What the public wants to hear from the criminal justice system is that the criminals are getting punished, and law enforcement has a tendency to deliver that story, with assistance from journalists for whom crime reporting is a lucrative beat, even when the people who get caught up in the criminal justice system aren't guilty. Or, at least, aren't guilty of crimes as serious as the prevailing narrative would have us believe.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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