Highmore boosters look to move beyond backlash from offensive float in Old Settlers' Days Parade

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Jeff Damer and the float

Highmore’s Main Street is in the middle of serious Donald Trump territory, make no mistake about that.

 

In the 2016 presidential election, 79 percent of those who voted in Hyde County picked Donald Trump, compared to 18 percent for Hillary Clinton. That was among highest pro-Trump percentages for a county in South Dakota, which overall — and even including that wild center of bipartisanship and moderation, Sioux Falls — favored the Republican over the Democrat statewide by 62 percent to 32 percent.

 

Harding County in the South Dakota’s far northwest corner was the state leader in Trump love at the polls in 2016, with 90 percent to Clinton’s 5 percent. Out there in the land of oil wells and antelope, Clinton barely beat Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson with 4 percent.

 

Hyde County also got edged out in its Trump percentage by Campbell County with 85 percent, Perkins County with 83 percent and Jones County — Sen. John Thune’s home turf — with 81 percent and Potter County, which borders Hyde County, with 80 percent.

 

Still, at 79 percent, there’s no doubt who the overwhelming majority of Hyde County voters will be supporting in the 2020 election, even with the impacts of Trump trade tariffs depressing the market value of certain crops important to county farmers.

 

And the election year is coming up fast. So it shouldn’t have been a shock to anyone to see a pro-Trump float last Saturday in the Old Settlers’s Days Parade in Highmore, the Hyde County seat.

 

What was shocking to some, and what has caused an eruption of emotions and comments on social media, was what else was on that float: people wearing masks made to looked like Clinton and former President Barack Obama were standing in a make-believe jail labeled as Guantanamo, while a Trump impersonator celebrated outside the cell.

 

And then there was the BS banner

 

Oh, and there were also Trump banners, including one that flashed in large, capital letters: “No More Bullshit!” 

 

Which is about where understandable pro-Trump enthusiasm left off and simple inappropriateness in a public setting took over. In a big way.

 

Here, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit, for those who don’t already know: I don’t like Donald Trump. I voted for Clinton in 2016, Obama in 2012 and McCain in 2008. All of them, I think, were better presidential material than Trump, and one of them proved it over eight years.

 

All political differences aside, what I really don’t like about our current president is his boorish personality and his mean-spirited tweets and comments and degrading actions toward others. 

 

Even so,  I wouldn’t want him disrespected in a float in a parade. And I certainly wouldn’t want to see a caricature of him locked in jail while his opponents celebrated outside the bars.

 

Our president shouldn’t be disrespected like that. Nor should our former president, or our former secretary of state. Especially not on a float rattling down Main Street.

 

Then there was the profanity, of course - and specifically that coarse word, which Trump has actually used in a public rally, and which has been celebrated by much of his base.

 

Do I use the world? Sure. For time to time. That one and others. But not in public. And not in a public forum.

 

Just not appropriate for public display

 

I used it in this story, with some degree of discomfort, because it's part of the story. But I'd never write it in a blog myself. I don’t allow that kind of language in comments on this blog. I didn’t allow it on past blogs I’ve moderated. I don’t allow it on my personal social media sites. And I don’t like it in a parade.

 

So I was offended by the float on a couple of levels, even though I didn’t actually see it myself. That's because this year I didn’t make it to Highmore for the annual Old Settlers’ Days bash. My wife did, however. She was back in her hometown for the big weekend, when Highmore gets busy with the business of celebrating its heritage and entertaining people from across South Dakota and beyond.

 

It’s always a good time. Highmore a good place to visit. Good people live there. I like the place.

 

And it was shaping up to be a great Old Settlers’ Days weekend, with good weather and an entertaining selection of public events, including golf and teener baseball and a demolition derby and rib-cooking competitions and rib-eating opportunities for hundreds, and street dancing and… 

Demo Derby Highmore

Well, you know, the kind of stuff we do here in South Dakota, for fun and often for charity.

 

As president of the Highmore Civic and Commerce Association, Jesse Johnson was right in the middle of things last weekend. It was the 50th anniversary of the town's popular June celebration, and he believed this year would be among the best of years ever.

 

Johnson was in the parade on Saturday but didn’t see the float.  Most people actually in the parade probably didn’t see it, either.

 

“And not having seen the float, I was having a fantastic weekend,” Johnson said. “We put on a bull bash Friday night with bull riding, a sanctioned event. We had candy scrambles and burgers grilling, beautiful weather and a great family atmosphere. And Saturday morning we had a road race and then the parade, which was nicely attended.” Bull Bash

 

The organizational structure of the parade is fluid, and has been for 50 years — without problems, organizers say. Parade participants gather mostly on their own near the nursing home in the northeast part of town, with volunteers doing some directing of traffic as lines merge from a couple of directions.

 

Beyond that, the float drivers and pullers and walkers and bikers and riders pretty much handle it on their own.

 

Fifty years of parades witout something like this

 

There aren’t entry forms and registration and guidelines, or conductors of speed and spacing, or appropriateness. And prior to this year and this float, they never seemed to be need that stuff, Johnson said.

 

“You kind of just get in order and go,” he said. “I’ve never experienced a problem. And talking to other people, in 50 years this is really the only issue we’ve come across.”

 

And it turned into a pretty big issue.

 

Somewhere in that jumble of floats and people and signs and vehicles and sounds of one kind or another,  a 38-year-old construction worker named Jeff Damer (pronounced DAY-mer) was riding a four-wheeler and pulling his float — the float in question.

 

Damer didn’t mention his plan for the float in advance to any parade organizers. Nor did he show it to them prior to the parade. And he apparently kind of slipped into line quickly without people noticing. At least that’s what he said in my Facebook discussions, in an apologetic sort of way.

 

But during the parade, people noticed. Oh, they noticed, and many blanched — even there in the heart of Trump territory. The blanchers included my wife, who was there as usual with members of her large Catholic family, one of whom snapped a picture of the float.

 

Mary shared the picture with me, and I then shared it on my Facebook page. And things took off from there, which they tend to do when you toss a little Trump, Clinton and Obama into a big pot of social media and stir it up.

 

I posted the float picture and a copy block with fairly restrained criticism of the float at 4:08 p.m. Monday. By 4:11 p.m. Tuesday the comment total on the update was 521, and counting. 

 

Admittedly, dozens of those comments were mine. And dozens more, probably, were Damer’s. But still, it was cooking. And while that boil didn’t last, it managed to maintain a low simmer.

 

As that main conversational stew was bubbling, I lit the burner for another. I did a follow-up update about how Damer had shared my initial float post with a couple of pro-Trump websites and asked for help in dealing with a “biased local news station journalist.”

 

Which, apparently, was me. 

 

That secondary update was heating up pretty fast as well, and was soon at over 100 comments on its own. 

 

Struggling to keep control of the conversation

 

Now, if I can switch metaphors, it’s been a hard horse to handle, this Facebook string about the float.  First there was a deluge of angry responses about the float and criticism of Damer. The bad news is there was a spattering of F-bombs and other profanity, and way too many personal attacks and harsh pejoratives and sweeping generalizations, about people and groups and Highmore and South Dakota.

 

The good news is that Damer, who is prominent in the picture pulling the float with a four-wheeler, was willing to engage on it. And he joined the group conversation to defend himself. That took some courage, because while I have a pretty good mix of politics among my 2,500-plus Facebook friends, the majority of comments in extended conversations on politics tend to lean left of center.

 

That meant Damer was likely to be outnumbered. He could probably see that at a glance. Even so, he came in swinging in defense of his float and his president. Some of his swings were unfortunately phrased, as were some of those coming at him from the other side of the debate.

 

Things got personal, as they so often do on social media, and sometimes nasty.

 

A number of Republicans among my Facebook friends disparaged the float early in the discussion. A number more came in on Damer’s side, sometimes in an appropriate manner and sometimes not. I have to imagine many more Republicans followed the exchange but decided not to comment, perhaps wisely.

 

Same for the other side, I’d guess. Lots of people looking on but keeping quiet. 

 

Some of those who did comment from either side did so in meaningful, restrained ways. But far too many let their anger rule. And in far too any cases that resulted in the crude, rude social-media exchanges of invectives and and personal attacks, of which both liberals and conservatives are guilty.

 

So, it was a pretty typical social-media fight, but magnified. And as people in my Facebook group, which is dominated by South Dakota residents or those who have lived or worked here before moving elsewhere, shared the post new people joined the fray, sometimes from far away.

 

And some of those comments were among the most unfair and most obscene.

 

The Facebook blowup landed me some new Facebook friends and some back-channel discussions that have already been worthwhile, for me, at least. And I’m hoping for some more.

 

But at least the guy with the float was willing to talk

 

I reached out to Damer, too, by personal Facebook message. And he responded. And while we’ve had a few contentious exchanges, mostly they have been courteous and meaningful. As he continued to wage war with critics on my page, he and I got to know each other better by private message, where reason and simple humanity are often easier to find.

 

I asked him if he’d sit down for coffee sometime. And he said he would, maybe this weekend. We’ll see.

 

Mary and I intend to stop in Fort Pierre on Friday for a walleye tournament hosted by Bishop Robert Gruss of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City to raise funds for the Western South Dakota Catholic Foundation. Then we’ll be on to Highmore for some more Garrigan family time, and maybe that coffee with Jeff Damer, if we can work it out in our respective schedules.

 

Meanwhile, Damer and I continue to talk by message. And I’ve learned more about him there, too, including the fact that he’s a divorced father of two teenager girls, and is working to be a good dad.

 

He’s also partial to John Deere tractors, and interested in talking both politics and religion with me. I’m ready to talk all three.

 

Damer’s been around the country a bit, had some things that worked out in his life and  some other things that didn’t, and came back home, as many have done.

 

I’ve also spoke to other folks in Highmore, one of whom who didn’t want to be identified but shared this thoughts about the controversy. He said Damer was not representing Highmore with the float, which “should never have been allowed in the parade.”

 

But Damer gets some support, too, on his Facebook page, ast least. There  he crafted an important message that reads: “To all my Highmore people, I apologize! I didn’t mean for things to get this out of hand.”

 

When Facebook friends are really less than helpful

 

The comments in response from his Facebook friends were almost all supportive of the float, and included predictable “snowflake” references and “It was awesome, brother” and “Don’t back down!” and “liberal idiots” and “ha ha — need a bigger cage next year” and “We the people loved that float, no apology needed.”

 

So, Jeff Damer is getting a lot of peer pressure to be mean-spirited and personal in his political messaging. I hope he can resist it.

 

Jesse Johnson called the float “disappointing and distasteful,” but also declined to criticize Damer directly, noting that he was helpful in worthy causes in Highmore.

 

“He volunteers. He was a volunteer for the Bull Bash Friday night. And he’s a volunteer fireman,” Johnson said. “So he gives back to the community.”

 

In our conversations, Damer seems sincerely committed to Highmore and sincerely remorseful that he might have hurt his community and its people with the float. He also worries that the kids who were on the float might suffer repercussions. And he says their parents are worried.

 

That worried me, too. So I paid attention when Damer asked me to take down the two hot posts on my Facebook page about the float and about him. That was a big request, though.

 

 I believe in living with the consequences of our actions, and hopefully learning from them. I believe in historical records, even on social media. And I’m not inclined to delete posts upon request, especially those where I have been factual in what I wrote and which  attract hundreds of comments, some of them worthwhile.

 

But a lot of the comments were repeating themselves. Many of the debates were simply spiteful, from both sides. And people joining the conversation late were commenting without having read much of the previous discussion.

 

“Maybe it has run its course,” said a good friend when I asked for advice.

 

“This is longer than the Mueller report,” a Facebook friend joked in a comment.

 

“Maybe it’s the spirit talking to you,” a Catholic friend said, referring to the Holy Spirit, and Damer's request.

 

Shutting down the Facebook debate

 

I asked for help from my Facebook friends and learned that I could lock the posts so that only I could comment on those two threads. From another friend, I learned how to “hide” the whole strings of comments, and the original posts. That way history is maintained but sealed and I will still have access to posts if I want or need them.

 

Still, I was struggling with whether I made the right decision. And Then Damer got engaged in another harsh exchange with someone on my Facebook and seemed to say that he didn’t regret the style of messaging on the float after previously saying that he did. So one of my Facebook friends told me I’d been “bamboozled."

 

Maybe so, I figured. But I thought he and I were making progress, too. And there were some good things happening. Relationships aren’t built overnight. Trust isn’t either. And change is even more complicated.

 

I wasn’t asking Damer to change his love for Trump, or his passion for expressing it. I was simply encouraging him to change the way he expressed it. And I was hoping he had come to believe that the way he’d expressed it on that float was wrong, just like the way many of his critics were wrong and hateful in the way they attacked him on my Facebook page.

 

Today as I waited to talk about this blog post and this issue on In the Moment with Lori Walsh on public radio. I continued to message back and forth with Damer.  And just before I went on the air, I got this message from him: “By the way, the parents wanted me to thank you for hiding the posts.”

 

That helped my comfort level with my decision to hide the posts. And I hoped it helped those kids and the town.

 

Jesse Johnson hopes so, too. It’s unfair, after all, to judge a town and its people by one float in one parade, and one that kind of sneaked in at that.

 

“We’re a proud, tight-knit community. People work hard and help each other. We’re not going to let an issue like this deter us,” Johnson said. “Last weekend the firemen put on that rib-cooking competition, then fed something like 700 people. In a town of 800, that’s pretty amazing. Then we had something like 300 at the street dance.”

 

All told, the weekend was a grand success. Except, of course, for that one thing.

 

Antique Car Highmore “If you’d dismiss that float, it was a wonderful weekend,” Johnson said. “If somebody was in Highmore experiencing all the great things going on, they’d have a different perspective” of the town than they might get on social media.

 

Because of the float, the parade is likely to change

 

The days of free-wheeling parade organization are probably finished in Highmore.

 

“As a group, we’re going to talk about maybe putting in some guidelines or a policy for the parade,” Johnson said. “This presents us with the opportunity to look at that possibility for future parades.”

 

And I’m pretty sure the next float Damer is involved with, while it might promote Donald Trump, will do it in a different way. I hope so. What he said in a message this morning was encouraging.

 

“As far as the float, I regret how I got my message out, but I don’t regret expressing my opinion,” Damer wrote. “I should have done it in a less hateful or hurtful way.”

 

A less hateful, less hurtful way to express ourselves. Boy, do we need more of that.

 

And not just in parades.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.