You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation


A group of small-town environmentalists wanted to stop a potentially toxic Costco chicken plant. How did they end up fighting alongside anti-Muslim xenophobes?

Photographs by Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII

The fire hall in Nickerson, Nebraska, population 350, was packed. The metal chairs set up for the planning- board meeting were all taken. There was no room left in the aisles. Folks had squeezed into the back of the room, and the crowd stretched out the front doors and into the parking lot, where the latecomers were left pacing in the gathering dark, demanding to be let inside. Most Monday nights, the village board is lucky if one or two people show up to voice an opinion on municipal matters. On April 4, 2016, there were hundreds—so many that the board moved the meeting to a larger room and opened the windows to let the people outside hear.

The zoning committee was planning to act on a proposal that had caught the attention of everyone in the area. An unnamed company wanted to build a massive chicken-processing plant, designated in filings only as “Project Rawhide,” on a tract of agricultural land about halfway to Fremont, a larger town a few miles to the south. The plant, according to a report submitted by the company, would create 1,100 new meatpacking jobs, support 125 area farmers by buying 1.6 million chickens per week, and bring in an estimated 2,000 additional jobs indirectly linked to the project. As people poured into the fire hall, someone from the Greater Fremont Development Council, which had courted the project, handed out fact sheets, claiming that it would bring in a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue.

Randy Ruppert didn’t buy the math. He farmed 220 acres not far from the planned site just outside Fremont, where he had retired after 48 years of working for railroad companies as a manager of major construction projects. He was trained to think through problems systematically, and he envisioned a host of undiscussed downsides: truck traffic, odor, inadequate waste disposal, public health risks. One of his last assignments, at RailWorks Track Systems, had been to help the meatpacking giant Cargill head off the swamping of its corn-milling plant in Blair, Nebraska, about 20 miles east of Nickerson, during the Missouri River flood of 2011. The city of Blair had raced to stack a mile of sandbags around its municipal wastewater-treatment facility, and Cargill ended up building an eight-foot-high, three-mile-long emergency levee at a cost of more than $20 million. This new poultry plant was to be sited squarely in the flood plain of the Lower Platte River. What would happen when heavy rains came again?

The Lower Platte’s watershed was already classified as the sixth most polluted in the United States, thanks to another Cargill plant, in Schuyler, Nebraska, 30 miles upstream. Ruppert had become something of an environmentalist in his retirement, trying to persuade area corn and soybean growers to switch to no-till farming and to plant buffer strips along their streams to keep their fertilizers from adding to the toxic runoff. He even restored 65 acres of his own pastureland to high-diversity prairie. Millions of chickens would not only undo that work but also leave the river water unsuitable—even untreatable—for drinking. Discreetly, he began talking to neighbors. Ruppert is an unassuming man, gregarious but soft-spoken, a blue-jeans-and-ball-cap guy who earns respect with his precise attention to detail. (He likes to relax by spending unbroken hours engraving decorative designs into rifle parts under a microscope.) After he’d spent a few days laying out his concerns, hand-painted signs started appearing along the highway: NO PROJECT RAWHIDE, CHICKENS STINK, COMING SOON: BIRD FLU.

Ruppert also decided to contact Jane Kleeb, the founder of a nonprofit advocacy group called Bold Nebraska, which had become the leading force in the state against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. For nearly eight years, Kleeb had kept that project on hold by rallying farmers and ranchers around concerns over contamination of surface and groundwater in the event of a spill—until finally, in November 2015, President Barack Obama announced that he was rejecting the plan. (President Trump has reversed that decision, but Bold Nebraska’s efforts continue to hold up construction in Nebraska.) Ruppert figured Kleeb could help him build opposition to what he considered another threat to the state’s waterways by contacting the people on Bold Nebraska’s mailing list and its followers on social media. Ruppert spoke with Kleeb on the phone a couple of times, and she agreed to come to the board meeting in Nickerson and even go to his home beforehand to talk with people from the community about how to fight the plant.

Kleeb told me that she wanted to get a feel for the commitment of Ruppert’s group “to see if there was a winnable campaign,” but she also wanted a clear sense of everyone’s motives. Fremont is an old meatpacking town that has been transformed in recent decades by the industry’s use of undocumented labor. In that time, the community has also come to be synonymous with America’s rising nativist sentiment, due to a protracted and bitter legal battle it has waged against undocumented Hispanic workers at the Hormel Foods plant in town. When Bold Nebraska alerted its membership online to local concerns about Project Rawhide, several of them raised objections to being seen as partnering with xenophobes and racists.

Kleeb decided to go to Fremont anyway. At Ruppert’s home, she warned everyone about their perception problem and said they needed to limit their protests to concerns about water quality. Afterward, on the drive to the fire hall, her minivan fell in with the caravan of pickups and SUVs. “I was following this guy who had a Tea Party bumper sticker and a pro-gun bumper sticker,” she said. The driver was Doug Wittmann, the head of Win It Back, the local Tea Party organization. (He also happened to be Randy Ruppert’s brother-in-law.) After they parked along Nickerson’s main drag, Wittmann approached Kleeb on the sidewalk and asked her what she thought of his stickers. If Kleeb’s years of organizing fiercely conservative ranchers in the Nebraska Sandhills had taught her anything, it was to build alliances around issues rather than identity. “Here’s the thing,” she told Wittmann. “We’re definitely not going to agree on gun policy, but we will agree on water and property rights.”

The crowd inside the fire hall was unexpectedly tense. The zoning committee had announced that it would take no comments from the community; the members just wanted to rule on the procedural question of reclassifying the property to commercial use. If anyone wanted to take up larger issues, they should talk to the village board, which would meet immediately afterward. With that, the committee voted unanimously to approve the rezoning. A ripple of anger coursed through the room. Some people got up to leave, thinking that the project was already a done deal.

When everyone was herded back into the meeting room after the break, the village board asked if anyone wanted to speak. John Wiegert, a local schoolteacher who had driven up to the meeting from Fremont with his sister, said that he’d intended to sit quietly. But after an awkward pause, and with no one rising to take the floor, he stood up.

“Hell, I’ll talk,” Wiegert said.

The development council had been handing out fliers touting the new jobs this project was going to create, he said, but how was a town this size going to fill 3,000 new positions? “I’m worried about the type of workers that this will attract,” he said. He knew that in recent years the meatpacking industry had turned away from undocumented Hispanic labor. New workers now typically had legal status, but that didn’t mean they were U.S. citizens. In the poultry industry, many of the workers could be political refugees from Somalia. “Being a Christian, I don’t want Somalis in here,” he said. “They’re of Muslim descent.”

Ruppert says that he shook his head, quietly cursing Wiegert’s every word. This was exactly what Kleeb and Bold Nebraska had told them not to do. But Wiegert pressed on. “You know where they’re going to live?” he asked. “In our neighborhoods.” He pointed, one by one, to people around the room. “They’re going to live next to you and you and you—and me.”

At the end of the night, the board unanimously rejected the proposed plant.

Ruppert placed this sign outside his house. Many people in Fremont didn’t share his concerns about the Costco plant’s environmental impact and were more upset that it might provide jobs for Somali Muslim refugees.

John Wiegert’s crusade against immigrants was well-known to the people at the meeting. In late 2008, he had led a petition drive to enact a city ordinance that would bar “illegals” from renting apartments, buying homes, or holding jobs in Fremont. To make sure the wording of the ordinance would stand up to legal scrutiny if it passed, Wiegert spoke with Kris Kobach. As a representative of the right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Kobach had authored similar ordinances in other small towns in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Texas. Kobach, Wiegert said, was sure he could write a measure for the official ballot issue that would hold up in court. But he wanted to know that the petitioners were ready for the long legal battle that would follow. Wiegert told Kobach not to worry. “Once I get started on something,” he said, “I go through with it.”

The measure not only passed with 57 percent of the vote in Fremont but survived years of legal challenges reaching all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court. When I discussed the case with Kobach in 2012, as part of a book I wrote about Hormel and modern pork production, he described his trip to Fremont as “a refreshing vignette—no, let me use the English word—a refreshing little picture of citizens who were taking this issue on, who were trying to get expert help, and who were just delighted that I was willing to help them.”

In 2013, just as the ordinance was about to be formally implemented, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stepped in, claiming that the ordinance, which required would-be renters to apply for an occupancy license that included a statement of immigration status, violated the Fair Housing Act. Fremont would have to either repeal the housing portion of the ordinance or face the prospect of losing community development block grants that the city received each year from the federal government. The city might even have to pay back millions in grants it had already received. Fremont Mayor Scott Getzschman urged the city council to repeal the housing clause, explaining that it was largely symbolic anyway: Most undocumented workers employed at area meatpacking plants were already segregated into a large trailer park in Inglewood, just south of the Union Pacific tracks but still technically outside of town, or down U.S. Route 30 in Schuyler. The ordinance did nothing but ensure that meatpacking workers continued to pay rent in neighboring communities.

With support from conservative politicians around the state, Wiegert spearheaded an effort to stop the city from unilaterally repealing the housing clause. “We have a crooked government,” he told the city council at a meeting that I attended in late 2013. “You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.” Under mounting pressure, the council finally caved and decided not to take up the issue themselves but instead to put the ordinance to another vote. In February 2014, Fremont held a repeal election—and the measure was retained, this time with 60 percent of the vote. The citizens of Fremont were clear: They would rather lose all federal funding and pay back what the city had already been given than comply with federal law governing housing and immigration status. “The people have spoken,” Wiegert told the Omaha World-Herald. “Hopefully, they’ll get the message at City Hall, finally. They need to listen to the people of Fremont.”

Kobach has since ridden the notoriety of his anti-immigrant stance to election as Kansas secretary of state, then a spot as an immigration policy adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and now a place as co-chair of Trump’s election commission, leveling allegations of widespread election fraud by undocumented immigrants. The outcome for Fremont has been less satisfactory. The ordinance left the town in a financial crisis. Fearing the loss of federal funds, Fremont made cuts to the city budget. Park lawns went unmowed. There were no meter maids to write parking tickets. More significantly, the city attorney advised the city council to set aside funds for a potential legal battle over the ordinance. Based on the bills incurred over Kobach-authored ordinances in Texas and Pennsylvania, Fremont established a $2 million defense fund. Looking at the cash-strapped municipal budget, the mayor and city council decided that Fremont needed to attract additional businesses to broaden the tax base, but after all of the negative press attending the passage of the anti-immigration ordinance, only one company could be coaxed into moving to town.

The initial obfuscation of Project Rawhide was dropped soon after the Nickerson meeting, and the unnamed company turned out to be Costco, the world’s largest retailer of rotisserie chickens. The wholesale chain, third in sales only to Walmart and Amazon, was poised to make a major play in the middle states, and its bargain-basement rotisserie chickens—the chain’s signature loss-leader—would bring customers through the doors. All Costco needed was one of the country’s largest chicken-processing plants, located somewhere near the dead-center of the country. When Wiegert helped convince the Nickerson village board to reject the Project Rawhide proposal, Costco didn’t give up. It issued a new plan, moving its site only a few miles, to a location just south of Fremont, directly adjoining the Hormel plant.

Toxic runoff from other meatpacking plants has already damaged the Lower Platte watershed. Waste from Costco’s plant, which may process more than two million chickens per week, could render its water undrinkable.

After Costco announced the move to Fremont, Randy Ruppert decided it was time to get organized. He had already taken to calling his loose-knit group of anti-Costco protesters Nebraska Communities United, but there was little more to it than a web site where he shared information. To defeat Costco, he needed a formal structure, elected leaders, a real plan. Ruppert again called Jane Kleeb and asked if she could help him turn his ragtag group of family, friends, and neighbors into a durable opposition. Kleeb not only agreed, she went one better: She contacted Dave Domina, an Omaha attorney with a reputation as something of a white knight for small farmers in Nebraska. Domina has represented the landowners suing TransCanada over Keystone XL, corn growers suing the seed giant Syngenta after China rejected their GMO crop, and farmers suing Monsanto claiming that its herbicide RoundUp was damaging their organic crops. Domina even ran for U.S. Senate against Fremont native Ben Sasse in 2014—though in heavily Republican Nebraska, he was defeated in a landslide.

Ruppert hoped that the group would heed Domina’s advice and focus on environmental concerns. “This is not about nationalism,” he said. “This is not about closed-mindedness.” Ruppert told me that the real concern was whether Fremont’s wastewater-treatment facility was equipped to handle the demands of such a large poultry processor. Costco had already acknowledged that wastewater from the plant would contain fat, blood, ingesta, and fecal matter, as well as processing chemicals such as ammonia hydroxide, chlorine, and peracetic acid. The company promised that all solids and fats would be removed within the plant; the remaining waste would go to a complex of covered anaerobic lagoons, which the city agreed to finance and place under the supervision of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

But Ruppert pointed out that the whole system would use about two million gallons of water per day, and the lagoons were estimated to occupy a stunning 40 acres. If the Lower Platte ever flooded, as the Missouri did just a few years ago, these lagoons could release a deluge of toxic chemicals. Even normal runoff from hundreds of new chicken barns would threaten to carry nitrates and phosphorous into the river from the “litter” of the 150 million birds that Costco hoped to slaughter each year. This volume of waste created a larger, and very specific, public health concern. The Lower Platte is one of the primary sources of drinking water for Omaha and Lincoln, cities with a combined population of nearly a million people. Water quality is already a particular concern in historically black North Omaha and mostly Hispanic South Omaha. Should the Lower Platte suffer further damage from the meatpacking industry, the people who stand to suffer first and most are the state’s two largest minority communities.

Consider, then, the bind in which people in Fremont like Ruppert find themselves. While he disliked the prospect of being called a racist for allying his movement with an avowed Islamophobe like Wiegert, he worried that simply shunning Wiegert and the many townspeople who agreed with him would split the opposition to Costco—and ultimately speed the construction of a plant that would profit from immigrant labor and pose a direct threat to the health of people of color. “If you want to talk about being a racist,” Ruppert said, “this corporate model of farming is pure racism.” So, instead, he decided to see if he could convince his neighbors to stick to environmental grounds and leave immigration out of it.

The meeting Ruppert called with Domina was held at the home of Debby Durham, a friend who lived on the north side of Fremont. Durham had risen at the most recent Fremont city council meeting to express her opposition to Costco over concerns about avian flu—but also the worry she shared with John Wiegert. “Our town is in jeopardy, not only with disease,” she said, “but illegals. Eleven hundred of them.” Durham had invited Wiegert to the meeting, which Ruppert decided, after some debate, was a good idea. He didn’t share Wiegert and Durham’s views on immigration, but he had to admit that they were passionate opponents of the plant. If he could convince them to focus on the public safety concerns, then he thought they deserved a place in the group.

Once everyone was seated in the living room of Durham’s sprawling farmhouse, Domina rose to speak. If the group wanted to stop the chicken plant, he said, they had to focus on water quality, unfair contracts, and the abuses of public domain that almost always attend such projects. “Don’t talk about immigration; don’t talk about the workers,” he said, according to several people who attended the meeting. (Domina did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.) Wiegert told me that he assumed Domina’s remarks were made directly to him, but he says he remained silent. “Wasn’t my meeting.” To break the tension, Doug Wittmann, Ruppert’s brother-in-law, jumped in. “Look,” he said, pointing at Kleeb, “we have wacky liberals. We have wacky conservatives,” gesturing toward Wiegert, “and we have some Libertarians. But we can all fight this social disgrace.”

Wittmann says he wasn’t just trying to make peace. He honestly believes that people’s reasons for opposing the chicken plant—for assuming any stance on issues of public policy—are more complicated than the current political climate will allow. He conceded that “a lot of my kind of people”—in the Tea Party—were motivated by antipathy over Muslims coming into Fremont. But personally, he was concerned about something else. “The chickens,” he said. “I hate the CAFO idea.” Wittmann’s opposition to confined animal feeding operations arose from his hippy days—he had dropped out of college in the early 1970s and used his savings to buy a head shop in Lincoln—and also from his rediscovered Christian faith. (“A wise man considers the life of his beast,” he told me, quoting from Proverbs.) It would be easy to make assumptions about his motivations, he said, given his political affiliations, but it wasn’t so simple.

Still, when pressed on whether he thought Domina was right to insist on leaving immigration issues aside, Wittmann was ambivalent. “I don’t know why they thought that immigration was a losing idea,” he said. “Fremont voted 60 percent for having an illegal alien ordinance, even though we were being opposed and outspent, eleven to one, by the mayor, the council, the chamber of commerce, and all the businesspeople.” Logic dictated that opposition to the plant would only be strengthened by bringing ethnicity and immigration into the debate.

Wiegert, for his part, simply refused to be reined in. “Dave didn’t want us to talk about the workers,” he told me with a shrug. “I did anyway.”

Public meetings in Fremont about the Costco plant, like this one in November, which was jointly organized by Nebraska Communities United and the Tea Party, often became an opportunity for residents to voice anti-Muslim sentiments.

Costco’s application to build the plant kept sailing through the Fremont city council’s approval process. The new site, on farmland just outside the city limits, was annexed into the town, then rezoned from agricultural to commercial, and then declared blighted and substandard, all maneuvers that allowed the town to offer Costco more than $13 million in tax incentives. When objections were raised over condemning productive farmland, the size of the allotted area was stretched to include some abandoned buildings close by. Through it all, people from Fremont gathered, in person and online, in attempts to unify over their opposition to the plant. But deep rifts were soon exposed.

Jerry Hart, one of John Wiegert’s co-petitioners on the anti-immigration ordinance, was a regular, and confrontational, presence on a Facebook group called Fremont City Council Watchdog. One local resident mocked him, writing, “yes, you should be so ‘proud’ of your illegal ordinance, that accomplishes nothing, and made Fremont a laughingstock.... And so many of those you think are illegal are not. They have as much a right to be here as you do. You, sir, are un-American.” Hart replied, “Illegal is not a race. Mexican is not a race. Muslim is not a race. You are stupid and you can’t fix stupid.”

When a petition was started online, those adding their names attached long signing statements. Between demands for environmental studies, complaints about “corporate greed,” and at least one call to “go vegan,” there were also overtly anti-immigrant comments. A local school-bus driver denounced “all these Hispanics or Japanese whatever kind of people that come in our country that don’t speak a word in English.” Mary Trehearn, a ninth-grade English teacher at Fremont High School, wrote, “The school system is sound. Property values are good. This will change everything. Taxes will skyrocket. Property values will plummet. Crime will increase. Illegal immigrants will pour in.... And who are we talking about bringing in? Muslims, Somalians, and Sudanese! Are we out of our minds????”

After similar statements at small-group community meetings hosted by the Greater Fremont Development Council, Walt Shafer from Lincoln Premium Poultry, a Costco subcontractor that would manage the plant, announced that no one from his company or Costco would attend a larger, citywide gathering scheduled to be held at a meeting hall south of the railroad tracks. “We’re not going to meet with a lynch mob,” Shafer said. After another meeting hosted by Nebraska Communities United in September, I was approached by a man named Gene Schultz, a member of Doug Wittmann’s Tea Party group, who told me that he had changed his position somewhat on Mexican workers at Hormel. “At least they’re not Muslims,” he said. “Muslims will cut your head off.” Later, I looked up his lengthy signing statement, which included a warning that if Costco were allowed to build its plant, the Muslim call to prayer would blare from loudspeakers in Fremont five times per day. “When hundreds of Somali or Syrian Muslims come to our town they will change our culture,” he wrote. “These are typically uneducated, sharia-loving Muslims that have no concept of our Constitution, laws, or modern way of life.”

Wiegert, meanwhile, was a regular presence at the city council meetings, loudly railing against Costco’s putative workforce. He was also a reliable source for inflammatory statements in the media. When reporters called, he always denied being a racist and instead talked about legal immigration and the rule of law, the impact that refugee children would have on local schools, and his belief that communities should be able to decide “who they do or do not want as neighbors.” Inevitably, though, he would veer off course, and insist that there is good reason to be afraid of Muslims, and Somalis in particular, given instances of terrorism around the world. He told one reporter he didn’t want a single Somali in his town: “Even if there’s one, there’s one too many.” He talked to the Omaha World-Herald, the state’s largest newspaper; went on American Public Media’s Marketplace; and even gave Katie Couric a guided tour of Fremont for a documentary series set to air next year on the National Geographic channel, driving her around the trailer park south of town where most of the “illegals” live.

Ruppert did everything he could to counter Wiegert. “Animosity needs to be set aside,” he told the local newspaper. “We need to proceed with the facts as we know them, and proceed in a way that does not divide the community.” And his environmental message did seem to have an impact—to an extent. In December, after repeated demonstrations that the land in question was in a flood plain—and barely a half-mile from the main channel of the Platte River—the city council approved tax-increment financing to assist with relocating the covered lagoons from the Costco site to land adjoining the wastewater-treatment facility, three miles away. But this short-term victory proved costly. With no council debate, the private farmland was earmarked for acquisition by the city via eminent domain—and with the improved sewage treatment, Costco then applied to expand the size of the plant onto additional land, increasing production to more than two million chickens per week. The new plan was unanimously approved by the city council. What’s more, after Donald Trump was elected president, the fear of HUD suing Fremont over its anti-immigration ordinance also eased; the city raided the $2 million legal defense fund and used the money to address infrastructure needs expressed by Costco.

Ruppert knew he needed help from large environmental groups to keep up. He couldn’t research the new site, look into the new sewage plan, and investigate the companies slated to complete the work; it was too much to do alone. He turned to national environmental organizations for assistance, but they were of little use. “I’m incredibly disappointed in the Big Greens,” Ruppert told me. “I don’t know what they do with their money. I truly don’t. We’ve had little to no help—a lot of ‘support’—but where are you on these issues? These are the issues that you’re supposed to be fighting for.” Without assistance from the outside, Ruppert and Nebraska Communities United reluctantly decided to shift their message away from opposing Costco on environmental grounds and toward fighting the city of Fremont on its use of eminent domain.

Doug Wittmann, for one, was delighted by the change. As a Tea Party true-believer, he strongly opposed the idea of government being able to take away private land for any reason. “The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—or property—being among the rights that God gives us, is sacred,” he told me. Wittmann was able to rally renewed support from his group, and Dave Domina, who had extensive experience in eminent-domain law from working with landowners on the Keystone XL route, said he was willing to help with a legal challenge to this use of governmental power for private corporations. He agreed to draw up the language for a ballot measure to officially curb the eminent-domain powers of the city of Fremont.

The problem with compromises is that once you start making them, you may not be able to stop. To get Domina’s measure onto the ballot, the Costco opponents had to get enough people to sign a petition supporting it. And who among them had more experience in putting together walking lists and working with canvassers? Who had shown more tenacity in making calls and going door to door collecting signatures? It took some doing, but finally Ruppert agreed to Wittmann’s suggestion for the named lead petitioner: John Wiegert.

Work on the roads outside the plant has already begun, even as protests continue.

I visited Wiegert in his home one evening a few days before Halloween. The large flat-screen TV over the high-top table in the kitchen was tuned to Fox News. The weather had grown so suddenly cold that it had caught him by surprise. He hadn’t turned the heat on in his house yet. Still zipped into his jacket, Wiegert brewed a fresh pot of coffee and talked with little enthusiasm about going door to door with the eminent-domain petition. He had made some calls to his old political contacts and found a consultant willing to provide a list of phone numbers and addresses of people likely to add their signatures. That would allow him to call ahead and only go out to collect signatures from people who had already agreed to sign, rather than knocking on doors.

“Who would want to go out and walk tonight to get signatures?” he asked me.

I asked Wiegert if he had been given a script to follow, explaining the issues surrounding eminent domain. He said he didn’t need a script. He was legitimately concerned about a governmental power used to seize land and city dollars being put toward a facility built for the sole benefit of a private company. But he wasn’t about to deny his other motivations. “Right now, we’re fighting them on eminent domain,” he said. “I guess whatever it takes to get them out of Fremont, to stop it, I’m all for.”

I asked Jane Kleeb, who in June 2016 became chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, if she thought that eminent domain was being used in Fremont as a fig leaf to place over another xenophobic campaign. She rejected that idea outright. She conceded that Wiegert had “warped views on immigrants” but bristled at the implication that working with him tainted her own efforts. “The only way that we’re going to win these big political fights is with unlikely alliances,” she said. “This was true on the pipeline, too. A lot of the farmers and ranchers have different political views on other issues, but we were all on the same page for stopping Keystone XL.” Kleeb also said she believed that these “unlikely” partnerships can unstick the political gridlock in a deep-red state like Nebraska—and perhaps even in America. “The more you work alongside each other, shoulder to shoulder, the more difficult it becomes to demonize each other,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing: You will start to change people’s minds—and your mind will start to change on certain things—even while we still disagree on some fundamental issues.”

It’s a noble sentiment—and one that I share, at least in theory. But I couldn’t ignore the darker forces that seemed to be driving at least part of Fremont’s opposition to the Costco plant. Earlier that year, I had reported on another heartland town roiled by an influx of Muslim workers at a meatpacking plant. According to the FBI, white supremacists had planned a large-scale bomb attack on the homes of a community of Somali refugees in Garden City, Kansas. If Fremont’s often vulgar opinions about Muslim outsiders, conflating them with terrorists, blossomed into violence, what responsibility would everyone involved bear for not loudly denouncing the xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric from the very beginning? Kleeb and Ruppert, and perhaps even Dave Domina, may hold out hopes of softening the hearts of their strange political bedfellows, but that night at Wiegert’s house, when I asked him if he had “evolved” by working with Nebraska Communities United, Bold Nebraska, and now the state Democratic Party, he dismissed the idea. He wasn’t interested in being converted to anyone else’s cause, and he didn’t expect to win converts to his.

“I’m not against Muslims,” Wiegert repeated. “It’s not like I hate them, but I will say: It’s a worry.” He glanced up at the TV. He had the sound off, but the Fox News talking heads still pantomimed their anger, while the scroll at the bottom of the screen demanded an investigation of Hillary Clinton’s Russian ties. “They come from rogue nations. And they don’t get how we live. So it can upset a city, upset a state. It scares me. It really does.”

Before Wiegert could get his petition campaign underway, the city executed yet another legal end run. To avoid an eminent-domain fight, they made a pre-emptive bid on the farmland neighboring the wastewater-treatment facility—reportedly offering the owners nearly three times what surrounding property typically sells for. Ruppert told me he had already talked to Domina and to Kleeb, and they were looking into guidelines governing how much a municipality can legally spend to obtain a property for a project. So the fight continues, but the more fundamental questions have yet to be reckoned with: Are environmentalists succeeding in winning the nativists over to their way of thinking? Or have they been co-opted into the xenophobic cause?

Wiegert, for his part, said he still couldn’t understand why anyone in Fremont would be more concerned about Omaha’s water than a Muslim moving in next door. “Heck,” he said, “you’ve got a president saying, ‘Let’s put a ban on these people until we can get something to make sure that these people coming in are coming for the right reason.’ ” He pointed at me, for emphasis, as if the cameras were watching. “The American dream.”