Politics / May 7, 2024

Kristi Noem Is the Latest Republican to Learn You Can’t Out-Trump Donald Trump

The South Dakota governor’s attempt at mimicking the former president’s obstreperous public image has fallen disastrously flat.

Chris Lehmann

Donald Trump listens as South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem speaks during a Buckeye Values PAC Rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024.

(Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP)

The great backward-spooling charm offensive that is South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s book tour holds many obvious lessons for aspiring political opportunists. First off, even if you’re not especially enamored of domestic animals, you should refrain from killing them on a whim—as Noem confessed to doing with her family’s wire-haired pointer Cricket and a goat she’d deemed too filthy and obstreperous to continue living. Second, even if you do have a four-legged killing spree in your past, it’s not a good idea to brag publicly about it in the effort to shore up your status as a bad-ass brandisher of heartland vengeance. (This stupendous gaffe has rendered Noem persona non grata in the most hallowed sanctums of Trumpian power: campaign fundraisers.)

A week into Noem’s PR rollout for her political memoir, this inadvertently instructive text is yielding yet more object lessons: Don’t boast of fabricated meetings with world leaders, as she (or her ghostwriter) did in the case of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un. And certainly do not devote an extended segment on a network Sunday talk show to spout incoherent evasions and circumlocutions in a desperate effort to distract viewers from all of the above. Conspicuously turning back—and around and sideways—is a poor marketing strategy for a book called No Going Back. Noem’s performance only made her disingenuous tirades about “fake news” double standards seem all the more feeble and irrelevant when they arrived right on schedule.

This rapidly multiplying array of promotional lessons can be conveniently grouped under a broader single heading: Don’t tie yourself up in ungainly and embarrassing knots trying to be a mini Donald Trump. No Going Back’s chief reason for being was to boost Noem’s standing as a potential vice presidential pick for presumptive GOP presidential nominee and erstwhile Oval Office coup plotter Donald Trump, and nearly every gruesome anecdote packaged between its covers seems calculated to assure MAGA nation—and its Mar-a-Lago comandante—that Noem is a tailor-made Trump running mate.

This obsessive quest extends well beyond the book: Like New York Representative Elise Stefanik, Noem has lately devoted most of what can charitably be called her adult life to crass Trump cosplaying. After a reliably conservative but otherwise unremarkable four-term tour in Congress, Noem was elected governor in 2018 as a devoted MAGA disciple. The transformation has also been physical; as Cornell University cinema studies professor Samanthan N. Sheppard told The New York Times, Noem, who’d previously presented herself with a shaggy and rumpled affect characteristic of her region, now exemplifies a “Miss America-like white femininity,” which, as the Times explains, “is also reflected in Fox News anchors and that involves cascading hair, extensive eyelashes and a blinding smile.” That smile was the occasion for Noem’s best-known bout of controversy prior to her book’s publication; she’d posted an extended video praising the Texas-based cosmetic dentistry outfit that had graced her with a camera-ready power smile—and that prompted a consumer advocacy group to file suit against Noem for improperly acting as a travel influencer and failing to disclose her financial relationship with the firm.

The whole episode, like the publication of No Going Back, was a prolonged exercise in Trump sycophancy. As Republican strategist Ron Bojean told the Times, Noem’s oral overhaul was intended to solidify “her appeal to an audience of one. The whole teeth thing almost looks like it was done for Trump to see. She is showing him she works well in front of the camera, that she has that star power he wants onstage with him, while fitting into the mode of women in the Trump universe.”

In policy terms, Noem’s MAGA makeover came to national prominence during the height of the Covid epidemic, when she was the only state governor to refuse to introduce any lockdown measures—a species of culture-war theater that in short order created the disastrous super-spreader motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, and saddled her state with some of the highest infection and death rates in the country during Covid’s initial spread. From that point there was, ahem, no going back for Noem and her deep-red home state: she cruised to a reelection landslide in 2022, and shortly afterward, her stock as a potential Trump veep pick skyrocketed. Like all the entrants on Trump’s short list, she refuses to acknowledge that the outcome of the 2020 election was legitimate, and toes the MAGA line on virtually every issue, from border crackdowns to Trump’s criminal prosecutions and civil trials.

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Cover of May 2024 Issue

In the sober light of her squalid book tour, however, all of Noem’s frenetic positioning as a Trump mascot seems like just the latest installment in a prime directive for national GOP figures: Impersonate the Trumpian model for seizing political power at your own peril. The course that Noem followed to the front rank of the GOP talent roster was quite well worn, after all—it was the same playbook that Ron DeSantis followed in his comically doomed 2024 presidential run. Florida Governor DeSantis, too, peddled himself as a more competent, wonkier apostle of the MAGA gospel at the state level—right down to the same demagogic resistance to Covid lockdowns. For good measure, he threw in McCarthyite campaigns against critical race theory and materials in both Florida curricula and advanced placement courses that engaged with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and latter-day brands of racial oppression and exclusion. He exulted on the stump that he’d made Florida into “the place woke goes to die,” and gleefully orchestrated cynical (and likely illegal) relocations of undocumented immigrants and amnesty seekers to blue-state municipalities in an effort to mimic the maximum MAGA leader’s cruel and spiteful border policies.

Despite lining up scores of Trump-weary right-wing donors, DeSantis never came anywhere near a primary victory, and retreated into a richly earned state of embarrassment, unpopularity, and, inevitably, abasement before Trump. The same basic script unfolded for Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential run: The shady medical investor positioned himself as a next-generation avatar for the MAGA movement, but is now training all his “unhinged” debate energy into the thankless task of hoisting lackluster GOP agitprop into the digital void.

Now with the predictably deflating fanfare of yet another knockoff political marketing campaign, Noem is on a one-way charter to the MAGA island of misfit toys. The one somewhat edifying twist in this chapter of fizzled Trumpian ambition is that Noem has essentially wrecked her chances in an ill-advised detour into confessional anecdotage—something that the tirelessly prevaricating Trump has never bothered with. Since Noem’s canine-themed envois are now nearing their official sell-by date, we should probably christen this unplanned epilogue to No Going Back a kick in the teeth.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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