Politics / April 29, 2024

Why Kristi Noem Thinks Killing a Puppy Is Good Politics

The South Dakota governor is betting that GOP voters love performative cruelty, even if it’s inflicted on an adorable young doggy.

Jeet Heer
close-up of a frightened dog on a sofa
(Francesco De Palma / EyeEm via Getty Images)

Every politician dreams of the perfect oppo research, the one bit of information that makes your rival utterly toxic to voters. The late Edwin Edwards, a colorful crook who rose to his fitting station as governor of Louisiana, memorably quipped that he could only lose if he were “caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” With his mischievous mind, Edwards conjured up two lurid scenarios, but there are other scandals that can sink a political career.

Imagine if you found a document where an aspirant to high office gleefully chortles about shooting a young dog and executing other family pets.

This hypothetical story might seem too over-the-top to ever happen. But South Dakota Kristi Noem, who is allegedly on the short list to be Donald Trump’s vice-presidential pick, has revealed herself to be a cheerful assassin of domestic animals. Even more remarkably, the evidence of Noem’s pet murders was uncovered not by some animal-loving investigative reporter (a possible combination of St. Francis of Assisi and Seymour Hersh) but by Noem herself in her soon-to-be-released political manifesto, No Going Back: The Truth on What’s Wrong with Politics and How We Move America Forward.

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From the title, one would guess that the book is the standard boilerplate of right-wing talking points, the type of partisan screed that the printing presses spew forth with dismaying regularity.

But this particular political pamphlet contained a surprising and sickening excursion into a pet massacre, almost as if a Wall Street Journal editorial about tax policy suddenly featured lengthy graphic passages from Cormac McCarthy’s legendarily violent novel Blood Meridian (1985).

According to Guardian reporter Martin Pengelly, who read an advance copy of Noem’s tome, the book features an extended account of how the governor killed a hunting dog named Cricket as well as a pet goat. Noem later mentioned that she recently killed three horses.

According to Noem, Cricket was a bad dog who possessed an “aggressive personality.” Cricket was constantly attacking birds (perhaps not surprising, since the pup was being trained to hunt pheasant). Cricket didn’t know how to behave, but went “out of her mind with excitement, chasing all those birds and having the time of her life.”

Noem confessed, “I hated that dog,” and Cricket was “less than worthless…as a hunting dog.”

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In German, there is the concept of the Untermenschen, the subhuman being that is unworthy of life. In those terms, Cricket was an Unterhund, a dog who deserved to die.

Cricket finally went too far when she attacked a neighbor’s chickens. Noem writes, “At that moment, I realized I had to put her down.” The lawmaker took the misbehaving mutt to a gravel pit and finished her off with a gun, execution-style. She admits, “It was not a pleasant job but it had to be done. And after it was over, I realized another unpleasant job needed to be done.” With her bloodlust unsated, Noem also killed in the same gravel pit a “nasty and mean” goat, another family pet that failed to live up to the high ideals Noem has for domesticated beasts.

Responding to the story, former Trump adviser Sarah Murphy wrote, “When I saw tweets about Kristi Noem murdering her puppy, I thought to myself, ‘Damn, one of the other VP contenders’ teams found some oppo,’ until I realized SHE wrote about it in HER book. I’m not sure why anyone would brag about this unless they’re sick and twisted.”

Murphy’s comment raises an interesting question: Why would Noem go out of her way to rub the nose of the public in this gut-wrenching story, as if voters were naughty dogs who needed disciplining?

The surprising truth is that Noem, despite being condemned by liberals and conservatives alike for her cruelty to animals, thinks she is practicing good politics.

In the last few decades, the GOP has become the party of Darwinian dominance politics and performative viciousness. This trend has only intensified with Trump’s triumph as the undisputed party leader. In a phrase popularized by Atlantic writer Adam Serwer, for all too many Republicans “the cruelty is the point.”

Noem is explicit about this. A big part of her political brand is her toughness and willingness to inflict pain and suffering. In 2020, she rejected calls for stay-at-home orders during the Covid pandemic despite the disease’s rapid spread in meatpacking plants in her state. She supports her state’s draconian anti-abortion law that bans abortion in all cases except if the mother’s life is in danger.

In a tweet defending her murder of Cricket, Noem draws a parallel between the tough decision to kill a pet and the tough decision to prioritize economics over health during a pandemic. According to Noem,

What I learned from my years of public service, especially leading South Dakota through COVID, is people are looking for leaders who are authentic, willing to learn from the past, and don’t shy away from tough challenges…. Whether running the ranch or in politics, I have never passed on my responsibilities to anyone else to handle. Even if it’s hard and painful. I followed the law and was being a responsible parent, dog owner, and neighbor.

It’s likely that Republican women holding political office might feel an extra need to prove their toughness in order to allay gender prejudice. In 2008, Sarah Palin, then trying to assert her continued political viability after being on a losing presidential ticket, released a video of her being interviewed while turkeys were slaughtered in the background. In 2014, Joni Ernst, in her successful run to become a senator for Iowa, released an ad where she boasted about growing up castrating pigs. With Palin and Ernst as well as Noem, there is also an assertion of rural authenticity, a claim that they represent the real America and not the effete urban cities where people don’t kill animals with their own hands.

Noem might also be making a subtle, if misguided, pitch to Trump, who is known to hate dogs, at least on a metaphorical level. As I noted back in 2018, when Trump uses the word “dog” he almost always uses it as a term of abuse. At various points Trump has said or tweeted: “Mitt Romney had his chance to beat a failed president but he choked like a dog,” “I hear @EWErickson of Red State was fired like a dog,” “Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again—just watch,” and “@BrentBozell, one of the National Review lightweights, came to my office begging for money like a dog.”

Trump’s use of the word “dog” is tied to his larger politics of cruelty. The great literary critic William Empson traced the evolution of the word “dog” in his classic 1951 book The Structure of Complex Words. He argues that in harsh world of the 16th and early 17th century, “dog” was almost always used as an insult by writers such as Shakespeare, who had a character declaim in Anthony and Cleopatra, “Slave, soulless villain, dog.” It was only with the Stuart restoration in 1660 and the more peaceful 18th century that writers, notably Samuel Johnson, used “dog” affectionately as a term of endearment.

Trump’s atavistic use of “dog” as an insult conjures up a harsh dog-eat-dog world, one where struggle is the norm. In that world, one either kills or is killed. By killing a dog and actually boasting about it, Noem might be trying to show she is a Trump-style tough guy, a literal killer.

But, of course, the downside of this political pitch is that many people are repulsed by the murder of pets. As Politico notes:

Cricket sounds like, well, a puppy: rambunctious, wild and in serious need of training or possibly a new home…. We’re not sure who the heck advised Noem on this book. But whatever hell Mitt Romney endured as a presidential candidate in 2012 for driving with the family dog on the roof of his car, expect Noem to face even more outrage from the many Americans, across ideological and party lines, who will be left totally appalled by the killing of animals out of what seems to be little more than annoyance.

Noem has made a bold gambit with her new book, but it is likely that her hopes to join Trump’s presidential ticket just died a dog’s death.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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