Last week, Kristi Noem went to Iowa to spin suffering into political gold. The Republican governor of South Dakota has spent months trying to separate herself from the pack of presumed 2024 presidential hopefuls and spent Friday testing her message on conservatives in Des Moines.
The message has been the same since at least February. In early 2020, when COVID-19 started infecting and killing lots of people in the United States, state-level executives across the country issued orders designed to stem its spread. Noem was not one of them. Rather than enforce statewide shutdowns or mask mandates, the governor encouraged people to go about their normal lives, applying a handful of restrictions sparingly and hyper-locally. A lot of South Dakotans died in the process.
Now, as the ambitious leader of a small state with a modest profile, Noem’s refusal to take precautions has become her biggest cudgel, used to hammer better-known politicos who, like her, are feeling out a (possible) post-Trump Republican landscape that still sees electoral potential in downplaying the pandemic.
“To pretend that they didn’t take actions that they had no authority to take isn’t standing on truth,” she said of fellow Republican governors, whom she didn’t mention by name, on Friday, according to the Associated Press.
It’s impossible to prove the counterfactual — exactly how many lives got saved because some governors told businesses to close, or prohibited large gatherings, while others didn’t. It’s easier to see which officials disregarded public health recommendations altogether, and did so proudly, then tried capitalizing on that disregard to endear themselves to Trump and his base.
The contest over who did it most fanatically is shaping up to be an election-season theme for the GOP. The implied targets of Noem’s salvos are people like Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and probably the best-known executive rumored to be in the mix for 2024. DeSantis was criticized widely for not taking COVID seriously enough, but he did implement some emergency rules, like a stay-at-home order last April. Noem has characterized leaders like him and Texas Governor Greg Abbott as lacking resolve.
“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states; that they didn’t close their regions; that they didn’t mandate masks,” she said at a CPAC event in Texas earlier this month. “Now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct.”
Noem isn’t the only official playing this game. According to the AP, DeSantis has raised money for his reelection bid by selling merchandise that reads “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” a reference to President Biden’s chief pandemic adviser who, when he served on Trump’s coronavirus task force, was seen as the wet blanket dampening the president’s false assurances that things were fine.
Trump, who continues to tease a 2024 run, is making more public statements that valorize his base’s skepticism of pandemic countermeasures. “[People] are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust his Administration, they don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth,” he wrote on Sunday.
The remarkable subtext here is that lots of people had to get sick and die for this to become a GOP campaign issue. As of Tuesday, Noem’s South Dakota had experienced more coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people than all but nine other states, and more infections per 100,000 people than all but two.
Back when COVID was just starting to show its deadly potential in the U.S., critics cast the Trump-backed protests over shutdown orders as emblems of a cultlike devotion to the president, and a willingness to die and risk other people’s lives on his behalf. Thousands of actual deaths have failed to chasten the opportunists who exploited this energy. Noem is not bragging about keeping South Dakota’s death count low while its economy hummed. In effect, she’s bragging about the extraordinarily high number of people she was willing to let die for her political ends.
The electoral benefits of this approach remain unproven. The likelihood that this tack creates a nationwide yearning for a Kristi Noem presidency is, for now, still a fanciful notion in the mind of Kristi Noem. But you can already see the logic behind these 2024 themes getting trial-ballooned, and the potential contestants feeling out each other’s weaknesses.
Noem and DeSantis have each embraced a performance of obstinance. Both seem to want to claim the mantle of who ignored pandemic safety recommendations most resolutely, and who caved the least when faced with pressure to change course. (The “pressure,” in this case, being mass death.)
The real-world implications of calcifying these impulses into a political identity, with an eye toward harnessing them into a GOP primary coalition down the road, are already evident. Vaccine skepticism egged on by Trump, who remains the central figure in the Republican psychic universe, is reflected in lagging vaccination rates in states where most voters supported him. New COVID cases are rising across the U.S. The likelihood of serious complications from or death by coronavirus in 2021 coincides neatly with being unvaccinated.
Maybe most alarmingly, the GOP’s willingness to indulge the ex-president on these fronts has shown little restraint. As Trump begins to mythologize Capitol rioters as martyrs, it’s easy to see how much worse his party’s fecklessness fetish will get, even if he himself bows out of the 2024 election.
In the interim, we have a figure in Kristi Noem who’s more than happy to see how far her irresponsibility can advance her career. Even if it fails to net her the GOP nomination in three years, she still has more than 900,000 living South Dakotans to keep testing her ideas on.