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Kristi Noem is the Future of the Republican Party ...
... Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your husband
I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality of American politics. If someone sent you this email - or you are a free subscriber - and you’d like to subscribe: you can sign up here.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s political star is rising. In 2020, after hosting President Trump at a July 4 event at Mount Rushmore (where she gave him a model of the monument with his face on it), she crisscrossed the country campaigning for Republican office-seekers and President Trump. Now she is increasingly seen as a potential 2024 presidential nominee.
In a favorable profile in the New York Times over the weekend, Noem was described as a candidate “stirring interest by fusing Trumpism with a down-home conservatism spin.” The Times focused on Noem’s challenge trying to navigate the increasingly culture-obsessed Republican Party, particularly her recent decision to veto a bill barring transgender girls from participating in school sports - a move that sparked a backlash from conservative activists.
However, left out of the piece was the fact that Noem has the blood of hundreds of South Dakotans on her hands. Noem’s track record in handling COVID-19 is arguably the worst of any governor in the country. She showed monstrous indifference to the virus while also taking steps that almost certainly made the situation in her state worse, leading to more infections and deaths. Yet, it’s these actions, perhaps more than any other, that is fueling her political rise.
Few states were ravaged worse by COVID-19 than South Dakota. It has the tenth worst death rate and the third-worst rate in terms of cases. Approximately one out of every 400 South Dakotans has died from the coronavirus.
Much of this tragedy occurred long after COVID-19 had walloped the Northeast and California - and long after it was clear how to prevent transmission of the virus.
Yet, Noem did virtually nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19. South Dakota is one of the few states to have never imposed a mask mandate, even last Fall when the state’s death rate from COVID was one of the highest in the world. North Dakota, which still has the highest case rate, per capita, of any state in the country, enacted a mask mandate at the time. Not surprisingly, South Dakota’s COVID rates fell at a much lower rate than its neighbor to the north.
Yet, in late October, Noem penned an op-ed in the Rapid City Journal that said, “if folks want to wear a mask, they should be free to do so … and those who don't want to wear a mask shouldn't be shamed into wearing one.” According to Noem, “We need to respect each other's decisions -- in South Dakota, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.”
Noem has also publicly questioned the effectiveness of mask-wearing, accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of being “wrong a lot,” and throughout the pandemic has been photographed at public events not wearing a mask, even as other government officials donned one.
The above picture was taken last year at an event marking the state’s increase in mask production.
Here’s a picture of Noem hosting legislative pages at her home this past February. Only one person is wearing a mask.
Noem also never enacted a stay-at-home order for her state and even allowed South Dakota to host mass events, like former President Trump’s July 4th event at Mount Rushmore and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which is blamed for a significant spike in COVID cases across the central United States last summer.
Quite simply, the only way South Dakota’s response to COVID-19 could have been worse is if COVID-19 itself had been in charge of it.
Yet, none of this is affecting Noem’s 2024 prospects. In the Times profile of Noem, her disastrous handling of COVID is mentioned only in passing.
“Despite the state’s high Covid death toll per capita, and the outbreak stemming from the Sturgis motorcycle rally that drew nearly 500,000 biker enthusiasts last fall, many Republicans in South Dakota believe that the governor’s opposition to shutdowns contributed to South Dakota’s lowest-in-the-country unemployment rate, kept tourists coming and made the state newly appealing to transplants.”
Of course, the state’s unemployment rate stayed low because Noem prized keeping the economy open over saving lives. In an ordinary, well-functioning democracy this would be a political liability. Instead, in one of the reddest states in the country, it’s helped to pump up her approval ratings and propelled her to the top tier of 2024 Republican nominees.
Noem sits in that group alongside another rising political star in the GOP: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who arguably has done nearly as poor a job at responding to COVID-19 as Noem. None of that bothers Republican voters. After all, tens of millions of them still voted to reelect President Trump after his disastrous response to the pandemic.
As the Times points out, it is precisely Noem’s rejection of public health precautions that is now garnering her national attention.
“Her defiance of coronavirus restrictions and her eagerness to project a rugged Great Plainswoman image helped her come in second in a 2024 straw poll of far-right conservatives looking for candidates if Mr. Trump doesn’t run again.”
There is little question that Noem and Desantis’s refusal to enact COVID restrictions - along with a host of other Republican governors - was a political move intended to imitate President Trump’s depraved indifference to the pandemic and boost their political aspirations. And it clearly worked.
The experience of Noem and DeSantis offers a sobering take on how COVID is likely to play out politically over the next several years. Republicans who were the most defiant of coronavirus restrictions will likely see the most significant political benefit within the party.
This bodes poorly for how we remember the pandemic, but it bodes even worse for the future if another public health crisis emerges. The lesson that Republicans will take away from the experience of the past 14 months is that the more defiant they are and the more vocal they can be in rejecting scientific measures, the more it will help them politically. By paying no price for making the pandemic worse, they will have every incentive to follow the same path again - be it a public health crisis or even responding to the impact of climate change.
I’ve written quite a bit here about how in Congress, polarization drives the divergent incentive structures for the two parties. Democrats want to get things done to show voters they’ve fulfilled their promises, while Republicans try to block everything Democrats want to do because “opposing the libs” is the highest calling in their party today. For Republicans, obstruction brings a far more significant benefit than even helping their constituents.
The incentive structure is playing out in even more insidious ways in red states. Republicans aren’t just disincentivized to protect their citizens from a deadly virus, they arguably gain more by causing harm, so long as it’s done in the name of “freedom” and sticking it to the libs. Noem’s response to COVID-19 borders on the sociopathic … and in the modern GOP, that’s a political winner.
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