South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem became a GOP darling seemingly overnight, captivating conservatives with a pretty smile and the aesthetic of a Western freedom fighter. If the GOP decides to run a woman for the White House, it’ll likely come knocking on her door—and everything she does is calculated to that end.
Yet her otherwise effective navigation of the right-wing political terrain hit a few obstacles, most recently the land mine of vaccine mandates.
Before it detonated in her face, Noem had already irritated some by opining that thanks to a “robust economy and job market,” workers could get around mandates by just quitting their jobs. And then presumably quit the next job, and the next, and so on. Then she delved into why she would not prevent private companies from forcing vaccines on Americans in a video titled, ‘The Truth on where I stand....”
Noem warned that any attempt to act against the interests of private companies would augur “the destruction of our Constitution and our nation.” She promised to oppose “President Biden’s illegal vaccine mandates” and to protect South Dakotans from the federal government. But considering that Biden and his federal government plan to use the private sector to enforce vaccination efforts, Noem’s stance amounts to a sleight of hand.
The pièce de résistance came later. Noem accused conservative commentator Matt Walsh of “horrible misogyny” when he criticized her position on vaccine mandates, concluding that looks are about all she has going for her. “Eyes up here, Matt,” she tweeted, sounding like a member of the Squad. The irony is that Noem proved Walsh’s basic point correct with that catty response.
Looks, however, could not save her in March, when Noem enraged Republican voters by caving again, this time to the transgenderism lobby. Republicans in South Dakota fought tooth-and-nail to place a bill on her desk designed to prevent biological men from competing in women’s sports. Noem rewarded her colleagues for their troubles with a “style and form” veto, proposing changes to render it effectively harmless. The Republicans who carried it to her office were outraged. State Rep. Rhonda Milstead claimed Noem had taken an extraordinary step “by trying to legislate law as the executive branch.”
Noem later appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight and offered a different explanation, but was humiliated on national television. She ended up killing the bill and issuing weaker, face-saving executive orders that Republicans in her state blasted.
As the country locked down last year, Noem charmed Republicans by refusing a statewide face-mask mandate and restrictions on businesses. But she swiftly pivoted toward attacking other GOP rivals who didn’t follow the same course. Without naming Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, she alluded to him in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year when she criticized certain Republicans for “pretending” they didn’t close their beaches. It was a calculated snipe at a future rival. Like Noem, DeSantis is among the top contenders for a future GOP presidential ticket.
Some of Noem’s fans are confused by the twists and turns she appears to have taken. How to reconcile the stance against mask mandates with caving to corporate vaccine mandates? Why is Noem willing to deploy troops to help at the border, and then back down from activists marching beneath the LGBT standard? Everything she does becomes perfectly understandable when you realize Noem is angling to please interest groups that will help her future political career. She utterly devoid of guiding principles, other than those that will lead her to the White House.
Recall that apart from the NCAA, the chief opponents of the trans bill Noem vetoed in South Dakota included Amazon. At the time, Amazon had been planning a new fulfillment center in the state. One local news headline summarized the dilemma neatly: “Lawmaker worries Amazon may back out of Sioux Falls facility if Gov. Kristi Noem signs transgender athletes bill.” Noem caved on transgenderism and vaccine mandates for the same reason she resisted lockdowns: keeping the Chamber of Commerce happy.
Everything she does is consistent in this light, even her pseudo-opposition to immigration. Though she frequently rails against illegal immigration, Noem’s record on the arguably much more severe problem of legal immigration is awful.
When she was a member of the U.S. Congress in 2012, Noem voted in favor of the STEM Jobs Act, a bill that would have increased the number of employment-based immigrant visas. Unlike unskilled illegal immigration, these visas directly affect the job security and wages of America’s best and brightest. It is a crime against the middle class under the disguise of legality. Most illegal immigration, moreover, results from legal immigrants overstaying visas. She also voted no on the Securing America’s Future Act in 2018. A vote for it would have done much to secure the border and would have been good for America, but then again, it was bad for the Chamber of Commerce and its allies.
Walsh’s comments about the superficiality of Noem’s appeal got beneath her skin during the vaccine mandate debacle precisely because they are true. Noem owes her popularity within the GOP to the fact that the party is desperate for its own “beautiful people.” It threw its weight behind Noem for the same reason it attempted to make Caitlyn “Bruce” Jenner a GOP star in California, tried to turn Nikki Haley into a superstar, and has a habit of recruiting blonde barbies as mouthpieces: the Republican establishment turns to the superficial (even the absurd, in the case of Jenner) because it is without substance. Its ideas are unappealing, so it must at least find people with a different sort of appeal to carry them beyond their expiration date. But Noem’s free market dogmatism has actually made Haley look better in some instances—which is as unbelievable as it is unforgivable.
In the end, Noem’s looks and bluster mask the Republican party’s rotten habit of putting profits above people and country. And as Noem likes to say: “Our business environment is second to none.”
Pedro Gonzalez is the Associate Editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.