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That Dog Won’t Hunt
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That Dog Won’t Hunt

Kristi Noem’s ruthless miscalculation.

Donald Trump listens as North Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during a Buckeye Values PAC Rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024. (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

When you work for The Dispatch, it feels like a faux pas to write about political news in which a dog features prominently before Jonah Goldberg has had a chance to weigh in.

Dogs are famously a passion of his and so this feels like his “beat,” not unlike how populists rhetorically soiling themselves online is mine. When Trump-worshipping influencers like Laura Loomer or “Catturd” post something wacky on social media, that’s my turf, buddy. I call dibs.

When a vice presidential short-lister reveals that she once shot a puppy in the face, the dibs properly belong to Jonah.

But I’m going to take on the subject anyway, partly because we won’t get a new G-File for another two days and partly because there is a robust “MAGAs seething online” angle to explore here. Just not in the way that many would have expected.

On Friday The Guardian published a scoop about South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s forthcoming book. The typical political memoir is unreadable dreck, particularly those authored-by-committee numbers designed to create a national “brand” for some young striver. They’re self-serving and unmemorable, almost by definition.

Judging by the Guardian piece, Noem’s book is neither.

The media outlet relays a story she recounts in the book about taking Cricket, her 14-month-old wirehaired pointer, out on a pheasant hunt. The dog turned out to be worse than useless that day, aggressively chasing the pheasants away and later escaping from Noem’s truck and killing several chickens owned by a neighbor. When Noem went to grab Cricket, the dog wheeled around and tried to bite her.

So she did the only thing she could think to do with a difficult pup, it seems.

“I hated that dog,” Noem writes, adding that Cricket had proved herself “untrainable”, “dangerous to anyone she came in contact with” and “less than worthless … as a hunting dog”.

“At that moment,” Noem says, “I realized I had to put her down.”

Noem, who also represented her state in Congress for eight years, got her gun, then led Cricket to a gravel pit.

“It was not a pleasant job,” she writes, “but it had to be done.”

If that’s not enough to ruin your day, she makes a point of noting that the dog had “the time of her life” chasing the pheasants and was “the picture of pure joy” throughout the episode.

In the 72 hours since the news broke, Noem has endured one of the most ferocious backlashes a politician has suffered in the social media age. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s been thoroughly bipartisan.

The libs are savaging her, of course, sometimes in cringey ways. But she’s also been obliterated by the right—and not just us soft-handed Romney-loving establishment cucks either. Among her critics are … Laura Loomer and “Catturd”, two notable populists among many who voiced their horror at Noem’s action and celebrated their love for their own pets in the aftermath. Acidic partisanship and knee-jerk contrarianism are usually enough to guarantee a strenuous grassroots defense of any politician caught in a scandal, however ugly. Not this time.

By Sunday, Noem was reduced to clarifying that what she did to Cricket was technically legal and that the dog “had shown aggressive behavior toward people by biting them”—which implies more than one person, a claim not substantiated by the Guardian excerpt of her book, at least.

Why would Kristi Noem, a semi-serious contender to become Donald Trump’s running mate, voluntarily brand herself as a puppy-killer six months out from the election?

Four theories have been kicked around to try to solve that mystery. Three aren’t persuasive.

The first, mostly tongue-in-cheek, alleges that Noem secretly doesn’t want to be Trump’s VP and is trying to sabotage her chances so that she won’t have to turn King Donald down. The same half-serious explanation was offered for Katie Britt’s bizarre State of the Union response. Both women may recognize that Trump is nuts, believe that he’ll probably end up losing in November, and know that he’ll inevitably thrust one or more constitutional crises on them in a second term if he/they are elected. The last guy to join his ticket was nearly murdered by crazed Trumpists, for cripes’ sake. Why would anyone want to be his running mate?

The flaw in that theory is that Noem has done a lot of ass-kissing of Trump over the years, even by the standards of ambitious Republicans. After he delivered a speech in front of Mount Rushmore in 2020, she marked the occasion by commissioning a bust of the monument that added his face alongside those of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. She’s also recently had what’s been described as a “MAGA makeover,” replete with new dental veneers that she showed off in a notorious Trumpian infomercial-style promo. She plainly wants to be VP.

The second theory takes the view that Noem is eager to land on the ticket and calculated that the Cricket story would ingratiate her to you-know-who. Whether or not it’s true that Trump “hates” dogs, it’s certainly true that he doesn’t own one and is prone to denigrating his enemies by comparing them to canines. Plus, he admires “toughness,” no? Well, what’s tougher than dragging a puppy who’s just had “the time of her life” into a gravel pit and plugging her between the eyes?

Trump shed no tears for Cricket after reading the Guardian story, I’m sure, but if Noem thought a controversy like this one would improve her VP chances, she’s a fool. The story of his campaign over the last few months has been his attempt to broaden his appeal to centrist voters who are wary of him. On abortion, on Israel, on Ukraine, and on TikTok, he’s positioned himself against a core right-wing constituency in hopes of gaining credibility as a moderate. He knows he has the MAGA vote locked down and he also knows that it isn’t enough to get him over the finish line. He needs normies.

And normies tend not to like puppy-killers. “She was already unlikely to be picked as VP, but had a shot,” one Trump ally told the New York Post following the Cricket revelation. “After this, it’s just impossible.” Another assured the paper that Trump was “disappointed when hearing the ‘dog’ story.” Semafor’s informal survey of Trumpworld yielded a general reaction of “WTF” to the Guardian report, with one person close to the campaign adding, “Governor Noem just keeps proving over and over that she’s a lightweight. We can’t afford a Kamala problem.”

The surest way to tell that the story hasn’t helped Noem’s chances is by the number of populist Republican rivals who have scrambled to trumpet their love of dogs this weekend. Trust me: If there were any advantage to career advancement in the GOP by killing puppies, Elise Stefanik would have blown up a kennel long ago.

A third theory speculates that Noem included the story about Cricket in her memoir as a sort of limited hangout, getting ahead of a damaging anecdote from her past before one of her rivals for VP could dig it up and leak it. Journalist Mickey Kaus claims to have heard the story several years ago—and if he heard it, you can bet that oppo researchers for Stefanik, Tim Scott, J.D. Vance, and the rest of the VP short-listers have heard it, too. Noem was simply beating them to the punch by dribbling out the details on her own terms before they could.

But that doesn’t add up. If she wanted to pre-spin the story in her favor, she would have presented it in tear-jerking Old Yeller terms. She loved Cricket; she spent hours trying to train her; no matter what she did, the dog wouldn’t stop attacking people. (Even children!) Ultimately, with tears flowing down her cheeks, Noem did what must be done. And she’s never, ever gotten over it. Why, she’s the victim in this incident as much as the dog was.

That’s how it would have been presented if it were a limited hangout. That’s not how it’s presented in the book, not unless the Guardian has grossly distorted the telling of it (and Noem has affirmatively tweeted out the Guardian story without disputing any details). She wrote that she “hated” Cricket and made it sound as if the dog was rambunctious more than vicious, nothing that patient lessons aimed at controlling her prey drive couldn’t have fixed. Noem doesn’t come off as torn up over the killing either. She comes off as cold, enough so to have turned around after shooting the dog and put down a “mean” goat on her family farm in the same manner.

What kind of limited hangout is that? What’s the supposed bad version of this story that Noem doesn’t want us to know?

None of these theories makes sense. Only the fourth one does.

I’m going to be obnoxious here and do something a writer should never do: quote himself. But this quote comes from my first newsletter for The Dispatch; the Noem episode is such a perfect illustration of the point I made there that I can’t resist restating it.

“Ruthlessness in pursuit of cultural dominance has become the unspoken credo of Trumpist populism,” I wrote. “Its animating principle is that if you’re not prosecuting the culture war with maximum ruthlessness, willing to go to illiberal lengths that would make Reagan-era conservatives blanch, you’re not fighting hard enough.”

Kristi Noem, vice presidential hopeful, wanted to impress her party’s populist base by showing off her ruthlessness. To borrow Adam Serwer’s famous phrase: The cruelty is the point.

Repeatedly in discussing her dog’s death, both in the book and in other forums, she’s celebrated her ruthlessness toward it as evidence of personal mettle and steely determination. Per The Guardian, “She includes her story about the ill-fated Cricket, she says, to illustrate her willingness, in politics as well as in South Dakota life, to do anything ‘difficult, messy and ugly’ if it simply needs to be done.” Noem herself promoted the Guardian story on her Twitter account on Friday by inviting followers to pre-order her book “if you want more real, honest, and politically INcorrect stories that’ll have the media gasping.”

Electoral reality has forced Donald Trump to worry about how normie voters will react to dog-killing, but the grassroots right is under no such pressure. I think Noem truly believed that including the Cricket story in her book would trigger a cycle of outrage that would redound to her political benefit: The left would erupt in anger at her ruthlessness and the right, displaying its own sort of partisan prey drive, would erupt in her defense. Whatever misgivings Trump might have about her would melt away as she became a populist folk hero overnight.

In particular, Noem may have calculated that the urban/rural divide would work in her favor. The closest thing I’ve heard to a defense of her actions is that it isn’t unheard of for farmers to put down vicious dogs with their own weapons instead of taking them to a vet to be euthanized. Country folk—real Americans—do things differently than city folk, you see. They don’t call for professional help when life hands them a gut-wrenching problem. They deal it with themselves. They’re self-reliant.

If you’re a MAGA true believer, isn’t that the sort of person you want presiding over the counting of electoral votes the next time Trump needs an election overturned? On January 6, politics proved too “difficult, messy, and ugly” for Mike Pence. In Noem’s situation, a wimp like him probably would have taken Cricket to the vet or—heaven forbid—not had Cricket put down at all.

Republicans need a “fighter.” Displays of cruelty and ruthlessness are how you know someone’s willing to fight. 

That’s the reaction Noem was hoping for from the right. And as repulsive as her calculus seems, can you blame her? Donald Trump attempted a coup, was adjudged in civil court to have committed sexual abuse, currently stands accused of more than 90 crimes, and routinely vows “retribution” on the right’s enemies if he’s reelected to a second term—and he won the Republican presidential primary in a landslide.

The woman who hopes to be his running mate looked at all of that and concluded that the American right now prefers leadership that’s amoral, if not immoral. To all appearances, Trump supporters relish his callousness toward their enemies. If they celebrate a man who once marveled that he could shoot a human being without losing support, wouldn’t they also rally around a woman who actually did shoot an animal and is now besieged by urban liberals because of it?

They would not, it turns out. Noem miscalculated in a number of ways.

To begin with, it’s weird but plainly true that most of us have less tolerance for cruelty to animals than for cruelty to people. “Even Hitler loved his dog,” it’s said, and not incorrectly. Ruthlessness toward one’s fellow man can be rationalized with twisted arguments about how they had it coming but ruthlessness toward a helpless animal is inexplicable except as a grave character defect. If Noem wanted to use lethal force and engender sympathy from the populist right, she should have, er, taken matters into her own hands with a protester.

Beyond that, the circumstances of Cricket’s killing don’t justify the ruthlessness she evinced. Jonah has weighed in—a little—on this matter on Twitter and made a point this weekend that many others have echoed: For all of her self-congratulation about her tough-mindedness in putting the dog down, Noem took the easiest way out by dealing with it as she did. The truly tough-minded way to deal with an undisciplined dog is to put in the time needed to train it or, if that fails, to rehome it.

And Cricket probably could have been trained. “Everything this dog did I have seen many times and they have the potential to become some of the best hunting dogs and family companions out there,” one breeder of wirehaired pointers told The Daily Beast after hearing Noem’s account. In an interview with Rolling Stone, a professional trainer called the 14-month-old dog a “baby that doesn’t know better” and blamed Cricket’s behavior on “a lack of guidance by the owner, or training by the owner, or discipline of the owner.”

Noem’s own book suggests that her actions were draconian even by the standards of her tough-minded, real-American rural community. She writes that a construction crew watched her shoot the dog and the goat and, in the Guardian’s words, were “startled” by it.

Her chief miscalculation in all of this, though, was believing that she had amassed enough populist cred that her party’s base would reflexively take her side once the left began lashing her over the incident.

There’s a sort of sliding scale among Republicans, I think, in which a politician receives greater moral largesse from the base depending on how intense the antagonism is between him and their enemies. Trump is the supreme example, naturally: Because he hates—and is hated by—all the right people, it’s impossible for him to do anything so immoral as to disqualify him.

If he were the one who shot Cricket, you know how it would go. Someone would accuse him; his fans would roar with indignity at another dirty “hoax” and “smear”; evidence would emerge to substantiate the accusation, possibly with Trump himself corroborating it; and his fans would pivot instantly to rationalizing how he did the dog a mercy by putting it out of its vicious misery.

He’s probably the only figure in the party with enough populist credibility to get away with shooting a puppy. At one point, maybe Ron DeSantis could have survived maiming a dog or two.

Noem isn’t in the same class. Unlike Trump and DeSantis, leftists don’t pay her much attention. She’s also had moments of squishiness on policy that have made right-wing populists doubt her willingness to “fight” when the politics gets rough. To the extent that she enjoys any populist authenticity, it’s mostly through blather on Fox News and via osmosis in endlessly sucking up to Trump. That makes her little different from, say, Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose own credibility with MAGA fans is, shall we say, highly nuanced.

For all of her populist pretensions, in other words, Noem misunderstood the sliding scale I described so profoundly that it amounts to an insult to her own base. She grossly underestimated how ghastly its members would find the needless killing of a young dog and grossly overestimated how eager they’d be to take her side in a knife fight with the left. Including the Cricket story in her book amounts to her asking Trump supporters: You freaks will like me more because of this sort of thing, won’t you?

In a party in which being “one of us” means everything for a politician, she’s proved that she isn’t. That’s a fatal flaw in a Republican with national aspirations.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.