Noem, Trump and the politics of inaction

With pandemic fame fading, event brings governor another shot at the limelight

August 3, 2023 1:59 pm
Gov. Kristi Noem speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a meeting about the Governors Initiative on Regulatory Innovation in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Dec. 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Gov. Kristi Noem speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a meeting about the Governors Initiative on Regulatory Innovation in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Dec. 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Gov. Kristi Noem’s rise to national prominence began on March 23, 2020.

Fear and speculation were rampant as the coronavirus swept into the state. Noem issued an executive order with instructions for South Dakotans and held a press conference to discuss it. 

Her choice of language was peculiar.

She told South Dakotans what they “should” do. In fact, she used the word 13 times during a press conference that was less than 12 minutes long.

The word also prefaced every instruction in her executive order. Employers “should” implement social distancing, it said. Health care providers “should” postpone elective surgeries. Local governments “should” restrict public gatherings of 10 or more people. And so on.

Reporters were baffled. What was the meaning of “should”? Was she issuing South Dakotans a lawful order? A strong suggestion? Friendly advice?

She pointedly refused to elaborate.

“I am telling them what they should be doing in this state,” she said.

Passing the buck to locals

Her persistent and seemingly inexplicable ambiguity created a leadership void. The responsibility to keep South Dakotans safe fell to mayors, city council members and county commissioners.

Those local leaders scrambled to consider, and in some cases enact, a hodge-podge of emergency measures. Emotionally charged public meetings birthed a confusing array of restrictions on the conduct of people, businesses and organizations across the state. 

In Rapid City, where I live, an ordinance forced bars and restaurants to close, except for takeout and deliveries, and also forced closures at other public places including casinos, bowling alleys, health clubs and theaters.

Of course, that’s not how Noem selectively remembers it. She began to capitalize politically on her inaction as the pandemic worsened, by rebranding her approach as “freedom.” Local restrictions fell away without her support. 

Noem’s do-nothing approach also extended to masks, which she carried to the extreme of appearing maskless at a mask-making factory. Many South Dakotans followed her example, and there came a time during the pandemic when the state’s per capita COVID-19 death rate was among the worst in the world. Noem avoided talk of human suffering, choosing instead to tout her shepherding of South Dakota’s comparatively less-diminished economy.

Through it all, she received a steady stream of praise from pro-Trump national media outlets and critical scrutiny from others.

“As governor, we never implemented a mandate, we never shut down our state, and we never defined which businesses were essential and which were not,” Noem tweeted after one appearance on Fox News. “South Dakota will continue to stand for individual freedom and prosperity.”

With her political star on the rise, Noem traveled the country supporting other Republican candidates and even hosted then-President Donald Trump for a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. Commentators began to talk about her as presidential material, and she acknowledged her interest

Fading fame, and another shot

Then, vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 arrived. The world moved on, and Noem’s star faded. She’s been relegated to a bystander as other Republicans — even the governor of the other Dakota — have usurped the presidential spotlight. When Noem’s imported Floridian Chief of Staff Mark Miller resigned in June, some observers took it as a sign of finality. Her 15 minutes of national fame were over.

Yet Noem remains in Trump’s good graces as he bulldozes his way to another Republican presidential nomination. And he’ll soon need a new running mate, owing to his unhealable rift with former vice president and current presidential candidate Mike Pence.

All of which points to Sept. 8 as Noem’s next chance at another rise to national prominence. 

Trump is scheduled to attend a rally that day in Rapid City with Noem as his “special guest,” even though he has no obvious political reason to visit South Dakota. It has the nation’s last presidential primary election date and a tiny fraction of the national Republican Party’s convention delegates, along with a dearth of mega-donors and a near total likelihood, based on its strong Republican leanings, to support the Republican nominee whether that nominee campaigns in the state or not. 

Granted, Trump has never needed a logical reason to do anything. But if there’s any explanation for his visit, it could be to offer Noem an audition as his running mate.

The question for Noem is how to capitalize on the opportunity. It would be out of character for the governor of freedom to tell anyone, let alone a former president, what to do.

Maybe she’ll tell Trump what he “should” do. If so, he “should” be warned: That approach might be less ambiguous and more calculated than it seems.



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Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. He was previously a supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and a newspaper journalist in Rapid City and Mitchell.