Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Sept. 8, 2023, at The Monument in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
RAPID CITY — A Friday event intended to rally the South Dakota Republican Party around Donald Trump’s visit to the state instead showcased division at the party’s highest levels.
The state’s all-Republican, three-member congressional delegation — Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, and Rep. Dusty Johnson — did not attend the event in the ice arena at The Monument. Their absence was loudly noted several times by a crowd of about 7,000.
Gov. Kristi Noem took what some in the audience appeared to interpret as a veiled jab at the delegation during her speech, after reciting a portion of former President Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” oration.
“Let me be clear. There are many who choose not to be in the arena,” Noem said. “Many who take the easy path. Who criticize. Who don’t show up for our party, our country or our constitutional rights. They don’t show up for you when it really matters. They didn’t even show up tonight to welcome a former president of the United States to South Dakota.”
The remark drew jeers from the audience for the unnamed no-shows.
Earlier in the evening, as the crowd waited for the event to start, boos rained down while videos on a large scoreboard referenced the congressional delegation. One was a replay of Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore in 2020, in which he briefly recognized the delegation; the other was a promotional video about South Dakota’s history of Republican leadership that mentioned each member of the delegation.
Their absence was drawn into further relief by the presence of Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who not only attended but also delivered a speech.
The offices of Thune, Rounds and Johnson told South Dakota Searchlight prior to the event that they had scheduling conflicts. Thune and Rounds have endorsed South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott for the Republican presidential nomination that Trump is seeking. Johnson has said he does not plan to endorse anyone.
Noem endorses Trump
Friday night, in a move that has long been a foregone conclusion, Noem formally endorsed Trump.
The event lacked something that had been expected by some observers: an indication from Trump that he’s considering Noem as his running mate. He gave no such indication, although it wasn’t for lack of a nudge from Noem.
That nudge came as she was reciting things people asked her during the runup to Trump’s visit. “Another question they ask is, ‘Is President Trump going to pick you?” she said, emphasizing “pick” and pausing for effect. “… As the most popular and favorite governor? And I said ‘yes.’”
Trump, who has a vast lead in Republican presidential primary polling, did praise Noem as “one of the most successful governors in the nation” and said her endorsement “means a lot.”
“Kristi, I’m truly honored to receive your endorsement,” Trump said. “Very much so. I appreciate it.”
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It was Trump’s third visit to South Dakota since Noem’s first run for governor, and he has been at her side each time – first at a Sioux Falls fundraiser during her 2018 campaign, next at a Mount Rushmore fireworks display in 2020 at Noem’s invitation, and finally in Rapid City on Friday night, where Noem introduced the former president.
The state Republican Party organized Friday’s event, called the Monumental Leaders Rally, as a fundraiser. Party Chairman and state Sen. John Wiik told South Dakota Searchlight before the event that proceeds from the $25 individual tickets and the VIP packages – at a price up to $25,000 to meet with Noem and Trump – stayed with the party, minus expenses. Wiik said Trump may also have raised money from the event through separate efforts, but Wiik said he did not have those details.
In the absence of the congressional delegation, other Republicans took the stage as warm-up acts for Noem and Trump. The undercard speakers included Wiik, Rapid City Mayor Jason Salamun, Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen, School and Public Lands Commissioner Brock Greenfield, State Auditor Rich Sattgast, State Treasurer Josh Haeder, Attorney General Marty Jackley and Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden. All were later recognized verbally by Trump, as was former Trump campaign aide Corey Lewandowski, who has since been associated with Noem and was in attendance Friday.
Noem used her speech to cast South Dakota as a state thriving under her leadership, calling it a “city on a hill during a very dark time.”
Trump’s speech began nearly two hours after the event’s 5:30 p.m. start, and he spoke for nearly two hours. He hit on his usual themes, including claims that the last election was rigged, that he’ll make elections more secure, that he alone can prevent World War III, that he’ll rid the nation’s schools of Critical Race Theory, that he’ll ban transgender women and girls from participating in women’s and girls’ sports, that Joe Biden is the worst president in history, and that Trump’s own administration accomplished more than any other.
In a piece of rhetoric aimed at South Dakota’s agricultural industry, Trump boasted that “farmers picked up big, fat, beautiful checks” during his administration, thanks to his efforts to secure government payments to farmers during the pandemic. Trump said farmers got so much help from him that he’s all but assured of winning farm country in the 2024 election.
Long lines, few protesters
Trump supporters took to the streets as many as nine hours before the 5:30 p.m. event. Charles Hibbs, of White River, waved a giant Trump flag on a street corner near the arena at 10 a.m. Another Trump supporter stood nearby in a T-shirt that read, “Fake media is the virus.” Trump picked up on the “fake media” theme during his speech, going on an extended riff about the media and accusing it of not sufficiently showing or describing the size of the crowd.
Most tickets were general admission, which meant earlier arrivals got better seats. By early afternoon, lines stretched hundreds of feet back from the arena. Trump supporters, decked out in red, white and blue and all manner of Trump-themed apparel, stood for hours under a hot sun in mid-80s temperatures.
In the neighboring park, a small cluster of Native Americans sat in the shade and marveled at the lines. Floyd Bullman, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, criticized Trump’s apparent lack of planning for the attendees’ well-being.
“If he’s a billionaire, he could’ve at least put out some porta-potties,” Bullman said.
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The local group Liberty and Justice for All obtained a protest permit from the city, but several hours before the event, only three protesters stood under a pop-up shade near the arena. Many Trump supporters passed by without comment, but some hurled insults. “You guys are sad,” one passerby said, quickly followed by another who added, “You guys are a joke.”
Toni Diamond, a protester and secretary of the state Democratic Party, wanted to provide a visible alternative presence.
“We just want people to know there are people here in South Dakota that aren’t for Trump, that have an opposing opinion,” Diamond said.
Fellow protester Mark Thalacker said he doesn’t understand Trump supporters.
“I’ve seen all the negative things that he’s done, how much he lies. It just blows me away,” Thalacker said. “And for people to still believe the lies that he tells, well, it just amazes me. So we’re trying to make some cracks in that wall.”
Tim and Roxy Dix would rather keep that wall plugged. The rural Rapid Citians are staunch Trump supporters.
“He’s got great ideas and he’s not a politician. He’s a businessman,” Roxy said.
Would they consider supporting another Republican for president who hasn’t lost the popular vote twice, been impeached twice, and been indicted four times?
Not a chance.
“It’s all bullsh-t,” Tim said. “He’s an actual winner, and they all know he won the last election.”
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