Alienating Even the Sadistic Trumpian Right, How Did Kristi Noem Miscalculate So Badly With Her Puppy Killing Story?

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, from the cover of her book "No Going Back: The Truth on What’s Wrong with Politics and How We Move America Forward" (Center Street).

In these fraught times, there remains one golden rule of politics that both sides of the aisle are able to agree on: Running as a puppy-killer does not a vice president make. In one of the worst unforced errors in recent electoral history, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (whose name has long been circulating as a contender for a job that might get you hanged if you don’t agree to go along with your boss’s coup) has made headlines for shooting her 14-month-old Shorthaired Pointer, Cricket, in the head. Then, apparently in the mood for more bloodshed, Noem went on to kill the family goat—although she botched it and had to get more ammunition to finish the job. 

As it turns out, this wasn’t even the first time Noem had attempted to share her experience shooting her dog (and goat) in a previous book, but was talked out of this wild idea by advisors, who clearly no longer have her ear. 

The public backlash—from both sides of the aisle—was as swift as it was devastating. Former Trump advisor Sarah Matthews tweeted out her bewilderment when she found out that Noem had shared her puppy murder story voluntarily: 

When I saw tweets about Kristi Noem murdering her puppy, I thought to myself, “Damn, one of the other VP contenders’ teams found some oppo,” until I realized SHE wrote about it in HER book. I’m not sure why anyone would brag about this unless they’re sick and twisted.

She wasn’t the only conservative who seemed aghast at Noem’s choice. Former Trump staffer Alyssa Farah-Griffin wrote:

I’m a dog lover and I am honestly horrified by the Kristi Noem excerpt. I wish I hadn’t even read it. A 14-month old dog is still a puppy & can be trained. A large part of bad behavior in dogs is not having proper training from the humans responsible for them.

Noem was grilled on two CBS news shows over both her stories of animal killing and the lie that she had met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. (She remarks in the book that he underestimated her, “having no clue about my experience staring down little tyrants (I’d been a children’s pastor, after all).”) Noem has since canceled a CNN appearance and has fallen back into what I assume she considers a safe space—right-wing media outlets. But even there, things didn’t exactly go well for Noem who, when pressed by Fox Business host Steve Varney on the puppy murder, resorted to outright hostility

Enough, Stuart. This interview is ridiculous, what you are doing right now. So, you need to stop. Let’s talk about some real topics that Americans care about.

And while some conservative media personalities like Sean Hannity let Noem get away with her claim that the “fake news media” had taken “the worst spin” and run with it, others like Rob Finnerty on Newsmax openly declared that her political fate was sealed: “I don’t even think you’re on the list [for vice president].” 

Others, like Fox News’ Jesse Watters, who gave Noem the opportunity to voice regret over sharing the puppy killing story, asked: “Do you understand why people don’t like that story?” Noem, who clearly did not understand, claimed that:

Everybody’s known that story for years. That’s what most people don’t realize is that in South Dakota they’ve used that story to attack me and my political campaigns for years. I wanted people to know the truth. This dog was vicious, it was dangerous, it was killing livestock for the joy of it and attacking people; and I had a choice between keeping my family safe, I had little kids at the time, a very public business of inviting people out to come out and enjoy our hunting lodge and our business and I don’t pass my responsibilities off to anybody else, so that story’s in the book because I want people to know I’m honest and that when I have difficult jobs that I take responsibility of myself.

A smiling Watters responded: “Alright, so you’re standing by the dog story.”

The claim that Cricket was a bloodthirsty monster who had to be murdered in a gravel pit doesn’t quite seem to fit her own description of the dog. Earlier in the book Noem recalls being annoyed at the young dog, a hunting breed who wasn’t proving useful during Noem’s hunt, and was instead “out of her mind with excitement, chasing all those birds and having the time of her life” before killing some chickens (which, unlike pheasants, were apparently not fair game for killing). 

Noem also freely expresses her contempt for Cricket, not only writing that “I hated that dog,” but also calling her “untrainable” and “less than worthless … as a hunting dog.” That Noem’s children were in danger and had to be protected from Cricket doesn’t seem to correlate with the kids asking where their pet was the day Noem killed her—something she also describes in the book. 

But perhaps the more interesting question is why tell this story at all? At first, when Noem was initially forced to defend her dog (and goat) murder, she bizarrely tripled down and declared she’d also killed three horses recently—framing these animal killings as the harsh decisions farmers must make. She also tried to spin it for some good old “own the libs by buying my book”-shenanigans, teasing: 

If you want more real, honest, and politically INcorrect stories that’ll have the media gasping, preorder ‘No Going Back.’

Noem has taken White working-class cosplay to new absurd heights (or lows), by trying to cast herself as one of those salt-of-the-earth farmers who, in the minds of White Christian nationalists, comprise the “real America.” And she’s decided to create a sharp contrast with the soft, weak Washington “elites” who can’t make harsh choices (like killing your 14-month-old puppy). 

But Noem seems to have miscalculated the love people have for their dogs (or any dog, really), and most importantly, she seems to have forgotten what Amanda Marcotte calls “the first rule of fascist Fight Club,” which is, of course, that “you never show your true face to outsiders.”

The right-wing, writes Marcotte, is not beyond sadism—far from it. As Adam Serwer famously argued in 2018, “the cruelty is the point.” But that isn’t the whole story: the cruelty is the point—and it only works if you cast the victim of your violence as the aggressor and a threat to some kind of “natural order.” Marcotte argues:

Killing a dog for being inconvenient follows the same logic as forcing women to give birth or shooting Black Lives Matter protesters or setting up concentration camps to imprison refugees from Central America. […] In every case, the MAGA view is straightforward: absolute submission from those deemed “lesser” than you, or maximum punishment.

Cruelty, Marcotte adds, needs to be re-framed as self-defense in order to work even in the ecosystem of fascist ideology—something that Noem has attempted, but failed at. Noem’s glee at Cricket’s death, the annoyed-rather-than-terrified descriptions of the dog, and the kids asking for their pet’s whereabouts after the murder—all undermine her attempt at fascist storytelling. Without this reframing, the cruelty stands out as what it is: Violence enacted against someone (or in this case, a dog) whom the perpetrator sees as not worthy of life, safety or basic respect. Marcotte lists examples: 

The scared migrants fleeing political violence are recast as “invaders” coming to rape and murder Americans. The teen rape victim is reimagined as a murderous trollop who loves to kill babies. LGBTQ people who want rights are accused of being “groomers.” Protesters being beaten up by police are accused of being dangerous “thugs.”

Earlier this week Noem even doubled down on her claim in the book that Biden’s dog, Commander, who after several biting incidents was removed from the White House, should be killed. Demonstrating yet again that she clearly thought killing Cricket was hilarious—she writes:

What would I do if I was president on the first day in office in 2025? The first thing I’d do is make sure Joe Biden’s dog was nowhere on the grounds. (‘Commander, say hello to Cricket for me.’)

Noem’s explanation, that she decided to tell the story because it had previously been used against her by political foes, has since been disputed by many of her former opponents from both parties. Her most recent Republican primary opponent, Steven Haugaard, told a local media outlet: “I don’t know what she’s talking about.” Neither did his fellow Republicans, Marty Jackley (the current South Dakota Attorney General, who lost to Noem in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary) and Chris Nelson (who ran against her in the 2010 GOP House primary contest).

The sentiment was echoed by Noem’s former Democratic opponents. Only Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat in the South Dakota Senate, told CNN “This is a rumor that’s been around for years about her acting in anger to put down a dog.” Nesiba later speculated that Noem wanted to get ahead of the story in case she was  for vice president, but even this contradicts the allegation that it had ever been used against her in a campaign. 

Apart from common sense, Noem should also have known from recent history that Americans do not take kindly to politicians who mistreat their dogs. Mitt Romney faced public backlash during his campaign in 2007 when media reported that he’d transported the family dog, an Irish Setter on top of a car during a 12-hour trip, scaring the dog, leaving it to have diarrhea—washing down the car and then continuing the trip with the terrified dog still strapped to the roof of the car. 

Incidentally, Romney refused to compare his scandal to Noem’s, declaring: “I didn’t shoot my dog. I loved my dog, and my dog loved me.”  

While other former presidential candidates like John Kerry and Barack Obama have tried to keep the Veep-tryouts as secret as possible to avoid the people involved who don’t get chosen the humiliation Kerry suffered when Joe Lieberman got the job, Trump of course delights in what only can be described as a humiliation pageant where the willing and shameless, from Marco Rubio to Tim Scott, parade themselves in front of their master in the hope of winning the dubious honor of being Donald Trump’s sidekick.

Noem’s animal killing proclamations don’t seem to have kicked her off the Veep-list yet—at least not officially, according to Trump himself, who dodged the question in an interview this week: “She had a rough couple of days. I will say that.” Pressed further, he seemed to imply that she’s not out of the running: “I like her a lot. I don’t want to comment on anybody on the list.” And Noem did spend the previous weekend at a Mar-a-Lago donor event. Then again, given that Trump likes to watch others suffer, he could also just be enjoying the spectacle of her political career going up in flames before he drops her.