Kristi Noem doubles down on Puppygate — can MAGA's endless trolling go any lower?

When your sole purpose and only political tactic is to trigger the "libs," there's no limit to the depravity

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 7, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with North Dakota Governor Kristi Noem during a Buckeye Values PAC Rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024. (KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with North Dakota Governor Kristi Noem during a Buckeye Values PAC Rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024. (KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

By any normal political standards, the reaction that Kristi Noem, the MAGA-friendly governor of South Dakota, got to her recent revelation that she'd once shot a pet dog named Cricket was bad. It wasn't just liberals who were horrified, either, but pretty much the entire political press and most Republicans. Even some of the nastiest trolls of the MAGA-sphere could not countenance her story, and at least one fundraiser meant to feature Noem was canceled. Any political expert would have advised Noem to take one of those long vacations that Fox News hosts indulge in whenever the on-air racism becomes too blatant. Instead, Noem just keeps on digging herself deeper.

On the Sunday talk show "Face the Nation," Noem was asked about another passage in her portentously titled book "No Going Back," in which she "jokingly" threatens Joe Biden's dog, Commander, writing, "Commander, say hello to Cricket for me." Among many other things, this supposedly humorous remark undercuts Noem's post-publication claims that she killed Cricket reluctantly, suggesting that she thought the whole thing was a big laugh. When pressed about this during the Sunday interview, Noem refused to walk it back, arguing that Biden's dog has bitten people and the only way to hold the president "accountable" is to insist that he kill the dog. After this latest debacle, Noem played the victim on Twitter, complaining that the host had "interrupted" her and it was all some kind of liberal plot. 

Saying nothing is always a free and available option, so it's a notably odd choice for Noem to keep on talking about how many dogs she wants to kill. It's possible or likely that she suffers from the narcissistic delusion common to Donald Trump and his leading sycophants — essentially, that if they keep on talking they can wiggle out of any bad situation. But whatever is going on in the governor's head, this bizarre behavior is a clear result of the "always be trolling" mentality that dominates the MAGA-fied Republican Party. 

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That can be traced back to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, but of course it was Trump who made clear that the single best way to get love and attention from the GOP base was to deliberately offend the "liberals." Trump trolled his way to the Republican nomination in 2016 by mocking women's bodies, making fun of people with disabilities and fantasizing about violence against progressive activists. Since then, other Republican politicians and pundits have launched a seemingly endless competition with each other to outrage liberals. That's how we ended up in a world where Sen. Ted Cruz talks about Disney characters having sex and Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene keeps saying incendiary things about Jews

Trolling is a lot like an addictive drug, however: To get the same high, you have to keep upping the dosage. What got the liberals in a tizzy a year ago (or eight years ago) now barely gets a reaction. We now live in a world where Trump gives lengthy interviews in which he validates election violence, brags about turning the Justice Department into his personal vengeance engine and agrees that states can monitor women's pregnancies — and that stuff barely cracks the headlines. The constant assault of right-wing provocation has built up emotional callouses on liberals as well as the mainstream press. It once seemed like a dark joke to say that Trump would eventually resort to kicking puppies to get a rise out of people. Noem skipped that step entirely and went straight to shooting them. 

This all reminds me of infamous punk musician G.G. Allin, whose shows were famously debauched beyond all description. He had his fans, of course, but what people who cared about music understood was that all of Allin's violent and grotesque behavior onstage was basically a distraction from his terrible songs, absence of talent and lack of anything interesting to say.

That's not to say that shock value is only a tool for the mediocre. Plenty of people, from the Dadaists to John Waters, can use unsettling ideas and imagery to make meaningful points or raise interesting questions. But all too often, provocation is the last resort of people who are trying to hide how devoid they are of worthwhile ideas. That's certainly true of the recent proliferation of "edgelords," defined by the Cambridge dictionary as "someone who intentionally expresses opinions that are likely to shock or offend people, especially on the internet, as a way of making others notice or admire them." Edgelords, I hardly need to add, are generally young men who get their adrenaline rush of attention by being nasty, but have nothing of value to say.

As I argued in my 2018 book "Troll Nation," this problem, writ large, is what happened to the entire Republican Party. Most of their ideological views have been discredited and their policy ideas are broadly unpopular. For people who dislike liberals but can't muster coherent arguments against progressive views, trolling offers an outlet. There's no need to keep pretending that "supply-side economics" actually work or that climate change isn't real. Instead, they just offer an endless series of rude gestures directed at anyone and everyone to their left, followed by gleeful high-fiving when their targets respond with predictable anger. 

That attitude, however, tends to unmoor people from even basic morality. We can see that in Donald Trump, whose laundry list of alleged crimes is so long that 88 felony charges across four jurisdictions barely scratch the surface of all the terrible and plausibly illegal things he's done. We see it in many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, who all too often started off as low-grade internet trolls, but kept upping their own ante until they were filming themselves storming the Capitol for social media clout. We see it in numerous once-establishment Republicans like former Attorney General Bill Barr, who know full well Trump is a threat to democracy but will vote for him because they can't stand for liberals to win anything

To be clear, I don't think Kristi Noem shot her dog just to troll the left. It sounds more like she lost her temper with the dog, and is now trying to rewrite history to make her impulsive act of violence seem reasonable and justified. But the truly weird decision lies not just in shooting the dog and then writing about it, but in refusing to shut up about it and continuing with the tasteless jokes, no matter how much that makes people hate her. That's the behavior of someone who's been so deeply committed to trolling for so long that she doesn't know any other way to be. It's basically an article of faith in the GOP now that if liberals are yelling at you, you must be doing something right. That's become so deeply ingrained that the true believers — which very much include Kristi Noem — can't even imagine that some kinds of negative attention are so bad that even the MAGA faithful won't like it.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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