The one thing CPAC showed us this year is that, for now at least, the Republican Party remains the party of Donald Trump. The right-wing political conference, which just wrapped up, brought together everyone from conservative gadfly Candace Owens to the “twice-impeached Florida retiree” himself, to borrow a phrase from Nancy Pelosi. It was a veritable who’s-Q of the modern right.
From Trump’s ramblings about all the evidence that supposedly exists to support the “big lie” to CPAC getting brownie points for banning white nationalist Nick Fuentes while allowing the leader of the far-right militia group the Oathkeepers to wander the halls, there’s a lot to dunk on here. Glenn Beck literally pulled out a KKK hood, for God’s sake.
Yet one speaker stood out among this crowd of sycophants and charlatans. And that speaker gave me genuine concern that the GOP may soon rise from the ashes like a fascistic phoenix. Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, delivered what well may be the most pivotal political speech since Barack Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Cool, confident, and effortlessly relatable, Noem made the delusions of MAGA seem almost reasonable — something no one else has been able to do. Watching her speak was like looking into the future of the Republican Party. As a Democrat, it terrified me.
Noem is a compelling figure with an all-American backstory. “I grew up on a farm and ranch. I had the most incredible parents in the world. They were not perfect, and they were tough,” she told the crowd, before going into a story about how her father fell in the mud trying to force a cow into a barn and comparing him to America, “trip[ping] over our overshoes” by failing to reelect Trump.
It’s a charming and funny story, one that brings to mind another Republican woman who almost made it to the White House. Like Sarah Palin, Kristi Noem is a former beauty queen turned elected governor of a small rural state who is skyrocketing to national attention in her first term. Unlike Sarah Palin, though, Noem is not hopelessly ignorant.
Noem served in Congress before entering the governor’s mansion in 2019. There, she bolstered her MAGA credentials by refusing to lock down her state, even going so far as to encourage travel to South Dakota for last year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. This led South Dakota to the dubious ranking of third highest state for COVID infections per capita, but it also increased her popularity among Trumpists. Couple this with her economic conservatism — she even refused Trump’s expanded unemployment benefits last summer — and you have a Republican darling.
Popularity with the Red Hats is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it isn’t what makes Noem a future threat to Democrats. Rather, her folksy relatability coupled with a poised and polished image and effortless, articulate oration — honed, she claims, through her time in beauty pageants — makes her a formidable opponent and effective saleswoman for this Trump-branded populism. What makes Noem so dangerous is that she puts a respectable face on Trumpism, something even the man himself has never been able to do. Whereas Trump’s brash manner, arrogant swagger, and crude and callous bullying turned off enough suburban voters to throw the election to Joe Biden, Noem seems much more approachable and relatable, like your friend or neighbor or coworker. She has a solid blue-collar backstory, having worked a myriad of service jobs from grocery store clerk to waitress. She graduated from a state school, not some Ivy League institution, and she did it while a member of Congress to boot. She’s a mother and, as she spent a good portion of her speech mentioning, a new grandmother.
Congenial and conversational, she speaks in a measured, matter-of-fact Midwestern manner. When Noem talks about growing up in a world “where people were proud to have jobs,” that speaks to many working Americans who feel that they toil away at unfulfilling, unglamorous, and underpaid jobs for little recognition. They resent those who don’t — either because they have a better job or no job at all.
Noem makes people feel good about themselves and their country, even when reinforcing the very myths and policies that keep them oppressed. Rather than encouraging them to agitate for better conditions, she plays their class prejudices like a finely tuned piano, hitting the right keys and creating a sweet invective against the welfare state and those who depend on it. In her criticisms of the 1619 Project and critical race theory, she claims that “we do not have racism in our DNA in this country,” even if the fact that Black people were initially counted as three-fifths a person in our Constitution shows that to be demonstrably untrue. “We love each other,” she goes on to claim — a fact that our fractious civic life disproves — “and everybody deserves to be treated equally,” something few on the right actually seem to believe.
That doesn’t matter, though. Noem has hit on a basic truth, one that may prove political gold should she run in 2024. Whether our nation was actually “formed on freedom,” as Noem claims, whether we have racism in our DNA or whether we actually love one another and treat everyone equally is immaterial to a great many voters. They want to believe it, whether it is true or not.
It is this Reaganesque ability to inspire hope while peddling oppressive policies that makes Kristi Noem so formidable. More than even Trump himself, who has already been rejected, Noem frightens me. Her salt-of-the-earth charm combined with her MAGA credentials make her a real threat to our country in 2024.
So, despite all the insanity of CPAC 2021, the left’s takeaway should not be that the party is still thoroughly Trumpified, or that these people are as ridiculous as they are reactionary and racist. Rather, we should realize there’s a leader in the making, one who presents a reasonable and convincing face to this insanity. And that leader is Kristi Noem.