Francis Wilkinson: Kristi Noem’s cruelty fits right into MAGA gun culture

Gun Rights

It’s only right that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s evolving canine scandal should focus on Cricket, the 14-month-old wirehair pointer that Noem shot to death because Cricket was a bad girl. It was Cricket, after all, who took the bullet.

Cricket’s bizarre manner of death, at the hand of a caretaker who allowed the puppy to wreak havoc and then made her pay for it, is relayed in a book scheduled for release at about the time Donald Trump might be deciding on his running mate. The Guardian got hold of a pre-release copy and told the tale of Cricket last weekend. Politicians complain of gotcha stories but this one is a gotme, told by Noem herself. As the news traveled, normal people wondered if Noem has a conscience. (Who executes a puppy?) Political people wondered if she has a brain. (Who admits to having executed a puppy?)

But if you take the spotlight off the doomed dog, or the goat Noem claimed to have killed in crueler fashion (two shots were necessary), you can see how her ghoulishness fits into the mad mosaic of MAGA. It’s the cruelty, of course. And the gun.

In Montana, Republican Senate candidate Tim Sheehy has his own shooting scandal. Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL, had been campaigning around the state talking about the bullet lodged in his arm from being shot while serving in Afghanistan. Except in 2015 Sheehy told a Montana park ranger that he had accidentally shot himself in the arm that day. The Washington Post reported that Sheehy’s Colt .45 revolver fell and discharged while he was loading his vehicle during a family visit to the Montana park, according to federal court records. Sheehy’s recklessness could have ended someone’s life.

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So Sheehy appears to have manufactured a tall tale about war service, which he thought would convey toughness, while Noem relayed a disconcerting tale about cruelty, which she apparently thought would translate as Trumpy. Republican politicians campaigning during Reconstruction “waved the bloody shirt” to summon the partisan passions of the Civil War. MAGA politicians wave the bloody gun to inflame the culture war.

MAGA Christmas cards have featured young children holding semi-automatic killing machines, poised to unleash holy hell to celebrate the Savior’s birth. You can become a MAGA hero by killing a couple of protesters in someone else’s town, then join the MAGA grift circuit to talk about how guns are freedom and freedom is everything – except, of course, for guys who don’t have any because you killed them with your gun. On Jan. 6, the Secret Service collected 269 knives or blades along with tasers, brass knuckles and more from those attending Trump’s insurrection speech. Trump, however, demanded the removal of magnetometers so that more heavily armed fans would be able to crowd the stage, absorbing his rage without surrendering their weapons. They weren’t, after all, there to harm him, he said.

Aspiring to that level of menace takes more work for some than others. “Ted Cruz TRIGGERS LIBS by cooking crispy bacon on an AR-15,” the National Rifle Association noted for anyone too dull to grasp the point of a culture-war video made by the Republican senator from Texas. The AR-15 is not a child’s toy; it has left brain matter on the walls of children’s classrooms. Yukking it up on his video, Cruz sought to show that even the most calculating striver can be a hot, dangerous mess.

Noem’s Cricket story didn’t drop into this moral pit from outer space. It wasn’t inserted in her manuscript by accident. It’s there to signal solidarity with a political culture that increasingly honors cruelty and valorizes violence.

Book publishing is a slow-motion business. MAGA culture, by contrast, moves swiftly. Only a short while ago MAGA leaders took umbrage at depictions of their resemblance to Vladimir Putin’s minions. This month, the majority of the House Republican conference voted to abandon Ukraine, ceding an independent nation of 38 million to Putin’s brutality. In the old days of the Joe Biden administration, Supreme Court conservatives were all about American history and tradition. Last week, the court’s GOP partisans warmed to granting Trump Putinesque immunity from the law outside the White House, and Putinist powers should he make it back in.

It can be hard to ride such a rapid moral collapse. With her puppy tale, Noem may have overshot her target, but just barely. Indeed, the South Dakotan may be slightly ahead of her time. Today, her story comes off as grotesque and creepy. By November, killing puppies, or others, may be all the MAGA rage.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was executive editor for the Week and a writer for Rolling Stone.

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