COVID-19 is out of control in South Dakota. Over the past week, the state has been averaging nearly 1,500 new cases a day. Hospitalizations have increased five-fold since early September, and the state’s per capita death rate from the virus is one of the highest in the world.
Yet South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, stubbornly refuses to change her hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Even as other states — including neighboring North Dakota and Iowa, which are also led by Republican governors — have finally put in place mask mandates, Noem remains defiant.
This summer her state hosted the Sturgis motorcycle rally, which is increasingly blamed for a significant spike in COVID-19 cases across the Midwest. She refused to cancel South Dakota’s state fair and hosted a maskless July Fourth event for President Trump at Mount Rushmore.
In an ordinary world, such indifference to mass death would be a political disaster. Instead, Noem remains not only broadly popular, but her actions are also helping her politically. Her brazen know-nothingness is a feature in the modern GOP, not a bug.
Noem is the logical next step in the Trumpist takeover of the GOP: indifferent to science and facts, hostile to government mandates, including those that save lives, and a child-like refusal to change course. For Republicans, she has it all.
Throughout the pandemic, she has followed the president’s lead in turning mask-wearing into a partisan cultural issue, even in the face of mounting evidence that mask mandates may have prevented hundreds of thousands of infections and could have prevented many others if every state had implemented a mask mandate early on.
Yet Noem, earlier this month attended an event celebrating an increase in the state’s production of N95 masks — all the while refusing to wear a mask herself.
In an op-ed in the Rapid City Journal last month, Noem wrote, “If folks want to wear a mask, they should be free to do so. Similarly, those who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into wearing one. And government should not mandate it. We need to respect each other’s decisions — in South Dakota, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.”
To take Noem’s words to their logical conclusion, one could argue that we should respect the decisions of someone who drinks a case of beer and then gets in their car. It’s their decision, after all, to drive drunk.
This week her press spokesman doubled down, pledged Noem’s refusal to abide by President-elect Joe Biden’s call for a national mask mandate, arguing that Noem “has provided her citizens with the full scope of the science and trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones.”
The notion that individual Americans will make the best decisions for their health and of those around them is belied by the actions of Noem’s fellow citizens who are responsible for their state’s dire health status. If South Dakota residents could be relied on to adopt the right public health measures that would save lives and protect those around them, the state wouldn’t have been recently called by Forbes magazine one of the 10 riskiest places to visit in America.
Yet for all of her monstrous indifference to the lives of her fellow citizens, it hasn’t dimmed Noem’s rising star within the Republican Party. During the 2020 campaign, she was a regular surrogate for President Trump and other Republican candidates, visiting a dozen states, including Iowa and New Hampshire. And though few states have handled the pandemic more poorly than Noem, her approval ratings remain relatively high — with 57 percent approving of her performance and 35 percent disapproving. Not surprisingly, the state’s residents are divided along party lines, with only 5 percent of Democrats giving Noem an excellent mark while 52 percent of Republicans think she’s doing a great job.
By fully embracing the positions and attitudes of Trump, Noem is ensuring that she will be a major player in Republican politics in 2024. Indeed, one should expect that when she loudly defies Biden’s mask mandate, which is likely to be announced in January, it will help, not hurt, her political aspirations. Other Republicans with an eye on 2024 are likely to follow her lead — and tragically many rank-and-file Republicans will go along.
As Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse in South Dakota recently described in a harrowing interview on CNN, her patients are dying from COVID-19 all the while angrily claiming that it is not COVID-19 that has put them on death’s door. “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real.’ And when they should be... FaceTiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred,” Doering said.
But Noem is focused on other issues.
Last month, she told Fox News host Laura Ingraham, "My people are happy,” while citing the state’s low unemployment rate. “We’re doing really good in South Dakota,” Noem said. “We’re managing COVID-19, but also our economy is thriving. I think people are really recognizing that leadership has consequences. What we’re doing in South Dakota is Republican leadership.”
Truer words could not be spoken.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.