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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Michelle Cottle: The part of the Kristi Noem saga that I can’t shake

By Michelle Cottle New York Times

Americans like feeling as though they know their political leaders personally. And yet I think many of us now feel we know a little too much about Kristi Noem, one of the more aggressive contestants in the MAGA pageant to be Donald Trump’s running mate.

First, you definitely do not want the South Dakota governor to pet sit. Just, no.

Second, when it comes to reminiscing about meeting world leaders, Noem has a touch of George Santos about her. (Although who among us hasn’t fantasized about kicking it with Kim Jong Un, am I right?)

Third, the governor seems bored. On top of pursuing the VP slot, she has been gunning to replace Wayne LaPierre as top dog at the National Rifle Association (Boom! Double pun!), according to Axios, which reported that she offered to leave office early for a senior post. (Noem’s office denied she spoke with LaPierre and insisted she “loves her job.”)

While all these tidbits are juicy, the Noem nugget from her new book that has stuck with me is the story about being “threatened” by Nikki Haley. As Noem tells it, she was hauling a trailerful of horses down the road one day in 2021 when Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and former governor of South Carolina, phoned to offer her mentoring services. But what was Haley really up to? According to Noem, Haley told her: “I’ve heard many good things about you. But when I do hear bad things, I will make sure that you know.” Combined with a couple of “long” and “awkward” pauses, this made the governor suspect a more sinister motive:

“It was clear that she wanted me to know that there was only room for one Republican woman in the spotlight. It was weird,” Noem recalls in her book telling her assistant. “Unsurprisingly,” she muses, “I never received any calls or ‘mentoring’ from her, but the message was clear. I’m the alpha female here, and you should know your place. I actually felt a little sad for her.”

This anecdote makes me a little sad as well, though not for Haley. It feels as though Noem, in applying her own dark perspective to their conversation, has a potentially worrisome need to see, and present, herself as a nail-tough woman in a rock-hard world – as further evidenced by her puppy-killing tale and by her assertion that Kim (who, please recall, she did not meet) surely “underestimated” her and her gift for “staring down little tyrants.” Her instinct to include the Haley anecdote in her please-pick-me-for-VP book suggests something depressing about how Noem sees her party and her gender’s place in it.

The idea that there is space for only a certain number of women in the upper echelons of the GOP, and that those high-achieving women need to stomp on one another to advance, seems extremely retro. And the notion that an experienced state-representative-turned-congresswoman-turned-governor sees herself this explicitly through the lens of gender – leaning into performative anecdotes that make her seem as tough as any MAGA bro – is revealing about what she thinks is required to rise in the party.

Don’t misunderstand: I get where Noem is coming from. For decades, as women elbowed their way into the workplace and up the ladder, this girl-fight dynamic thrived. It was by no means confined to politics, and it remained common way longer than many people would care to admit. (It was still alive and kicking when I waded into the fray in the mid-1990s.)

But this outlook feels increasingly passe, especially in enclaves with an abundance of successful, hard-charging women – like, say, the Democratic Party. Even with Nancy Pelosi no longer atop the House Democrats, the blue team remains well stocked with high-ranking women: Rep. Katherine Clark as whip, Debbie Stabenow as chair of the Senate Democrats’ communications and policy committee, Amy Klobuchar as chair of the Senate Democrats’ steering committee, Kamala Harris as vice president, a bevy of women in Cabinet-level positions. … There is a long way yet to go toward gender balance, but much progress has been made.

The Republican Party? Eh. In many ways, it remains dominated by white men, with women near the top struggling to emerge as something more than tokens. Republicans lag well behind Democrats in terms of female members in the House and the Senate, and just as glaring is the dearth of Republican women to have broken into the top tier of leadership.

Among House Republicans, no woman has risen above the position of conference chair: Cathy McMorris Rodgers was replaced by Liz Cheney was replaced by Elise Stefanik. The current Senate is only slightly less dispiriting, with two women, Joni Ernst and Shelley Moore Capito, in the upper leadership ranks. And looking back on the Trump presidency, the Cabinet was super heavy on white men, much more so than in the Biden or Obama administrations.

Noem’s gender issues seem to go beyond whatever problem she may have with Haley. The governor has, in recent years, undergone a striking stylistic Trumpification, as detailed by the New York Times’ chief fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman. Her hair has become longer and more luxuriant, her lips plumper and glossier, her clothing sleeker. And then there are her refurbished teeth, which led Noem to post a lengthy video tribute to the Texas dental practice responsible – which led not only to mockery but also a bizarre lawsuit.

The made-over Noem seems set on aligning herself with a particular kind of femininity, far more glamorous and camera-ready than her earlier incarnation, and presumably improving her attractiveness score with Trump, who is known for rating women’s appearance on a scale of 1 to 10. No question, the former reality-TV star is taken with women and men alike who he thinks look straight out of central casting – by which he effectively means central casting from the 1950s.

With a GOP like this one, led by a presumptive presidential nominee like this one, maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Noem for seeing retro attitudes about women everywhere. Someday, her party may be a place where women are valued as leaders and occupy more than a few seats at the head table. Sadly, that day doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.