Within MAGA’s vast moral vacuum, there are always new lows to hit. The more outrageous the better for sticking it to the “woke” liberal elite they believe is straitjacketing them from doing, to paraphrase Trump, whatever the hell they want. 

But that pattern hit a snag recently on something that tends to unite people across all sorts of lines — empathy for animals. Two weeks ago, the Guardian revealed that South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, a Republican who is reportedly being considered for Trump’s running mate, described in her upcoming memoir, “No Going Back,” how she shot her dog. It wasn’t just the act that sparked controversy, but the heartless way Noem describes it. The dog, Cricket, was a young wire-haired pointer that she dragged into a gravel pit to kill, not because it was sick or suffering, but because it wasn’t learning hunting skills quickly enough. Far from being regretful about the decision, Noem fairly revels in it. She declares she hated Cricket and lauds herself for making a tough decision. Elsewhere in the book she describes doing the same thing to a pet goat whose lesser offense was being “nasty and mean.”

The backlash to what Noem assumed to be acceptable, even admirable MAGA behavior was immediate. It was also refreshingly bipartisan. A consensus quickly formed that Noem’s act was stupid at best, barbaric at worst. The scuttlebutt killed any chance of Noem becoming Trump’s running mate; it might even sink her career. It’s wonderful to think that a MAGA Republican will actually face political consequences in real time for committing morally reprehensible acts. It would be better if the reprehensible acts involved wronging humans or flouting constitutional principles, but I’ll take it. 

In the black and white world of MAGA, if someone doesn’t share your worldview or is merely annoying, it’s off with their heads.

I myself am an animal lover. I have five dogs and a cat and consider what Noem did to be as inhumane as anything the GOP has done, and continues to do, to their own species. Rejecting climate change, cutting off aid to the poor, fomenting hate for trans people — it is all driven by the same disdain and sense of righteousness that drove Noem to murder the family dog without a twinge of conscience. I can see why she thought the anecdote would resonate with her readership: in the black and white world of MAGA, if someone doesn’t share your worldview or is merely annoying, it’s off with their heads. The gravel pit is just a metaphor for the U.S. Congress, whose Republican members continually thwart or kill needed legislation; or the state of Florida, which Ron DeSantis proudly declared the place “where woke goes to die,” as if that was a tourist attraction on par with Disney World. It’s good to see Noem hoisted in her own ick, though also frustrating that it’s taken a self-confessed, 20-year-old story about a dog to elicit widespread criticism of GOP cruelty that has wrought so much damage for so many.

Alas, the controversy is unlikely to affect the thrust or substance of current GOP ideology. For one thing, I’ve learned that the biggest animal advocates can be archconservative when it comes to their fellow humans. Noem is not the first Republican from a rural or agricultural state to demonstrate their fortitude and independent streak by citing experiences with animals. Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive Republican with dozens of pets, loved to slaughter wild animals and pose with their carcasses. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate and the clearest progenitor of modern-day MAGAtude, made hands-on experience with wildlife part of her out-of-the-box image. Like Roosevelt, Palin enthusiastically hunted big game, and in 2011 killed and gutted a caribou on her reality show. Critics accused her of doing it for sheer entertainment value, but her diehard fans (a preview of Trump loyalists) ate it up. The combination of “Alaska tough” and her ex-beauty queen looks proved irresistible to a GOP eager to compete with Obama’s global celebrity. Six years after Palin’s vice-presidential run, Jodi Ernst was elected the first woman senator from Iowa after running campaign ads suggesting Washington liberals needed to be castrated like hogs. (“Make  ’em squeal” was the kicker line). It’s no accident that the blusteriest, most unapologetic Republicans these days are women — Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Bobert, Elise Stefanik — but Noem is Palin’s most direct descendant.

The silver lining is that we’ve taken dog cruelty off the table of acceptable behavior for GOP vice presidential candidates. (Or maybe it’s just that we’re talking about GOP behavior standards at all). But even in the most optimistic view of this, we’ve merely plugged one hole in a dike that’s too full of holes to count, and is continually springing more. Whoever the candidate turns out to be, rest assured they will say or do things unacceptable to pretty much anyone outside the MAGAverse, because they have to. Barring some miracle, the pattern will hold.

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