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A look at Noem, Janklow and the populist spirit

Levi Gutz

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

A populist? Kristi Noem?

Hmmm. I guess I’d never thought about it before Republican state Rep. Charlie Hoffman brought it up on Twitter when he said people “like Noem’s populism.”

Which gave me pause. Like many others, I considered the late Gov. Bill Janklow to be a bit of a prairie populist, but one who could also operate well within established political and governmental structures.

I hadn’t thought of Noem in the same way, until Charlie brought it up and got me thinking, and calling around a bit.

One of the calls was to Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. Like a good professor, he responded to my question with one of his own:

“What’s the definition of populism?” Schaff said. “People have lots of populism definitions. But at heart, it seems to be the identification of conflict between ‘the people' and an elite, and the populist sides with the people over the elite. There’s certainly a streak of that in Noem.”

OK, but doesn’t everybody side with the people? All politicians at least? Or at least pretend to?

Sure, of course. But how does a given politician deal with the structures of power or established order of things? Schaff says that’s where South Dakota’s first-term Republican governor separates herself from politicians we might call more mainstream or establishments, like Republican U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds.

“Noem is more likely to attack institutions that she sees as unfriendly to her, where Thune and Rounds are more likely to work within the institutions,” Schaff says. “And to the extent, the institutions might oppose them, they are less likely to make a frontal assault on them. Noem seems very much more likely to make a frontal assault.”

Part of that, Schaff says, is that Noem tends to be more confrontational and combative than Rounds and Thune. They tend to be system guys. And while they’ll sometimes stray from the system, they rarely attack it and usually hope to change it and establish themselves as important and influential parts of it.

Back in the House, she was more of an institutionalist

Noem was kind of developing in that mold during her two terms in the state House when she worked into a leadership position. And she was probably even more directed toward leadership during her four terms in the U.S. House.

When she was a freshman in the house, other first-time GOP House members elected her to represent them with the House leadership. Over the next eight years, she worked with Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his successor as speaker, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. And Noem was placed by leadership into an instrumental role in producing a massive tax-cut package that passed in 2017.

Throughout those House years, Noem was developing into a potential leader herself.

“It suggests that she was more of an institutionalist than a populist when she was in the House,” Schaff says. “But since then, clearly, she has changed her persona a bit.”

I’d say quite a bit. So would U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of two Republicans serving on the House selected committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

During an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Kinzinger was asked about comments by Noem that minimized Donald Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection and seemed to question the credibility of Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide who testified to the committee.

“I served with Kristi Noem in the House. And it is like invasion of the body snatchers. This is not the Kristi Noem I served with,” Kinzinger said. “The Kristi Noem I served with, you know, was conservative, dedicated to truth, and I would have thought would have put her country above her political career at any moment.”

Kinzinger told CNN that Noem’s behavior is affected by her obvious political plans beyond South Dakota.

“It’s clear she is running for president or vice president,” he said. “She’s scared to death of the base.’

She’s not alone among GOP colleagues in that fear. Still, Kinzinger said, her behavior stood out.

“I get amazed still every day but what some of my colleagues do,” Kinzinger said. “This is one of the biggest ones. She used to be something very different.”

I think she used to be someone very different, too. More reasonable. Less of an ideologue. Less extreme. Less likely to push her private religious beliefs into her public life, even into public policy.

What I don’t know is whether that Noem, the one I covered and knew during her eight years in the U.S. House, is the real Noem. Or is this one?

“I suspect that there was always a kernel there of what we’re seeing now,” Schaff says. “And what it took was a different kind of soil, a different environment, to grow in. Maybe if that changed, she would change, too. Every politician changes to fit the time.”

Punching her Trump ticket

In 2016, it became the Trump time in the Republican Party. And it still is Trump time in the GOP, assault on the U.S. Capitol notwithstanding. I’ve said and written before that just about everyone is changed in one way or another by Donald Trump. And those who love him and believe he can benefit them are changed the most.

Noem is a strong Trump supporter. More than that, she seems to be a strong Trump believer. You won’t see her criticize him. You won’t see her cross him or his followers. But you will see her speak and act much the way Trump speaks and acts.

A kernel, Schaff said, in a different kind of soil grows in a different way. Does that soil produce a populist?

Maybe, again depending on how you define the term.

Is Donald Trump a populist? If you mean does he rail against established systems and behavioral norms, yes. Much of his rhetoric is and has been populist in tone with all the “drain-the-swamp” stuff. Which is odd, of course, coming from a white, pampered New York City billionaire.

Still, it seems to work for him.

Even when he was in the “deep state” system, he was trying to diminish or destroy it, or at least parts of it.

Is Bernie Sanders a populist? Sure, I think so. He’s a democratic socialist, a natural outsider who only aligned with the Democratic Party to run for president. He is and long has been separate from the power structure of Congress. And his outsider status against insider Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 made the ultimate results of their competitive primary fairly predictable.

The insider won, even though she would lose in November to an outsider.

During the spring of 2016, my wife and my stepson — both Democrats — and I were driving to the funeral of a colleague along with another colleague whom I assumed was a Democrat. I don’t know what her registration actually was or is now. But when the conversation in the car that day turned to the presidential campaign, she made it clear that she was for Trump.

Which shocked the rest of us.

She wanted Trump to win because he was an outsider who would “blow it up,” meaning wreck the existing system and start over. While she preferred Trump, however, she was willing to take Bernie Sanders, because she thought he might “blow it up,” too.

There was a populist, outsider message from both of them that she liked.

I voted for Clinton. She was an imperfect candidate who ran a surprisingly weak campaign and had to deal with a flurry of unexpected obstacles, some of her own making and others not. But I thought she was by far the best-qualified candidate for the job that year.

Trump, I thought, was far and away the worst. And the most dangerous.

To me, the idea of blowing it up is crazy talk

Sanders has some ideas that are too far left of center for me. But if he’d beaten Clinton, I would have voted for him over Trump, without hesitation. And I don’t think Sanders actually would have sought to blow up the system if he had he won.

I think he would have grown into the job (something Trump never did) and moderated slightly.

To me, the idea of “blowing up” a 246-year-old system of government is insane. Working to improve it is essential. But the “blow-it-up” rhetoric seemed to inspire Trump supporters, and maybe to a lesser extent Sanders supporters.

Noem didn’t show any “blow it up” inclinations while in the U.S. House. I wouldn’t call her rhetoric governor-blowing-it-up stuff. But she certainly wants to dramatically reorder things in South Dakota to align with her Christian-conservative beliefs.

And she’s doing it in ways no other governor in my lifetime, and maybe ever, has done.

Noem also is using the platform South Dakota voters gave her as governor to pitch herself to a national audience, in hopes of higher office.

She is clearly interested in a run for president or in positioning herself to be a potential vice-president pick. She obviously loves the spotlight of the hard-right national media. And she loves to take on those she considers to be unfriendly to her and her plans.

Any Republican politician these days has to figure Donald Trump into his or her plans. Those who don’t bow to Trump and have the courage to speak out against him risk ending up like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who is about as conservative as Republicans get.

But the 56-year-old third-term congresswoman also believes in the U.S. Constitution, the rule of law, and facts. So she called out Donald Trump’s lie about the 2020 presidential election being stolen from him as well and condemned his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Her outspoken criticism of Trump first cost her a Republican leadership position in the U.S. House, and then it cost her the House seat she won in 2016. Or it will in a matter of months when her successor is sworn in.

After winning her 2020 Republican House primary run with 73 percent of the vote, Cheney lost last week to the first-time candidate, election-denier and Trump-endorsee Harriet Hageman — who once endorsed Cheney — by a blowout of more than 30 points.

Cheney says she isn’t finished with politics, however. She says she will continue to work to keep Donald Trump from winning another term in the White House. And, she says, she might run for president herself.

If she does, she might have to become more of a populist than the institutional insider she has been throughout her life as a daughter of Dick Cheney, whose Republican credentials include chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, 10 years as a congressman from Wyoming, secretary of defense for President George H.W. Bush and vice president for George W. Bush.

Prior to her congressional terms, Liz Cheney had jobs within the U.S. State Department, worked on national campaigns for Republicans, and was a contributor on Fox News.

If you want Republican credentials, it’s tough to beat the Cheney family.

But Trump beat them. And he will have the most influential role in choosing the GOP presidential nominee. It’s hard to imagine Liz Cheney winning that primary, although she could attract independents, some Democrats, and some Republicans in a general election.

For her to actually win the presidency might be classified as a populist-style miracle.

Janklow the populist, and the pragmatist

But back to Noem, and her populism.

Yeah, I guess. But when I think of a populist governor in South Dakota during recent times, I’m a lot more likely to think of Bill Janklow than Kristi Noem.

Often referred to as a “prairie populist,” Janklow certainly relied on outsider rhetoric to rail against the federal government and even certain things about the state government he oversaw for 16 years - first from January 1979 to January of 1987, then from January 1995 to January of 2003.

There were many populist inclinations mixed in among Janklow’s more Republican-businessman style. Because of him, the state Legislature imposed a temporary increase in the state sales tax to purchase hundreds of miles of essential rail lines in the state that were set to be abandoned. Who does that besides a prairie populist?

Conversely, Janklow also led the effort in the state Legislature in 1980 to remove usury limits, which helped open up credit for farmers, ranchers, and small businesses and was also a boon to big banks. The Legislature also passed legislation late in the 1980 session to welcome Citibank to South Dakota.

Those two actions set South Dakota off on a different economic course, with the powerhouse of agriculture given some balance by a booming financial services industry that produced jobs, taxes, charitable contributions, and other benefits to the state.

It was not all good, though, to some of the blue-collar and lower-income people Janklow said he wanted to help. Consumer debt increased — and sometimes broke family finances — along with credit-card-company profits.

So the effects were mixed, which Janklow acknowledged in his later years.

Janklow ran with very powerful people, including those from Citibank. But he did so pragmatically because he could get things done with them. He never seemed impressed by them, their money, or their influence.

He could and sometimes would get all dressed up for meetings with the rich and powerful. But he always looked more comfortable in a sweater or Chicago Bears jacket, with jeans.

Noem assumes her own version of a populist look with her jeans and boots and seed cap or when she’s on horseback, a western hat. She likes to ride a motorcycle, too and connects with riders at the Sturgis rally.

Janklow was more of a pragmatist than today’s version of Kristi Noem seems to be. And his pragmatism sometimes crossed party lines. He liked Tom Daschle and worked with him because he was smart and effective and had power in the U.S. Senate. Together, they could get things done for South Dakota and did.

Sometimes more than anything, he liked a good fight

Janklow served himself, but also sought to serve the state and its people. And far from hating the government, he thought it was one of the most effective tools in getting things done and helping people.

If he could have a fight in the process, he liked that even better. That’s something Noem seems to like, too.

In the late 1990s, Janklow took the state into international trade issues by ordering Highway Patrol troopers to stop trucks hauling hogs and grain from Canada. The Canadian truckers then had to prove the grain was free of disease and the hogs were free of certain drugs.

It was a move by Janklow to help South Dakota farmers he said were at a disadvantage because of Canadian trade policies. Canadian officials called it political gamesmanship. But it also seemed to be a factor in settling some trade disagreements between the U.S. and Canada.

Janklow’s sharp-edged political views tended to be contrarian rather than extremist. He was no ideologue. Nor did he admire those who were. He considered himself pro-life but didn’t want abortion banned entirely. And he didn’t particularly care for the harsh, protracted fights the highly emotional issue brought to the Capitol.

Janklow had a transformation in his views about same-sex relationships after a member of his staff revealed to Janklow that he was gay. The staffer spoke of the difficulties he had faced in life because of his sexual orientation.

Janklow was sympathetic to those struggles, and it made him sensitive to similar struggles by other gays. I think he would have been sensitive to if perhaps perplexed by, transgender people and their struggles.

Janklow was born into a family of Jewish and Christian believers but was never overtly religious. He was far from the conservative Christians who have so much power in the GOP today. In fact, hard-core evangelicals always seemed to give him the creeps.

Yet he maintained close relationships with a number of important clerics, including Robert Carlson, former bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, and David Zellmer, former bishop of the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Janklow never pushed religion in his public life, although he did cause a furor when he started putting Nativity scenes in the South Dakota Capitol. That was less about promoting religion in a state structure than it was about the tendency of a grown-up juvenile delinquent to thumb his nose at authority, particularly if it came from a source outside the state.

All of which, I think, puts Janklow in the category of political pragmatist first, prairie populist second, and Republican institutionalist third. And maybe a distant third.

And Noem? A populist? Yes, probably, in the Trump-like version of the word.

Which is not much like the Bill Janklow version at all.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.