The Trumpification of Kristi Noem


Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, is readying for her national close-up. How else to interpret her recent controversial trip to Texas to “fix” her smile, documented in a lengthy video?

You know, the one she posted on X, Facebook and Instagram, singing the praises of Smile Texas, the cosmetic dental clinic that remedied what she said had been a problem incurred long ago in an accident while bicycling with her children. The one that chronicled her journey to, she said, “a smile that I can be proud of and confident in.”

The result seemed so much like a promotional infomercial that Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group, is suing Ms. Noem for misleading advertising, claiming she was effectively acting as a travel influencer. Vanity Fair wrote that the whole exercise was “blowing up in her face.”

Except for one thing. The teeth story is about a lot more than teeth.

As the race to be Donald J. Trump’s running mate heats up, Ms. Noem’s new smile reflects a tactical move that has as much to do with politics and psychology as it does with appearance.

“It’s all about her appeal to an audience of one,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said. “The whole teeth thing almost looks like it was done for Trump to see. She is showing him she works well in front of the camera, that she has that star power he wants onstage with him, while fitting into the mode of women in the Trump universe.”

Mr. Trump was, after all, the president who often identified his staff members, especially members of the military, as coming from “central casting.” He now dresses almost entirely in the colors of the American flag. He once announced that women should “dress like women” — and, as Richard Thompson Ford, a law professor at Stanford University and the author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History,” said, “We know what that means to him.” It is reflected in the profile of almost every woman in the Trump orbit, including his family members and his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

In this, Ms. Noem’s dental upgrade is simply the most recent step in what appears to be a yearslong makeover that has transformed her, more than any other woman on Mr. Trump’s shortlist, into what Samantha N. Sheppard, a professor of cinema and media studies at Cornell University, called “the perfect ornament for Trump.” Even beyond her popularity and credentials as a governor, and her MAGA platform, she offers an example of a certain kind of “Miss America-like white femininity,” Ms. Sheppard said, also reflected in Fox News anchors and that involves cascading hair, extensive eyelashes and a blinding smile.

How does Mr. Trump know she’s part of his team? All he has to do is look.

The story is told in the imagery. Back in 2010, when she was first running for Congress, Ms. Noem had a haircut that looked like a cross between “the Rachel,” the layered, straightened haircut Jennifer Aniston made famous on “Friends,” and the power bob favored by Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. When she won re-election in 2012, she had chopped it into a short look that Ms. Sheppard compared to the signature haircut of Kate Gosselin from “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” albeit slightly more corporatized.

After Mr. Trump won the presidency and the MAGA movement took off, Ms. Noem adopted a new look. Her hair got longer and longer, with tousled waves kissed by the curling iron, her part moved to the center. She began to resemble a doppelgänger for Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancée. Or a dark-haired version of Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife and the new co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Even Ms. Noem’s clothes changed, from the khaki shirtdress she wore to CPAC in 2011 to the bright blue sheath she chose for her State of the State address this year.

There is no better example of her transformation than the cover photo on her new book, “No Going Back: The Truth on What’s Wrong with Politics and How We Move America Forward,” which features a portrait of Ms. Noem with lips glossed, eyelashes thick and one hand seemingly playing with her wavy locks as she sits in her desk chair in a blazer and dress before the American flag.

“She practically looks like a member of the Trump family,” Mr. Bonjean said. “Maybe a cousin.”

And while her Trumpification could be a coincidence, Ms. Noem has revealed herself to be sensitive to the effects and uses of costuming, as seen in recent ads in which she dressed up as a dental hygienist, an electrician and a highway patrolman, the better to convey the idea that “South Dakota is hiring.” (“We have over 20,000 open jobs,” she says in one ad. Plus no individual income tax!)

“It’s absolutely strategic,” Mr. Ford said. Ms. Noem is “signaling that she’s going to be Trump’s kind of woman. And, at the same time, that she isn’t going to challenge him.”

This approach to political image-making has its roots in the pantomimed femininity of Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin, where the promise of a powerful woman was defanged by her participation in the pageantry of traditional gender cosplay.

The teeth simply finish the picture, as does the fact that Ms. Noem used the opportunity to talk up the dentist who did the procedure. If anyone would recognize the value of using power to push product it is Mr. Trump himself. And perhaps, in doing so, recognize a kindred spirit.

The governor may sell herself in part as a grass-roots cowgirl, but Ms. Noem is speaking Mr. Trump’s language, proving that she belongs and that she is all in with his vision. That she is going to “get in line and stay in line,” Ms. Sheppard said. “That she knows how to conduct herself and be who he needs her to be.”

In any case, he has clearly noticed. A few days after the tooth news broke, Ms. Noem joined Mr. Trump at a rally for the Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in Vandalia, Ohio. After she spoke — they were wearing matching MAGA hats — Mr. Trump announced: “You’re not allowed to say it, so I will not. You’re not allowed to say she’s beautiful, so I’m not going to say it.”

What could she do but smile?





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