Opinion | Kristi Noem just learned a painful lesson about trolling liberals

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It’s rare that the books written by politicians aspiring to higher office include anything interesting, so give South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem credit: She got people to pay attention to her soon-to-be-released entry in this sleep-inducing genre. And all it took was shooting a dog in the head.

The Guardian was the first to get its hands on Noem’s account of the dog’s demise. The ill-fated wirehaired pointer, a puppy named Cricket, was difficult to control, it wasn’t taking well to being trained as a hunting dog, and it even killed some chickens belonging to a neighbor. “I hated that dog,” Noem writes, and she concluded he had to be put down. So she took him to a gravel pit and shot him. “It was not a pleasant job,” she says, “but it had to be done.”

“I guess if I were a better politician I wouldn’t tell the story here,” she added. That turned out to be true, but perhaps not in quite the way she meant. If it was designed to produce a reaction from her political opponents, which would in turn enable a counter-reaction from her side of the aisle, Noem’s anecdote was only a partial success. Her opponents certainly reacted, with a bit of outrage and a lot of mockery. But only a few conservatives stepped up to defend her, and some even attacked her.

Maybe it’s because people of all political stripes love dogs; almost half of American households have them. The story was the gubernatorial equivalent of those Christmas cards Republican members of Congress send out with every family member holding a gun — seemingly meant to “trigger” liberals but limited in power by the fact that even some on their own side who agree with them on policy issues find it kind of creepy.

There may be no more vapid publishing genre than the politician’s auto-hagiography, written to convince readers that the politician on the cover is worthy of higher office. Every story in these books serves a purpose, and the purpose of the Cricket story isn’t hard to discern. It paints Noem as tough and decisive, doing what must be done. It also highlights the fact that she’s a gun owner hailing from a rural state, at a time when Donald Trump, a son of Queens, might just be looking for a running mate with rural cred to round out his ticket.

As Noem explained in a follow-up tweet, “people are looking for leaders who are authentic, willing to learn from the past, and don’t shy away from tough challenges,” adding: “Whether running the ranch or in politics, I have never passed on my responsibilities to anyone else to handle. Even if it’s hard and painful.”

Like many a politician from her part of the country, Noem has always sold herself as a gun-totin’ woman of the plains. Just two years ago, she published a book titled “Not My First Rodeo: Lessons From the Heartland.” As the rural-urban political divide has grown — Republicans have painted themselves as strong and connected to the land, while their opponents are supposedly effete urbanites who couldn’t drive a tractor or put down a dog if their lives depended on it.

What that has to do with the actual work of politics is seldom explained, but Republicans everywhere are eager to tout their rural connections. David McCormick, the GOP nominee for the Senate in Pennsylvania, has long said he “started with nothing” and “grew up on a family farm,” but it turns out his father was a college president, and while the family did own a farm, it was more of a country estate where his mother raised Arabian horses. Another Republican Senate nominee, Tim Sheehy, has told Montana voters, “I grew up in rural Minnesota,” by which he means he grew up in a multimillion-dollar lake house in a suburb of St. Paul.

Unlike theirs, Noem’s rural roots are legitimate; she really did grow up on her family’s ranch and farm, and her father died after he was smothered in a grain bin. Had Noem wanted to tread a more well-worn path, she might have simply attacked cities, as more than a few Republicans have done. She could have gone to San Francisco for a day and claimed, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did after his brief foray there, to have seen public defecation and heroin and crack use. That would have fit in nicely with the regular messages on conservative media that cities are hellholes of crime and depravity. Or like Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, did 10 years ago, Noem could have talked proudly about castrating hogs, a farm animal most Americans are far less emotional about.

Fashioning political identities out of the stories of candidates’ personal lives is a subtle art; they want to seem connected to regular folks, even if they’re supposed to be just a bit better than us. Which is why they show us their mundane sides: Here I am shooting hoops with my kids or cooking dinner or filling up my car. But if candidates show us something unusual about themselves, it had better not be at the expense of creatures for which so many of us have such deep feelings of affection and protectiveness. When over half of dog owners say their pets are as much a part of their families as the humans, one should tread carefully. Even the least sentimental readers might wonder why Noem didn’t just give Cricket to someone better able to train him.

The lesson seems clear: If you’re going to troll, don’t mess with the animals who are a beloved part of tens of millions of American families. Maybe Noem can tell a heartwarming anecdote about that in her next book.

This article was originally published on MSNBC.com