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Killing dogs. Taunting the homeless. Praising Al Capone. This is Trump’s party.

John McEntee— who started out carrying Donald Trump’s bags and rose to become, in the chaotic final days of Trump’s presidency, his most important enforcer, has a TikTok account. In a video he published last week, he explains how he likes to keep 'fake Hollywood money' in his car to give to homeless people. 'Then when they go to use it, they get arrested, so I’m actually like helping clean up the community'.
Last Updated : 14 May 2024, 03:37 IST
Last Updated : 14 May 2024, 03:37 IST

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By Michelle Goldberg

John McEntee— who started out carrying Donald Trump’s bags and rose to become, in the chaotic final days of Trump’s presidency, his most important enforcer, has a TikTok account. In a video he published last week, he explains how he likes to keep “fake Hollywood money” in his car to give to homeless people. “Then when they go to use it, they get arrested, so I’m actually like helping clean up the community,” he said.

With his boyish face and slicked-back hair, McEntee, the former director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and a man likely to be central to staffing a future Trump administration, comes off a lot like Patrick Bateman, the homicidal investment banker played by Christian Bale in the 2000 film American Psycho.

The clip’s smug villainy, I think, offers a clue to why South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, thirsty for a bigger role in MAGA world, might have thought she could ingratiate herself by bragging about killing a puppy.

Right-wingers often rain contempt on what they call virtue signaling, a performative kind of sanctimony epitomized by the “In This House” yard signs that once dotted progressive neighborhoods. Partly in response, they’ve developed what’s sometimes called vice signaling, the defiant embrace of cruelty and disdain for social norms. Think of “rolling coal,” the practice of modifying diesel engines to make them belch dark exhaust in an effort to trigger environmentalists, or the way George Santos’ promiscuous falsehoods endeared him to hard-core MAGA acolytes.

A cult of Bateman has developed on the very online right, which is why images from American Psycho appeared multiple times in a bizarre ad for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during his abortive presidential campaign. And no one, of course, does vice signaling like Trump, who keeps comparing himself to the gangster Al Capone.

For years Noem has been trying, with a parvenu’s pathos, to fit into Trump’s circle. She’s jettisoned the sensible haircuts and subtle makeup of her early political career for the Palm Beach look popular at Mar-a-Lago, and brought on Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a top adviser. Two months ago, she put out a bizarre, infomercial-style social media spot about traveling to Texas for cosmetic dentistry, which seemed like an attempt to show Trump her aptitude for corrupt and shameless salesmanship. (The consumer advocacy group Travelers United is now suing her for deceptive advertising.)

Until recently she was considered a possible Trump vice-presidential prospect, and her new book, No Going Back, could have been titled Pick Me! In it, she criticizes former RNC chair Ronna McDaniel for not doing more to investigate “fishy voting” after Trump’s 2020 defeat and blasts Nikki Haley for trying to distance herself from Trump after January 6. Writing about what she’d do if she were to become president, she says, nonsensically, that she’d hire John Kerry just for the pleasure of being able to tell him, “You’re fired!”

The dog-killing anecdote for which Noem is now famous should be seen in the context of this effort to mold herself to the MAGA movement’s specifications. As you’ve probably heard by now, Noem devotes several pages of her slim memoir to killing first Cricket, a disobedient 14-month-old pointer, and then a “nasty and mean” goat.

According to Politico, she wanted to put this story in her first book, which came out two years ago, but her publishing team nixed it. Apparently, she felt strongly enough about it to try again; it’s a tale she sees as important to her persona. This has puzzled many observers. “Were there no other personal anecdotes available?” asked a National Review writer. “Is she unaware that humans are fond of dogs?”

The story’s inclusion makes more sense when you think about the kind of humans she’s trying to impress. The ex-president and the people who surround him often seem drawn to violence and lurid displays of dominance. Trump, of course, makes no secret either of his contempt for dogs or his admiration for brutal dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whom Noem falsely claimed to have met.

The thuggish Lewandowski was charged with battery after grabbing a Breitbart reporter in 2016, though the charges were later dropped, and then charged again with misdemeanor battery in 2022 after making aggressive sexual advances against a Trump donor’s wife, for which he entered into a plea agreement. (That incident led Noem to cut ties with Lewandowski for a time, but he’s apparently back in her good graces, and in Trump’s; The New York Times reported that he could play a role in the 2024 Republican convention.)

McEntee, a senior adviser on personnel for Project 2025, the right’s plan for a second Trump administration, is going to be the gateway to many White House jobs. And Trump’s two older sons, of course, love posting photos of themselves with the dead trophy animals they hunt.

It makes sense that someone trying to navigate this milieu would think the Cricket story makes her look good. Though Noem now claims it was meant to illustrate her ability make hard choices, there’s a breeziness to the way she talks about it in the book. Toward the end, she tries to taunt Joe Biden over his out-of-control German shepherd: “Commander, say hello to Cricket for me.”

If such clumsy brutality blew up in Noem’s face, it’s in part because Americans tend to care about dogs more than people, but also because the scene she depicts is so squalid. Successful vice signaling should have a certain intentionality. The conservative Washington Examiner, in an article about Bateman’s appeal to young right-wing men, said, “He wields control over himself and his surroundings, something many young men, especially conservatives, feel is unattainable to them.”

Noem, by contrast, made herself look out of control; she was enraged by the dog, and when she decided on a whim to kill the goat as well, she didn’t bring enough bullets to do it right the first time. There’s nothing aspirational about this grubby, wild-eyed flailing. And I’d imagine that Republicans— though not just Republicans, find it especially distasteful coming from a woman.

Still, her failed attempt to show herself worthy of Trump is telling about how she understands the MAGA ethos. Imitation, the old saw goes, is the highest form of flattery. It can also be an inadvertent insult.

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Published 14 May 2024, 03:37 IST

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