Over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem issued a veiled shot across the bows of potential 2024 contenders like Florida’s Gov Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Gov. Greg Abbott, among others.

“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states; that they didn’t close their regions; that they didn’t mandate masks,” Noem declared. By contrast, South Dakota never resorted to such onerous mitigation strategies. “We didn’t mandate,” she said. “We trusted our people and it told them that personal responsibility was the best answer.”

“Now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors,” Noem disingenuously added. “All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct.” The supposed courage of Noem’s convictions on display here contrasted strongly with a subsequent comment from her office insisting that the governor wasn’t “referring to any specific Republican governor” and was merely “highlighting the need for strong leaders” willing to fight.

In these remarks, we see the ominously familiar outlines of a familiar contest—one we’ve seen before. If Noem’s comments should be read within the context of the nascent 2024 Republican presidential primary, it is tactically reliant on the notion that Donald Trump doesn’t exist. By which I mean that it rests on the notion that out-Trumping every other non-Trump candidate is the way to win Republican hearts and, thereby, the party’s nomination to succeed Joe Biden in the White House.

Call it the “Big Brother” theory of GOP politics: Outwit peddlers of the tired prevailing political wisdom, outplay your conventional Republican opponents, and outlast Donald Trump. That was the strategy adopted by much of the 2016 Republican presidential field. And it had the precise effect of rendering Trump—himself a conservative poseur and sharp critic of Republican politics—the most authentic candidate. Why choose Trump Lite when you can have the real thing?

But the substance of Noem’s comment is equally ominous. In theory, the Republican governors she is critiquing have an effective rejoinder, which is that most of them presided over better outcomes in terms of the human cost wrought by the pandemic. The governors of Texas and Florida, for example, resisted statewide lockdown or masking mandates until the circumstances made them all but unavoidable. But those mandates were short-lived compared to much of the country, and both showed substantial deference to local officials who could make more informed determinations about their relative risk.

Ultimately, both states fared better in terms of lives lost over the pandemic’s most dire phases, and their economies didn’t suffer anywhere near the devastation endured on the country’s coasts. Indeed, Texas and Florida were regularly pilloried in the mainstream press for their laissez-faire attitudes toward the risk presented by Covid. Both were forever the subject of predictions about the senseless forthcoming massacre that their feckless policies would produce. If there’s any revisionist history on display today, it’s in comments like Noem’s who would prefer that we forget all that.

And yet, that argument may not convince the Republican primary electorate. South Dakota did preside over the lowest unemployment rate in the country during the pandemic. South Dakota did end the budget year with a $19 million surplus. And South Dakotans did avoid the profound psychological and social toll visited on Americans who lived through the pandemic’s most draconian mitigation measures. But the state paid a heavy price. In June, the Mount Rushmore State was tied for eighth place in Covid-related deaths among the states per 100,000 people. It fared worst among its neighbors (North Dakota, Iowa, Montana, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Nebraska) when comparing their per capita fatality rates.

We can begin to see the outlines of what could become a defining (and macabre) debate on the right in the post-Covid era: How much death are we willing to tolerate if it means keeping government out of daily life? If the debate is cast in purely theoretical terms, liberty-oriented Republicans likely have a leg up. And yet, this approach still provides Donald Trump with the pole position. The former president can rightly maintain that at no point did he ever order a state into lockdown because he did not govern a state. The 45th president’s penchant for taking every side of every issue provides him with the opportunity to say he was always against statewide mandates of any sort. And so long as none of his opponents are willing to correct the record, he’ll get away with it.

At some point, the Republicans who hope to succeed Trump will have to make a positive case for themselves against the elephant in the room. Pretending he isn’t there hasn’t worked yet. Maybe a room like CPAC, where Trump remains a beloved figure, is the wrong venue for that sort of thing. But if it’s the right venue to savage the records of other likely presidential contenders, it portends a replay of the same timidity that typified the Republican field in 2016. And if it does, we can make an informed guess about how that will end.

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