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Steve King and the Crisis of Republican Politics in 2019

The Iowa representative fumbled his way into a defense of white nationalism, and it cost him precious political capital. Is he an outlier on the fringes or an avatar for his party’s beliefs?

Steve King with red eyes Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Iowa Republican Representative Steve King embraced white supremacist politics in an interview with The New York Times. Reporter Trip Gabriel had set out to examine King’s past support for neo-Nazi activists and white nationalist politicians as a precursor to Trumpism. King, who is routinely denounced as a white nationalist these days, stubbornly defended his sympathy for various pro-white agendas. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” King wondered out loud, echoing the soft “white pride” alarmism popularized by David Duke in the 1990s and alt-right activists in the present decade. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” These remarks have provoked the loudest backlash that King has ever suffered. In follow-up remarks to the Times, King describes himself as a “nationalist” who otherwise rejects “white nationalism and white supremacy.” King is juggling several terms against one another, and so it’s worth simplifying who the representative is exactly. Steve King is a Republican. In Congress, King represents the popular political tradition—conservatism—which reminisces about all the great Anglo American innovations and routinely quarrels with nonwhite factions. Steve King’s rhetoric is grotesque. It is also, unmistakably, conservative.

The Republican Party has occasionally—sporadically—attempted to demoralize its white bigots, if only through press releases. On Friday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican, writing for The Washington Post, cited the Republicans’ indifference to King’s rhetoric as a reason why so many detractors associate Republicans, in general, with racism. “When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott said. “Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism—it is because of our silence when things like this are said.” Still, Scott hedges his criticism of modern Republican politics. Scott describes King’s bigotry as entirely unrelated to his conservatism. “King’s comments are not conservative views,” Scott argued, “but separate views that should be ridiculed at every turn possible.”

On Friday, a few hours before the Post published Scott’s op-ed, The National Review published an editorial urging the Republican establishment—specifically, the NRCC, which funds Republican candidates for the House—to abandon the representative. “King tars all conservatives with his irresponsibility,” the editors wrote. On Sunday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised to meet with King this week to reevaluate the legislator’s role in the House Republican Conference. On Monday evening, the House Republican steering committee voted to strip King of his committee assignments, thus undermining the nine-term representative’s seniority. King describes the punishment, which he attributes to McCarthy, as an “Unprecedented Assault on my Freedom of Speech.”

The National Review editorial casts King as an aberration, and so, too, does Scott’s op-ed: Here we have a rogue representative who spoils the right-wing fairy tale about “how we finally shed our shameful racist past” some decades ago. Abraham Lincoln—a Republican, you’ll remember—solved white supremacy a long time ago. The conservative’s account for “how,” exactly, “we finally shed our shameful racist past” tends to hinge entirely on Lincoln, whom the National Review editors inevitably cite alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as America’s racial saviors. That’s a Republican president who died 154 years ago and a left-wing civil rights activist whom right-wing revisionists have spent half a century characterizing as a Republican. The 153 years between Lincoln’s assassination and Steve King’s reelection are a vaguely redemptive haze. Abraham Lincoln is Republican Jesus, according to The National Review, and he died for Steve King’s sins.

If only conservatives took King as seriously as they take Tucker Carlson, the party of Lincoln might finally reconcile itself with the party of King. Currently, the conservative intelligentsia is busy drafting too many responses to Carlson, who dedicated a recent Fox News segment to unleashing some skepticism about the Republican Party’s fealty to “the ruling class.” Carlson wonders whether free-market capitalism, assisted by political conservatism, has destroyed American families and thus betrayed the conservative movement. It’s a pretty basic argument; in fact, it’s the argument that liberals, socialists, and communists have all advanced against conservatives for more than 100 years. In conservative media, Carlson’s segment is alternatively mocked as regressive gibberish and hailed as an epiphany for U.S. conservatism in the 21st century. Jane Coaston describes the ongoing Carlson discourse as “the most interesting debate in conservative politics.” Ross Douthat wrote, “Just about every conservative worth reading was provoked into responding.”

Here’s Carlson’s supposedly mind-blowing proposition, familiar to even the oldest, most tepid liberals on the planet: Capitalism can be cruel, and someone—perhaps the government—should mitigate its cruelties. Mind you, Carlson has been a right-wing pundit for 25 years, and he’s only now discovered something resembling liberalism. The conservative principles he’s reconsidering are all so rudimentary that the uproarious discourse in response to his segment has taken on a bizarre, disproportionate quality. Douthat seems to be patting Carlson on the head; the magazine conservatives seem to be grateful mostly for the Fox News host having afforded them a decent, civilized distraction from the quasi-populist impulses (the angry bigotry, the white nationalism) that are far more embarrassing to acknowledge, far more difficult to resolve, and far more interesting to discuss.

The Republican Party has bigger problems than a TV demagogue’s brief and bumbling flirtation with John Rawls. The white nationalist faction has annexed Republican politics, and the Republican columnists have all taken cover under Carlson’s news desk. A Republican legislator declared his support for white supremacists, and the other Republican figureheads have all rallied to suggest that the Republican representative, endorsed by other Republican politicians and elected by Republican voters, has virtually nothing to do with the Republican Party. But there are far more Steve Kings than there are Tim Scotts. There’s a black Republican and there’s a white supremacist, and only one of their days are numbered.