A longtime Republican member of Congress is retweeting Nazis and arguing in interviews that Somali Muslims shouldn’t be permitted to work in meatpacking plants in his district — and no GOP official appears to want to publicly challenge him.
The Republican is Rep. Steve King, an Iowan congressman who has served in the House of Representatives since 2003. He has a lengthy history of racist remarks that seem to go largely undiscussed by his fellow Republicans.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was more than happy to ask Rep. Maxine Waters to apologize for her comments at a rally, has denounced King’s comments only through his press secretary. Ryan’s spokesperson said, “The Speaker has said many times that Nazis have no place in our politics, and clearly members should not engage with anyone promoting hate.”
Lately conservatives are trying to pivot to a discussion of “civility” after White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant on Friday because the owner disagreed with the administration’s policies. Yet King’s race-baiting and coy references to white nationalism remain “just kind of white noise,” according to a Republican who tried to challenge him in a 2016 primary.
The long, nativist history of Steve King
Steve King’s love of far-right sound bites isn’t new. In fact, in his estimation it’s the very foundation for his political career and even served as the basis of his first run for office. As Talking Points Memo detailed in a 2014 profile of King:
During the (Iowa Senate) campaign, he stumbled upon his signature issue in the legislature: English as the official language. He remembers the moment, down to the exact date. During an October 10, 1996 fundraiser at Yellow Smoke Park sponsored by then-Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, he made the speech that shaped his political future. “I was running through my topics and I said, ‘And I believe English should be the official language of the state of Iowa.’ And it just brought the house down. There was this huge applause,” King says. “I knew how strongly I believed in it. But I didn’t know how strongly they believed in it.”
Kings remarks came at a time of increased concern among Iowans over demographic change within their state resulting from immigrants arriving to work in factories and on farms. Such concern ended up giving populist and anti-immigrant sentiment real clout.
In fact, the same year that King gave his “English should be the state language” speech, paleoconservative nativist Patrick Buchanan was hosting rallies about an hour’s car drive north of Iowa’s Yellow Smoke Park, saying very much the same, as the New York Times reported in February 1996:
Meanwhile, at a restaurant next door to the motel, Patrick J. Buchanan spoke at a noontime rally this month and sought out a local newspaper reporter to denounce a local meat-packing plant for hiring what he said were illegal aliens. Then, he demanded that English be designated the United States’ official language.
Within the House of Representatives, King’s role is relatively small; his only leadership position is on the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution and civil justice. And he’s not particularly popular among mainstream Republicans. One conservative writer described him to me as “marginal.” Another commentator and pundit told me that King was “a joke” and “a stupid asshole.”
But all this and King’s nativist rhetoric have not prevented him from becoming an incredibly important figure among conservatives. As National Review wrote in 2015, “The outspoken congressman commands tremendous influence among conservatives who agree with his staunch stances on immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage, especially in his western Iowa district.”
And his endorsement — and the Iowa Freedom Summit where Republican presidential candidates tried to impress him — played a massive role in the Iowa’s 2016 Republican presidential primary (though many Republicans didn’t particularly enjoy it.)
King’s racist rhetoric
But most Republicans, particularly those in the Midwest, have not embraced nativist politics — and white supremacist politics — to the extent that King has, particularly over the last decade.
King keeps a small version of the Confederate flag on his desk. (Never mind that Iowa was a Union state during the Civil War.) In 2008 King said that if Barack Hussein Obama won the presidency, “The radical Islamists, the al Qaeda … would be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on Sept. 11 because they would declare victory in this war on terror.” He later explained that they would supposedly do so because of Obama’s middle name.
In 2016 King filed an amendment to block efforts to place the image of abolitionist luminary Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill: He criticized “liberal activism on the part of the president that’s trying to identify people by categories, and he’s divided us on the lines of groups.” And in a 2017 interview, speaking about upcoming demographic changes whereby nonwhite Americans would surpass white Americans in population, he said, “I will predict that Hispanics and the blacks will be fighting each other before that happens.” (During that same interview, he recommended right-wight strategist Steve Bannon’s favorite and extremely racist book, The Camp of the Saints.)
Why good Republicans ignore bad (and racist) tweets
The Republican response to King has been muted, to say the least. When King tweeted about “someone else’s babies,” Speaker Paul Ryan said that he “would like to think he misspoke.”
And even in the midst of the ongoing conversation about civility among members of the GOP, especially in reaction to Rep. Maxine Waters’s statements at a rally that have been widely condemned by Republicans and some Democrats, Republicans have remained quiet about King’s continued comments.
When I spoke to Jay Cost, a conservative writer and historian who writes for National Review and the Weekly Standard, he said that the reason for the Republican silence on King was simple: It’s easier, and better for Republicans.
“Republicans making hay out of the [Maxine Waters] thing advances the goal of electing more Republicans, while focusing on King impedes it,” he told me. Cost added that the situation presented by King is similar to the prior scenario with Ron Paul, a former Republican member of Congress and a Libertarian Party candidate for president: There is little Republican leaders can do to control someone who is a giant pest but who hasn’t technically broken any rules of the chamber.
“There is virtually nothing they can do about King, anyway, even if they wanted to (and they probably would like to),” Cost wrote me in an email. “Leadership has certain strings they can pull with their members, but not as many as they’d like us to think.”
And despite King’s rhetoric, he keeps winning elections in a Iowa district that’s still quite conservative and very worried about immigration. In 2016 one potential Democratic challenger to King even dropped out, after claiming to have received death threats. Nonetheless, King does have a Democratic challenger in 2018: former professional baseball player J.D. Scholten.
For now, Steve King has no reason not to tweet. And there’s no reason for Republicans to stop him — and they’re not going to try.