Steve King believes that rape is essential to human survival. Speaking to members of the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale, Iowa, on Wednesday, the Republican congressman defended abortion laws that lack exceptions for incest or sexual assault. In his view, such laws are needed because humans would’ve gone extinct had men not raped large numbers of women and impregnated them. “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest?” King said, according to the Des Moines Register. “Would there be any population of the world left if we did that? Considering all the wars and all the rapes and pillages taken place and whatever happened to culture after society? I know I can’t certify that I’m not a part of a product of that.”
It’s about as unhinged to suggest that humanity would perish in a rape-free world as to use this claim to force women to endure rape’s consequences — including childbirth — in the year 2019, with no choice, and under threat of criminal punishment. Even so, no outcry from Wednesday’s audience seems to have greeted King’s remarks. But at least one attendee appreciated his explanation for another controversy: The fallout from his racist remarks earlier this year. “I did get a little better understanding of what he went through, in terms of the ‘Never Trumpers’ attack on him and setting him up for condemnation,” said Rick Herron, age 72. “You expect the Democrats to attack him, but not the Never Trumpers — members of his own party.” What King “went through” is this: After years spent advocating for thinly-veiled white nationalism, the congressman openly embraced the label in a New York Times profile. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he said in January. House Republicans responded by stripping King of his committee assignments, as though his racist views had only become clear in that moment.
But even as King faces rebuke from his fellow Republicans at higher rates than ever before, it remains true that his views on abortion are fairly standard for a member of his party. Abortion bans passed this year by GOP-held legislatures in Missouri and Alabama, and signed into law by their Republican governors, contain no exceptions for rape or incest. As my colleague Ed Kilgore noted, this is consistent with the party’s rationale for why these laws are necessary at all: “If you really (a) think a zygote is morally and metaphysically identical to a full-grown human being and entitled to full constitutional rights and (b) are inclined to disregard the wishes and interest of the women involved, then it’s kind of a no-brainer.” Where King illuminates the subject is by framing it as an evolutionary necessity. It’s logical to infer, from his characterization of rape’s importance to humanity’s survivial, that women might not propogate the species if given an actual choice. This would be suspect were it merely an observation. Even in the unlikely event that, at any point, too few women were interested in reproducing to ensure the existence of future generations, the conclusion that humanity would only survive if they were forced is a good argument for letting humanity go extinct. But King also uses this argument to explain why women must bear their rapists’ children today. This understanding of how far their bodily autonomy should extend — that is, as far the desires of men allow it to — is consistent with his racism, and how it shapes his understanding of what makes people valuable to begin with.
Simply put, in King’s view, the worth of both women and nonwhite people is measured, in large part, by their utility to what he calls “civilization.” And be believes that the truly civilized are white. King euphemizes this belief by framing it as a celebration of “Western” culture and the ideals over which it purports to hold unique providence — reason, freedom of speech, the principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. That he invokes these mostly to defend his own racism — like his claim that, “For [every Mexican immigrant] who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert” — suggests an ulterior motive: asserting the superiority of white people as a means of excluding nonwhite immigrants. The wisdom of this pursuit is self-evident for King. Why let a country made noble and noteworthy by whites get overrun by an inferior race? “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about?” King asked a group of journalists at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” And just as nonwhite people are excludable because they contribute less to civilization, women’s bodily autonomy is negotiable because of what they might contribute to it. White nationalists and supremacists obsess regularly over declining birth rates and being outbred by immigrants — King included. Making childbirth compulsory while stopping the influx of immigrant competition addresses this concern head on.
And that’s to say nothing of how sexual violence against nonwhite women, perpetrated by white men, has advanced white supremacism. The rape of enslaved black women was a regular a feature of how “Western civilization” gained a foothold and expanded in what became the United States. Which is perhaps a more vivid demonstration than any of the primary impulse fueling the desire to control women’s bodies: The pursuit of power. Laws built on a moral argument against abortion — especially in the case of rape — only stand if the wants, needs, and bodies of the women tasked with carrying life and giving birth don’t matter. For all his deficiencies, King is one of the few Republicans to say so in such blunt terms — even as his remarks to this effect are, for the most part, interpreted as gaffes. The racism and misogyny informing his worldview have always been deeply intertwined. His gift and curse is his inability to pretend they’re anything else.