Republicans Have Tolerated Steve King’s Racism for a Long Time

Joni Ernst used to be a big fan of Steve King. Photo: King for Congress

Now that Iowa congressman Steve King has finally gone over the brink and defended “white nationalism” and “white supremacy,” Republicans from his own state and nationally are piously denouncing the man, having suddenly discovered that he’s a mite racist-y.

King’s probably justified in feeling betrayed by his old friends, particularly those in Iowa who know him well. Maybe he got a bit carried away in forgetting to use code words for “white,” but he’s been renowned during his entire congressional career for being an old-school nativist who isn’t just concerned about “illegal immigration,” but wants restricted immigration generally — at least from nonwhite countries — as a matter of cultural (and by close implication racial) self-defense. That what always distinguished King and his congressional doppelgänger from Colorado, Tom Tancredo (who left the House in 2009 after a long-shot nativist campaign for president). Maybe they talked about the “rule of law” like other opponents of immigration reform, but they were always clear that they considered all non-European immigration as a threat. Indeed, until Donald Trump came on the national political scene, King was for a while all but alone in the fever swamps on this issue.

So no one paying attention should have had any illusions about King’s signature views on his signature subject, or his zest for being outrageous. Back in 2013, Sahil Kapur hit some of the lowlights:

Since King came to Congress, his most over-the-top rhetorical outbursts include comparing immigrants to dogs, calling illegal immigration a “slow-motion terrorist attack” on the United States, claiming Al Qaeda would be “dancing in the streets” if Barack Obama was elected president, and declaring that racial profiling wasn’t an issue in Ferguson, Mo., because protesters were from a single “continental origin.” 

That was all aside from King’s famous 2013 “canteloupes” remark about Dreamers, excoriated even by Republicans, as the New York Times reported at the time:

In July he made the ridiculous, now notorious claim that for every child of illegal immigrants “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

House Speaker John Boehner reprimanded Mr. King, calling his comments “deeply offensive and wrong.”

But it was entirely in character. In 2012 he conducted a public love-in with the infamous white nationalist Peter Brimelow at a CPAC conference, as reported at Daily Kos:

“I’ve read your book, I just hadn’t met you,” said Rep. Steve King, beaming as he shook hands with white nationalist Peter Brimelow before a panel discussion Thursday. He went on to say that Brimelow “eloquently wrote about the balkanization of America….”

Brimelow was on hand at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference to speak about how policies encouraging diversity are killing America (read: white America). He has urged the Republican Party to work on consolidating the white vote. His book Alien Nation argues that “Race is destiny in American politics.”

This was consistent with King’s later proud identification with white racists internationally, from Canada to the Netherlands to Austria. His happy 2017 endorsement of Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders as someone who “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny” led me to compare King to George Wallace:

The effort to marginalize the role of racial or religious bigots in cultural conservatism works best when everybody’s got the memo and is refusing to say things that cross the line. But right there in Washington, within close proximity of the cameras, is at least one member of Congress who, to use a phrase sometimes said of Wallace in his heyday, just comes right out and says it: Iowa’s Steve King.

But it’s only now that many of the Republicans who are excoriating King have stopped praising him. Consider Joni Ernst, who in 2016 went out of her way to praise him when he drew a Republican primary opponent:

Ernst’s senior colleague Chuck Grassley and current Iowa governor Kim Reynolds also came to the nativist’s aid when he faced intraparty opposition.

You can almost understand Ernst’s support for King — you know, two whole years before she apparently paid any attention to the implications of his words. He was the odds-on favorite among Iowa Republicans to win the 2014 Senate nomination that ultimately went to Ernst when he demurred.

So let’s don’t accept the idea that King was some sort of grudgingly tolerated wild man whom Republicans decided to smack down when his outspokenness got out of hand. They knew who he was, and many of them were happy to promote his obnoxious career until it began to cast an unforgiving light on themselves and their leader in the White House.

Republicans Tolerated Steve King’s Racism for a Long Time