Steve King’s Political Prospects May Be Fading, but His Party’s Racism Is Not

Rep. Steve King.
Rep. Steve King. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Steve King’s political career seems to be on a precipice, with perhaps less support than ever and a re-election campaign looming. The Daily Beast reports that the Iowa Republican congressman is hemorrhaging donors and money: The end of June saw King with the least amount of cash he has ever reported in the first six months of a campaign, including his first congressional race in 2002, and he has received no funding this year from PACs associated with any sitting member of Congress. He faces a daunting primary challenger in Randy Feenstra and, should King prevail, a Democratic challenger in J.D. Scholten, whom he defeated by just three points in 2018. Individual donations continue to trickle in, but overall the impression is of a sinking ship, owing most obviously to King’s embrace of the labels “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” in a New York Times profile in January.

Those remarks prompted House Republicans to strip King of his committee assignments and issue a reprimand. But this was a belated rebuke, and the congressman’s declining fortunes will do little to solve the party’s larger bigotry problem. Decades of fighting to erode civil-rights gains for black people — including voting rights — have long underscored the GOP’s rhetorical appeals to segregationists and, more recently, modern-day racists, Islamophobes, and xenophobes. King may be the party’s loudest and most visible bigot this side of Donald Trump, but his defeat, should it come to pass, wouldn’t just fail to fix the party’s bigotry problem moving forward: It would also fail to address the more fixable problem of loud, outlandishly bigoted members who won’t stop saying bigoted things to the press.

The major takeaway from the Times profile and its fallout is that Republicans generally won’t rebuke one of their own for bigotry unless that person admits to being a bigot. Denying one’s biases while broadcasting one’s relationships with nonwhite people tends to be enough for plausible deniability. Even as Trump pursues an immigration agenda premised on the purported filthiness and criminality of people from Central America, Republicans in Congress are compelled to defend him from racism charges and deny their party’s debt to racism for enabling their unpopular policies. Simply put, it’s good politics to be a bigot while claiming you’re not one. And just as King’s disputing the civilizational worth of nonwhite people wasn’t a deal breaker for Republicans in 2016, it’s unlikely to be when other Republicans make comparable remarks tomorrow or in the near future.

Last week, Representative Mo Brooks told Alabama’s WVNN radio that Democrats are starting to question the United States’ alliance with Israel due to “the growing influence of the Islamic religion in the Democratic Party ranks.” Brooks added, “Keep in mind, Muslims more so than most people have great animosity towards Israel and the Jewish faith. And as you have more and more Muslims in the United States, as they gain greater and greater influence in elections, particularly in Democratic Party primaries, then you’re going to see more and more people like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and company that are anti-Israel, and that brings an entirely different viewpoint into the United States Congress.” The notion that Palestinian suffering under Israeli rule might provoke backlash on its own merits seems not to have occurred to Brooks. Muslim Democrats simply reject the U.S.-Israel alliance because they’re Muslim. And Muslims, according to the Alabama congressman, don’t like Jews.

This might be a surprising claim were Brooks’s record of making similar remarks not widely available. In 2011, he vowed to do “anything short of shooting [undocumented immigrants]” to prevent them from expanding their numbers on U.S. soil. In 2014, he accused the Democratic Party of waging a “war on whites,” adding that “the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s a part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008 [and] continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.”

The Republican Party’s difficulty attracting nonwhite voters is no secret. A GOP-commissioned postmortem analyzing Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign in 2013 made a convincing case that the party won’t be relevant for long unless it sincerely reaches out to communities of color — especially Latino communities — and convinces them that Republicans care about them. Trump’s rise rendered this strategy moot, at least in the short term. Presidential elections could still be won by appealing to white voters and their paranoias. Latinos quickly went from being a coveted voting demographic to being symbolic of all the ways America had gone downhill under Obama.

Today’s GOP is marked by sycophants for a president who sought to ban Muslim immigration, who praises white supremacists, and who derides black countries and cities as shitholes and sites of infestation. It features representatives like Matt Gaetz, who promoted the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that George Soros was funding a migrant caravan full of criminals — a theory that later formed the basis for Robert Bowers’s massacre of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Dan Crenshaw and Steve Scalise have cast Omar as a terrorist sympathizer and national-security threat, based entirely on a willful, Islamophobic misreading of her comments about 9/11 and Israel. All are sitting members of Congress. None are under nearly the level of electoral threat that King seems to have. Even as the Iowa congressman inches closer to defeat, there’s little evidence to suggest that a post-King GOP will look much different than it does today.

Steve King Is in Political Danger. The GOP’s Racism Is Not.