Time is running out on Steve King’s tenure in Congress, but a quiet departure isn’t in the cards for the man whose bafflement that venerating the term “white supremacist” might get him in trouble lost him his House committee assignments in January 2019. Getting rebuked by his GOP colleagues (and then defeated by Randy Feenstra in the next election) has neither chastened him nor blunted his racist impulses. With less than two months left on Capitol Hill, King is still perfectly at ease interrogating the incoming vice-president’s ancestry in an effort to discredit her. He will soon be gone, but this brand of demagoguery will not.
Over the weekend, King tweeted, “I’m reading that @KamalaHarris made history as first woman, first black woman, first Asian woman, etc = a boatload of intersectionality points. But Kamala, are you descended from slaves or slave owners?” Imagining — for a moment — that the answer is relevant (or any of King’s business), Harris’s supposed relation to a slave owner would still be neither conclusive nor unusual. According to Reuters, the subject first arose over the summer when viral memes deriding the California senator as “a cop whose family owned slaves in Jamaica” began to spread. The former claim refers to Harris’s time as district attorney of San Francisco and, later, attorney general of California. The latter stems from an article her father, the Jamaican professor Donald Harris, wrote for the Jamaica Globe, in which he claimed that his maternal grandmother was descended from an Irish plantation owner named Hamilton Brown. Reuters fact checkers were unable to find conclusive evidence that Harris was indeed related to Brown — but it wouldn’t have been very notable even if they had. The dominion of white slavers over the Black enslaved in the Americas and the Caribbean involved plenty of rape, such that most Black Americans, for instance, have both slaves and slave owners in their family tree. Harris would be unremarkable in this regard.
It’s anyone’s guess why King thought this was damning. Perhaps he thinks the moral stain of rape gets passed on onto whatever offspring it produces. Maybe he believes being the first person who isn’t a white man to win the vice-presidency is a moot accomplishment if a white man is part of your gene pool. His views on genealogy might provide hints. King has famously been fixated on the idea that immigrants are breeding out his notion of an ideal civilization, which his past remarks have been helpful in sketching out. “This whole ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired,” he said on live television at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” Just over a year later, King publicly agreed with right-wing Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban that “[mixing] cultures will not lead to a higher quality of life but a lower one.” Given these inclinations, it’s possible that the congressman felt Harris’s enslaved ancestor degraded the cultural superiority of the man who raped her — that, if anything, the vice-president-elect can attribute her success not to the Black and brown people who raised her but to the genes of a white man who violated a relative she never knew.
In any case, nearly two decades of enduring King as a public figure has taught observers to expect the most repugnant interpretation of his behavior to usually be the correct one. When he praises novels that depict brown-skinned, feces-devouring immigrants invading Europe like 1973’s The Camp of the Saints, it’s a safe bet that he really thinks brown-skinned immigrants are disgusting invaders who should be treated as such. His policy proposals support this view. That some of his signature positions — birthright citizenship should be abolished, Mexican immigrants are primarily criminals, the southern U.S. border should have a wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico — were later adopted by the Trump administration shows how inextricable he is from the most virulent impulses of modern Republicanism. As does his acceptance within the party. Until 2019, when King wondered aloud to a New York Times reporter why terms like “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” were considered offensive, his GOP colleagues in Congress regarded him as a valued member of their cohort, and several had endorsed his reelection campaign months mere before. Nothing had changed about his views during the time between.
The truth is they were fine with King. The Iowan’s downfall came about because he tacitly self-applied a label that made plausible deniability impossible for Republicans who shared his views, and then because his removal from committees made him politically ineffectual. Months later, his bigoted ideas and proclamations are still his main source of cultural clout. It’s no wonder that his most identifiably King-esque response to the incoming presidential administration — which poses a direct threat to his political agenda — entails raising questions about the nonwhite vice-president-elect’s lineage. The shades of “birtherism” are unignorable, as is the stain of older histories. Questioning the fitness and legitimacy of nonwhite leaders on the basis of their ancestry is a precept that predates the nation’s founding and endures today. In Congress, it will outlast King’s departure. Marjorie Taylor Greene has described the elections of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as an “Islamic invasion of government.” In January, she will be one of their newest colleagues, having been elected to represent Georgia’s 14th Congressional District as a Republican.
The notion that King’s remarks about white supremacy are what turned his colleagues against him always seemed insincere and inconsistent for obvious reasons: The president and standard-bearer of the Republican Party is a white supremacist who praises and winks at other white supremacists. The GOP has fallen in line behind him; many of its officials have pinned their reelection hopes on performing slavish obeisance to the president. They have indulged his insistence that he won an election he clearly lost, his refusal to cooperate with the president-elect’s transition team, and his lies to the public that the election was marked by historic levels of voter fraud. The months since House Republicans made a show of rebuking King for his racism have proved far more telling than their turn against him ever could. The Iowa congressman may have been one of the party’s most loudly abhorrent elected members — but his colleagues have consistently demonstrated that he’s far from the most feckless or dangerous.