There’s a reason for the GOP reticence about criticizing this sentiment from King: The GOP is now Donald Trump’s party. King’s statement is, at bottom, a particularly explicit expression of the white nationalist ideology that fueled the Trump campaign — and shaped the worldview of top Trump advisers Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller. Advocates for that ideology are now directing strategy and policy from the West Wing.
Such statements are nothing new for the eight-term congressman from Iowa, and under questioning this morning on CNN, King refused to back down from his tweet. King defended himself today by claiming to be a “champion for Western civilization.”
Bannon views the world through a similar frame. He is known to admire the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic European far right (which, of course, includes figures like Wilders), as a bulwark against what he frames as a civilizational war against the West. King has long been a hero to Bannon for his anti-immigrant, anti-refugee views.
Indeed, Bannon’s and King’s shared view that Western civilization is under threat by immigration and refugees dates back to before either man got on the Trump train. King’s positions have been given prominent, laudatory treatment at the Bannon-run Breitbart, with the site frequently featuring his writing or interviews with him as “exclusives” to plug his opposition to immigration and refugee resettlement, and his anti-GOP establishment stances.
And we’ve unearthed an old interview that Bannon conducted with King that is newly relevant in the wake of King’s tweet.
In the November 2015 interview on the Breitbart News Daily radio program, which Bannon hosted until joining Trump’s campaign, King and Bannon discussed a measure pending in Congress at the time that would have defunded the Syrian refugee resettlement program. Bannon sided with King against House Speaker Paul Ryan, who, at the time, had questioned the plan to defund refugee programs because “that’s not who we are.”
King’s reaction in the interview was virtually identical to his new incendiary comments. “We should not be a suicidal nation,” he told Bannon. He had just returned from the Middle East and Europe to investigate the refugee crisis, he said, and he characterized the influx of refugees into Europe as “the end of their [Europeans’] culture and civilization.” He criticized Europeans for welcoming refugees, claiming of the Europeans that “by contraception and abortion” they do not “have enough babies to reproduce themselves.”
These Europeans, King maintained, then “define survival of their country as replacing themselves with people who do not share their values.”
Elsewhere in the interview, the Breitbart chief praised King as “a great mentor to all of us and a great friend of the site, and a true warrior.”
Now that King’s new comments have created a furor, the response from establishment Republicans has been rather quiet. Today, Ryan joined a very small group of Republicans who criticized King with a remarkably mild rebuke. “The speaker clearly disagrees and believes America’s long history of inclusiveness is one of its great strengths,” he said through a spokesperson.
Others were similarly muted. Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party, issued a statement that “I do not agree with Congressman King’s statement. We are a nation of immigrants, and diversity is the strength of any nation and any community.” David Young, King’s fellow Republican Iowan in Congress, added that America “is not about any one color, or one ethnicity, or one faith.” And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush tweeted uninspiringly that “America is a nation of immigrants. The sentiment expressed by Steve King doesn’t reflect our shared history or values.” Two House Republicans from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo also were critical.
But none of these condemnations answer an essential question: Do these Republicans want to rid their party of King’s sentiments, or not? If they want to, how might they accomplish this, given the current occupant of the White House?
Back to that 2015 Bannon-King interview. In it, King said: “It’s not enough to only address the Syrian situation. There are many other countries that produce terrorists. We need to put all those terrorist breeding grounds into our list of moratoriums.”
Bannon jumped in approvingly: “And defund it all.”
In the context of his discussion with King, it seems he was thinking of defunding refugee resettlement not just for Syrians but for refugees from other countries as well. Viewed in retrospect, perhaps this forecasted the idea around which Trump would shape his travel ban — one that casts refugees from certain countries as a cultural and demographic threat to the west.