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What Steve King’s ‘sub groups’ musing says about the party of Donald Trump

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We originally posted this story in June after Steve King lead a (failed) fight in Congress to take Harriet Tubman off the $20. We have updated it in light of his recent controversial comments on day one of the Republican National Convention.

To some degree, it's not entirely unexpected that a politician like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) would wonder on live television what 'sub groups' besides white people contributed to civilization.

King, a staunch anti-immigrant activist, represents an element of the party that most establishment Republicans would rather not shine a light on. He most recently made headlines for trying to prevent Harriet Tubman from being on the $20 bill. And yet it's all too easy to connect the dots between him and the person Republicans are on the verge of nominating as their presidential nominee.

Donald Trump, after all, described the move to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 as "pure political correctness."

For all the ways in which Trump has made life difficult for his party, this might be among the most stressful. The party has long tried to strike a tough balance between its professed belief in colorblindness and its need to make inroads with the minority voters it will need as the country grows less white. Of late, that has become significantly more difficult as his candidacy elevates politicians like King, who sometimes seem to have more in common with Trump than the rest of the party.

Here's what King, one of the most conservative members of Congress, said on MSNBC, per my eagle-eyed colleague Philip Bump:

"This 'old white people' business does get a little tired, Charlie," King said. "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're talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?"
"Than white people?" Hayes asked, clearly amazed.
"Than, than Western civilization itself," King replied. "It's rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That's all of Western civilization."

And here's why King told Politico's Matthew Nussbaum when he was pushing a bill to prohibit one of history's most famous abolitionists from becoming the first woman on U.S. paper currency:

"This is liberal activism on the part of the president that's trying to identify people by categories, and he's divided us on the lines of groups," he said. "This is a divisive proposal on the part of the president, and mine's unifying. It says just don't change anything."

In other words, taking a white man off U.S. currency and replacing him with a black woman is divisive — or "racist" and "sexist," in King's words — precisely because it's calling attention to people's race and gender.

His comments sounds an awful lot like what we heard recently from a Trump supporter, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who defended Trump in the wake of the near-universal condemnation Trump received for singling out a judge for his "Mexican heritage" by saying this:

"You can easily argue the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric," Zeldin told CNN.

"Quite frankly," Zeldin continued, "the agenda that I see and all the microtargeting I see to blacks and Hispanics from a policy standpoint — that's more offensive to me than what I've seen through the years in this one statement, that I don't believe is Donald Trump feeling like he is superior."

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This isn't the first time we can reasonably connect King's faction of the party — one that is more than willing to say its piece on issues of race in ways that make the rest of the party cringe — to its nominee, who does the same.

King, for what its worth, was a Ted Cruz supporter who has said he'd vote for Trump but that he isn't endorsing him (to the extent there's a difference). But there doesn't necessarily need to be a full-throated endorsement to make the connection between the two. They have often trafficked in similar, racially tinged debates and theories.

To wit:

We could go on, but you get the point.

The problem for Republicans is that King's and Zeldin's comments come at a time when three of four voters of color "strongly dislike" Trump  and when seemingly every week brings with it Republican condemnation of something racially fraught that Trump said.

Before Trump, aside from the occasional headline — remember King's "calves the size of cantaloupes" remark? — the Republican establishment was able to minimize or brush off controversial remarks like the ones King regularly makes. That's getting more difficult to do when their own presidential nominee sometimes seems more aligned with the Steve Kings of the world.