The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans discover sudden interest in policing racism within their party

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on Capitol Hill in November. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republicans are shocked, shocked to learn that someone in their midst might be some kind of white supremacist. How could this have happened, in a party as dedicated to equal rights at the GOP?

As they try to figure out what to do about Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), now that his latest comment has gotten a surprising amount of attention, the controversy raises an interesting question: Just what kind of responsibility does a party have to police extremism and ugliness within its ranks? How should Republicans go about it?

A few days ago, King gave an interview to the New York Times in which he asked, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Afterward, he put out a statement clarifying that he is not actually a white supremacist. But it would have been easier to dismiss this as just a slip of the tongue were it not for King’s lengthy history of racist statements, friendly relations with racist parties in other countries, and warnings about how non-white immigrants are polluting the nation.

Many of those statements are touted in language of “Western civilization,” though King sometimes does get more explicit. Just one example: “This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired,” he said during a 2016 panel discussion when asked about the makeup of the Republican Party. “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?”

But, in contrast to previous times in which liberals would express shock at things King said, and while conservatives would mostly ignore him, this time even Republicans are feeling the need to distance themselves from King, and they have, at the highest levels (in Congress at, least):

“Steve’s language is reckless, wrong and has no place in our society,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. “Everything about white supremacy and white nationalism goes against who we are as a nation.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said it was “offensive to try to legitimize those terms.” He credited King for issuing a statement after the story published that said, “I reject those labels and the evil ideology that they define.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who just became No. 3 in GOP leadership by winning the race for conference chair, tweeted: “These comments are abhorrent and racist and should have no place in our national discourse.”

There are a number of reasons why that reaction is happening now, but it certainly isn’t that this remark was all that different from things King has said before. What it comes down to is that Republicans obviously perceive King as a political problem in a way they hadn’t before.

And that’s what will govern how a party reacts to things like this. As long as King was causing the party at large only limited headaches, it wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it and bring more attention to him. The Republicans even made him chairman of a House subcommittee on civil rights, believe it or not. What was in it for them to condemn him loudly when they knew his views were shared by a healthy portion of their electorate? Better to treat him as an irrelevant backbencher whose nutty views didn’t say anything in particular about the GOP.

The problem is that they did, and they still do. Steve King was Trumpian before there was President Trump. Not only did King design his own border wall a decade ago, the kinds of things he would say about immigrants are now said by the president of the United States.

But it’s safe to say many Republicans, particularly in the wake of their thrashing in the 2018 midterm elections, are worried about whether their party needs to be a little more subtle than King or Trump is capable of.

After all, for many years, they pulled off a neat trick: Encourage white people to feed their racial resentments at the ballot box, but do it with enough plausible deniability that they could wave away the inevitable charges of racism. Trump, however, made that strategy much more difficult. When your party is led by someone who became a political figure by promoting the racist “birther” lie, who says a Hispanic judge can’t be fair in his fraud case because “He’s a Mexican,” who retweets racist memes, who muses about “s---hole countries” and wonders why we can’t get more immigrants from Norway, who calls a group of neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis “very fine people,” and who based his entire 2016 campaign and much of his presidency on fear of foreigners and white identity politics, the charge sticks a lot easier.

Republicans are certainly aware that the country’s demographics are changing in precisely the way that King fears, away from the dominance of whites and toward more diversity. The smart ones probably realize that 2016 may have been the last time a Republican could win a nationwide campaign with the kind of racial appeal Trump offered. Even with Trump still in office, they have to look toward the future, when they’ll begin a rebuilding project that includes convincing voters they won’t tolerate overt racism.

But of course, they do tolerate it. All you have to do is look at who’s in charge of their party. They may be hoping King goes quietly away (perhaps by getting beaten in a 2020 primary; he already has a challenger). But they’re going to have a much tougher time evading responsibility for their support of Donald Trump.