This column has been updated.
What happens when immense bigotry gets lodged in a small mind? Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is what happens.
During a recent interview with the New York Times, King asked, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” It is a question that could be posed only by a bigot. And because it was a rhetorical question, King was assuming that the rest of us — all conservative-thinking people — are bigots as well. Shouldn’t the tie between whiteness and civilization be obvious?
As a reminder, white nationalism and white supremacy — ideologies shared by Jefferson Davis, Bull Connor and, evidently, Steve King — became offensive because of centuries of stolen labor, murder and cruel abuse; because of a bloody war that one side conducted on behalf of slavery; because of repeating waves of anti-immigrant prejudice, alarmism and discrimination; because of routine lynchings and the stinging viciousness of segregation; because of the assumption that robbed, exploited and oppressed people somehow deserve social challenges resulting from robbery, exploitation and oppression.
For King, this was not a slip of the tongue but, rather, the development of a theme. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” King has argued. Those babies eventually grow up to be, in King’s words, migrant kids with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” This is threatening because “diversity is not our strength.” In fact, it is “cultural suicide by demographic transformation.” And King blames all of this on a conspiracy led by one Semitic force: George Soros, a billionaire investor whose money “floats in in such a way you can’t see the flow.”
King has pioneered a politics of resentment for demographic change and animus for outsiders. He feeds ethnic stereotypes and conspiracy theories. He issues apocalyptic warnings: “Europe is waking up. . . . Will America . . . in time?” And his local supporters dismiss criticism of King as “a personality thing.”
Many elected Republicans in Washington have been forthright in their criticism of King after his latest offense. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) called King’s remarks “reckless” and “wrong.” Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) said King’s argument was “abhorrent and racist.” To Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), it was “offensive and racist.” To Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), it was “an embrace of racism.”
McCarthy has taken the welcome step of removing King from his committee assignments. Censure by the House is the next logical move, if Republicans are serious about scrubbing the stain King has left on their party.
In their criticism of King, you get the sense that Republicans are actually relieved to be in the position of attacking racism for a change, instead of being forced to defend it from the president. They seem to be signaling that they are not really the bigots they appear to be. Republicans seem desperate to explain that they are normal and moral — despite all the evidence. Attacking King reveals some sense of shame at what they have become.
Yet, in the end, Republican critics of King manage to look worse rather than better. If racism is the problem, then President Trump is a worse offender. And the GOP’s relative silence on Trump is a sign of hypocrisy and weakness.
Take the last days before the 2018 midterm elections. Trump closed his campaign for Republicans with a hysterical warning that brown people were invading the country. He initially suggested they should be shot , adding that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Soros was funding the migrant caravan. This is clearly what he regards as his strongest political argument — the racist promotion of animus against outsiders, tied to pernicious conspiracy theories.
Trump feeds ethnic stereotypes of migrants as “rapists” and “murderers.” He makes apocalyptic warnings that Democratic control would “turn America into Venezuela” and “totally open borders.” And his supporters dismiss criticism against him as a personality thing.
Add to this Trump’s attribution of Kenyan citizenship to former president Barack Obama. And his sympathy for the “very fine people” attending a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. And his attacks on African American athletes and other figures. And his pardoning of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for racial profiling, terror raids and cruel punishment of inmates. And the president’s attempts at a Muslim ban. And his contempt for “shithole countries.” And . . . a list far longer than I can include.
By any standard, Trump says things that are reckless, wrong, abhorrent, offensive and racist. Until Republicans can state this reality with the same clarity and intensity that they now criticize King, they will be cowards in a time crying for bravery.