After a week of hand-wringing, Republicans are taking a stand against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Last week, King asked in the New York Times: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
That rhetorical question set off a wave of bipartisan outrage and condemnation. And now, Republicans are offering up some actual punishment. The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis reported that Republican leaders voted unanimously Monday to remove King, an influential lawmaker in the area of immigration policy, from House committees.
“That is not the party of Lincoln. It is definitely not American,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in explaining the decision. “All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance about that.”
Others, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), are calling on him to resign.
The reaction to King’s comments raises a big question:
Why hasn’t the GOP reacted the same way when other Republicans, including President Trump, make racially charged comments?
Karine Jean-Pierre, an Obama White House alum and Democratic strategist, told The Fix:
“It’s never too late to condemn white supremacy, but the House Republicans' actions fall flat when the GOP refuses to condemn the dog whistles and outright racism from Donald Trump.”
After all, Trump referred to an American athlete protesting police brutality against people of color as a “son of a bitch” worthy of being fired — if not more. He called white nationalists involved in protests to preserve Confederate monuments honoring those who fought to keep black people enslaved “very fine people.” And he reminisced about a time “in the good old days” when it was okay to punch activists protesting racism in the face.
The answer seems to be: Republicans think they still need Trump and his base. As long as that’s the case, they will let him behave however he wants.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former Hill staffer, told The Fix that he supports the congressional blowback against King.
“This was the proper, and a significant, response. The Constitution subcommittee is important to King personally, and the Agriculture Committee is important in his congressional district. This will make it significantly more difficult for King to justify his existence in Congress, whether to his constituents or otherwise,” he said. “Certainly Trump rhetoric is an issue, but as long as he remains at super-high popularity in the GOP base, it’s unlikely members will speak out.”
In an interview with Brian Stelter, conservative CNN anchor S.E. Cupp made a similar point. A generous interpretation of the Republican response, she said, is that lawmakers saw King as a kook, a “fringe right-winger.” Now, though, his ideas have become more mainstream, and therefore condemning his behavior is more urgent.
But she offers another, “more cynical” explanation, too: “It takes less courage for Republican lawmakers to condemn King than it apparently would to condemn Trump,” she said. “They can look brave and principled without running afoul of the consequences of actually calling out the president for similar language.”
It’s not clear, though, whether this will be a winning strategy in the long term. It seems unlikely to help the Republicans grow their base, which they’ll need to do in 2020 to keep the White House.
Six in 10 Americans think Trump is racist, according to a February 2018 Associated Press poll, because of his sympathetic comments that have won the praise of white supremacist David Duke and the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan’s newspaper.
The White House has consistently pushed back against the characterization that Trump is racist, claiming that the president has “repeatedly condemned racism and bigotry in all forms.” However, when given the opportunity Monday to weigh in on the King controversy, which has attracted daily media coverage since the New York Times published the lawmaker’s comments, Trump told the press corps that he knew nothing about the remarks.
At least a couple of leaders, though, are calling for the King controversy to be the start of a bigger shift in how the GOP talks about race and white supremacy.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, wrote in The Washington Post last week, “Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence when things like this are said."
After years of comments by King that have sparked outrage because of their discriminatory nature, there has been a critical mass from the right protesting his comments and worldview. Whether this movement to call out sympathies toward white supremacy within the GOP will continue is not clear, but given the popularity of the president with the same people who helped elect GOP lawmakers, it would be no surprise if calls for King’s resignation stopped at the Oval Office.