Last week, Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) wondered in the New York Times how the terms “white supremacy” and “white nationalism” got a bad rap.
Since then, Republicans have fallen all over themselves to distance the party from the lawmaker’s words. On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said there is no place for King’s language in America. “Action will be taken,” he said. “I’m having a serious conversation with Congressman Steve King on his future and role in this Republican Party.” In the next few days, King was stripped of his position on House committees.
But the GOP’s relatively quick response to King magnified just how often they’ve allowed similar language and actions to stand without comment. For critics, the most glaring example is President Trump, who among other things called white nationalists marching to preserve statues honoring men who fought to keep black people enslaved “very fine people."
And now, we’re seeing a backlash to the backlash.
On Thursday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R.-Tex.), known for making controversial statements of his own, defended his colleague and claims that King is not getting due process. He told the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
“He explained what he was saying. He was talking about Western civilization, that, ‘When did Western civilization become a negative?’ and that’s a fair question. When did Western civilization become a negative?"
“We have the only country that I’m aware of that would shed its most valuable treasure — American blood — for freedom, not for hegemony, just for freedom,” he went on.
By ignoring the fact that King literally used the words “white nationalism” and “white supremacy,” Gohmert’s defense of his friend is, at best, incomplete. At worst, could give the impression that he and King think “Western civilization” and “white supremacy” are synonymous.
As historian David Perry and professor Matthew Gabriele wrote in The Washington Post, there is a history of using the idea of “Western civilization” to “cover for racism”:
“King’s understanding of “Western civilization,” entwined as it is with white supremacy, offers little more than bad, outdated history. To combat this, history teachers are going to have to discuss both the newer voices and the old, those who use the history of the West as cover for racism as well as those both past and present who worked to challenge that narrative. Teaching the real story of the West — one that’s multiethnic, encompasses all genders, and takes account of both its horrors and its triumphs — will ensure that the Kings of the future will no longer be able to fall back on semantics to paper over their bigotry.”
Gohmert’s refusal to acknowledge any of this shows that King’s comments are not a strange anomaly. They’re shared by other members of the GOP. And if the Republican Party does not have a broader conversation about America’s real challenges with race and white supremacy, the GOP will continue to struggle to reach voters of color and the white Americans who empathize with them.