Perhaps the only Republican politician who gets headlines for his comments more than President Trump is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress. But public calls from party leaders for the veteran lawmaker to leave office are few and far between. One of the reasons for that could be that as much of a nuisance King might be for some in his party, the words and worldview that make King a burden to Republican leaders go far beyond him.
During a recent discussion at the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale, Iowa, King defended his position against laws allowing abortion exceptions in cases of rape and incest by claiming that humanity might not exist if not for rape and incest.
The comments understandably attracted outrage from those on the left appalled by King’s argument.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn), a liberal who has been the subject of conspiracy theories on the right accusing her of being married to her brother, tweeted:
“Gross! This would explain why these weirdos are fixed on smearing me with claims of incest. Projecting their filth, unreal.”
But King’s also got pushback from some within his own political tribe.
“Today’s comments by Rep. Steve King are appalling and bizarre. As I’ve said before, it’s time for him to go. The people of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District deserve better,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
This is hardly the first time King has made comments that have attracted rebukes form his fellow lawmakers.
At the 2016 Republican National Committee convention, he questioned whether people of color had made significant contributions to society.
“This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired,” 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?”
In January, the lawmaker defended his position on white supremacy in a New York Times piece about how his worldview has influenced Trump’s immigration policies.
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Mr. King said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
In June, he compared criticism of conservatives to lynching.
Some conservatives have stepped up in the past to rebuke his words. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) even removed King from his committee assignments. But calls for his full removal from Congress have been rare. In fact, the number of conservatives who have been silent about King is higher than the number that have publicly called him out. And there might be a reason for that.
Some conservative insiders told me they believe King, who barely won in 2018, will be defeated in his primary. They believe conservative voters will get behind Randy Feenstra, a Republican state senator running for King’s seat, thus relieving the GOP of the King headache.
But those outside of conservatism believe that to criticize King is to criticize someone far more powerful than the Iowa lawmaker: the president of the United States.
Elie Mystal, a contributing writer for The Nation, wrote:
“Asking Steve King to resign, but not Donald Trump, is a Republican strategy for normalizing Donald Trump. Trump is the bride to white nationalism; King is just the bridesmaid being asked to wear the ugly dress.
“Republicans don’t have a problem with what Steve King believes; they have a problem with how he says it.”
It’s hard for the political right to attack King while remaining silent on Trump.
To some, the lawmaker’s words are far more incendiary than anything the president has said, therefore making Trump look more presidential. But to others, both King and Trump need to be held to a higher standard. Republican lawmakers don’t seem willing to consistently do it.
One could argue that the words of Cheney and McCarthy ring hollow because they have defended Trump’s most controversial comments far more times than they’ve criticized King’s most controversial ones.
King shows no signs of resigning as of now. And it’s not clear what more GOP leaders will do or even can do to respond to his most recent statement. The likelihood is high that King will say something else before 2020 that causes Republican Party leaders to cringe. Perhaps that’s just the latest reminder that many of the GOP current challenges with public perception go beyond the Oval Office.