Steve King's Improbable Ascendance

Leading Republicans used to be able to write the Iowan off as an extremist outsider. He’s still an extremist, but it’s harder to see him as an outsider in the age of Trump.

Chris Keane / Reuters

Updated March 13, 2017 at 2:08 p.m.

Steve King has always made a habit of speaking his mind, and quite frequently his mind has been controversial, blatantly false, or outright racist.

The Republican congressman from Iowa is the man who said in 2013 that while some children brought to the U.S. illegally were good kids, there were others “who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

That may have been his most famous moment, but it was hardly alone. He called Barack Obama “Kim Jong POTUS.” He disregarded abuses at Abu Ghraib prison as “hazing.” He argued, without any evidence, that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had dangerous connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. The litany could continue, but it won’t, because a quick Google search produces many lists of outrageous King comments. The trail goes back at least as far as 2003, when he first joined the House, and has been consistent ever since.

In July, King was on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show, and he objected to the journalist Charlie Pierce’s emphasis on Donald Trump’s reliance on white support.

“This whole white-people business, though, does get a little tired, Charlie,” 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 are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Hayes asked, taken aback. “Than Western Civilization itself,” King said.

It was classic King: Nonchalantly delivered, stunningly offensive, and completely fact-free, since non-white people, and indeed non-Western people, have contributed a great a deal to the world.

On Sunday, King offered up his latest outrage, in a tweet expressing his support for the far-right, anti-Islam and anti-immigration Dutch leader Geert Wilders:

The tweet was, by King standards, somewhat nuanced: Although it’s hard to read the tweet as anything but a statement of white racism, especially given King’s past comments about how “other categories” or “subgroup[s]” of people have not contributed to the world, King left himself some wiggle room for implausible deniability with his choice of pronouns. As the famous fictional non-white person Tonto asked the Lone Ranger, “What you mean … ‘we’?

On Monday, King went on CNN and tried to do some clean up. On the one hand, he told Chris Cuomo, “I meant exactly what I said.” King explained that he was referring to birth rates in Europe, arguing that native-born citizens were reproducing too little, and immigrants too much. (King is correct that birth rates are falling in Europe, as well as in the United States.) He connects these demographic statistics to vague innuendo about the need to “strengthen your culture, strengthen your way of life,” which amount to warnings about anyone who has values different from King’s, though Muslims are presumably the central focus. (For the record, the percentage of the American population born abroad has risen in the last few decades, but is still lower than where it stood between the 1860s and 1920s.)

But King also claimed this wasn’t about race. “If you go down the road a few generations or maybe centuries with the intermarriage, I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same from that perspective,” King said. Apparently forgetting the many race-obsessed things he’s said over the last decade, he added, “I think there’s been far too much focus on race, especially in the last eight years.”

The yearning for interracial marriage can become a sort of slightly-more-benign racism, as Jia Tolentino memorably put it three years ago: “The subtext is clear as anything: look how nice we look, as a people, when white gets to be more interesting and minorities get to look white. Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate.” But believing that’s what King meant requires giving him a benefit of the doubt his own past statements do not afford him.

David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard and perennial candidate for office, took the tweet to be a statement of racial preference:

What’s interesting is the difference in reactions to King’s past statements and to this one. It’s not that King has changed; it’s that the context has. It used to be that when King made a stupid comment, members, and especially leaders, of the Republican Party would condemn him. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner was particularly fierce, calling King’s cantaloupe commentary “deeply offensive.” He later was reported to have privately remarked, “What an asshole.”

This was relatively simple, because King, though able to garner widespread television attention, was a back-bench extremist, the sort of member who leaders like Boehner grumbled about and largely ignored.

Now, however, Boehner is retired and King is ascendant. Having initially backed Senator Ted Cruz during the GOP primary, he then became a close ally and fierce champion of Donald Trump. The alliance makes sense: In his eagerness to make outrageous assertions completely unbacked by factual evidence, King prefigured Trump’s political approach. King and Trump have both suggested that Islam writ large is a threat to the United States and that Barack Obama was not born in America. They are both hardliners on immigration who have made wildly inaccurate accusations of criminality about undocumented immigrants. They have both courted neo-Confederates and white supremacists. (Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician King was endorsing with his tweet on Sunday, has been called the Dutch Trump; he visited the Republican National Convention last year even as many GOP officials stayed away, and he celebrated Trump’s victory.)

There are many Republicans who do not agree with King, or with Trump, on these matters. Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican whose parents immigrated from Cuba, spoke out against King’s statement:

So did fellow Sunshine State Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen:

King’s Iowa colleague David Young took what appeared to be a veiled shot at King on Twitter. The chair of the Iowa Republican Party issued a statement focusing more on Duke than on King: “First of all, I do not agree with Congressman King's statement. We are a nation of immigrants, and diversity is the strength of any nation and any community,” said Jeff Kaufmann. “Regarding David Duke, his words and sentiments are absolute garbage. He is not welcome in our wonderful state.”

Monday afternoon, Speaker Paul Ryan’s issued a statement in the blandest terms: “The speaker clearly disagrees and believes America’s long history of inclusiveness is one of its great strengths.” Other Republicans are, likely, cringing in silence. Their challenge is that even if they do not agree with King, it’s much harder to write him off as just an oddball when some of King’s views are shared by the Republican president of the United States—and, by extension, have become the dominant strain of Republican thought in 2017.