Why Won't Steve King Assimilate and Embrace American Values?

The Iowa Republican retains an Old World outlook on race and ethnicity that is anathema to those who support the principles of the American founding.

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

Last year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, published a report titled “Patriotic Assimilation Is an Indispensable Condition in a Land of Immigrants.” It complained that “elites—in the government, the culture, and the academy—have led a push toward multiculturalism, which emphasizes group differences,” and ominously warned against “deterring national unity by requiring Americans to remain sorted into separate ethnic categories.”

Instead, it argued that Americans, regardless of their background, should unite in assimilating to the universal principles of equality, liberty, and limited government.

Since Representative Steve King has complained that political correctness causes people in the United States to “just walk on eggshells,” afraid to address things “that are really on their mind,” I trust he will forgive my bluntness in rendering a judgment about him: King is living proof that some Americans do fail to assimilate in this manner, even when their families have been in this country for several generations.

The Iowa representative finds himself at the center of controversy for tweeting that Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” His words seemed to imply that someone like Tiger Woods, born to parents of African and Asian descent, or comedian Aziz Ansari, the child of Muslims born in India, are less authentic members of our culture than babies born to parents of European ancestry who alone can “restore” Western civilization.

His assertion of group differences properly offended many.

In a followup interview on CNN, King was asked specifically about American culture and seemed to affirm a belief that white babies contribute more to it. At the beginning of the interview he appeared to back away from that assertion. But when pressed, he ultimately doubled down on the point. (It is possible that he isn’t a rigorous enough thinker to see the contradictions in his own words, in which case his failure can be attributed to one of his multiple viewpoints.)

Here’s a transcript from the beginning of the exchange:

Cuomo: If you want to apply that kind of thinking to America, it seems like a complete contradiction of what we're all about. This is the melting pot. We are known by those countries as the bastion of diversity. It's an unqualified strength for us. It sounds like you're trying to white cleanse our population and saying somebody else's babies. I think that means me, Congressman. I'm only second generation in this country. Who is somebody else's babies?

King: Chris, we're a country here, that if you take a picture of what America looks like, you can do It in a football stadium or a basketball court and you see all different kinds of Americans there. We're pretty proud of that, the different looking Americans that are still Americans.

There's an American culture, American civilization. It's raised within these children in these American homes. That's one of the reasons why we require that the president of the United States be raised with an American experience. We've also aborted nearly 60 million babies in this country since 1973.

There's been this effort we're going to have to replace that void with somebody else's babies. That's the push to bring in much illegal immigration into America, living in enclaves, refusing to assimilate into the American culture and civilization. Some embrace it, yes. Many are two and three generations living in enclaves that are pushing back in resistance against assimilation. It's far worse in Europe than it is today here in the United States, but I want us to be looking at that, promoting the birth rate in America, restoring the rule of law, putting an end to illegal immigration and recognizing we need to be a country that's pulled together on similar values. That makes us stronger.

Cuomo: That's the exact point. It seemed like you were doing the opposite, like you were trying to say someone else's babies means you're either white or you're not right. As you know, that is anathema to what America is all about. Can we get agreement on that?

King: Well, actually, if you go down the road a few generations or maybe centuries with the intermarriage, I'd like to see an America that so homogenous that we look a lot the same from that perspective. I think there's far too much focus on race, especially in the last eight years. I want to see that put behind us. And I want to see us bonded together. I gave a speech on this on Saturday and half the liberals got up and left the room when I talked about unity—they're looking for hatred is the point, Chris.

To that point, it was ambiguous as to whether King supports intermarriage because he believes in individualism and equality—he did speak of being “proud” of diversity, citing “different looking Americans who are still Americans”—or because he believes white people will dilute less desirable racial traits in everyone else.

His confused interlocutor pressed him to find out more:

Cuomo: Hold on a second. Congressman, if you suggest that somebody else's babies shouldn't be welcome in a country, you seem inherently divisive. That's why I keep to seem doubling down on it. You say America has different faces, that's fine. You keep making this point that this country needs to be about white people raising their birth rate and not bringing in other people. That's exactly what America is not.

King: Chris, I never have made that point. I've never said that. I've been characterized as saying that. I've had the blogs out there say I said that. I tell them go, back, watch the tape, listen to the language. Our language is precise. That's not out there. I did defend Western civilization, starting this summer at the Republican National Convention.

And when I said Western civilization, that launched people opposed to Western civilization. That's a big problem. If we have an element of Americans here that reject Western civilization, and that's a big element, that reject Western civilization, then what have we? This is an effort on the left, I think, to break down the American civilization and the American culture and turn it into something entirely different. I'm a champion for Western civilization and, yes, our English language is a big part of it.

It's a carrier of freedom. Wherever the English language has gone globally, freedom went with it. Science, technology has always lifted up the standard of living on average of everybody on the planet. I want more of that, not less. There are civilizations that produce very little, if any. This Western civilization is a superior civilization, and we want to share it with everybody.

Cuomo: You're entitled to your opinion about all these things obviously. I want to go back at this one more time because it's that important. A Muslim American, an Italian American, A Christian American, Jewish American, you do realize that they are all equal, all the same thing. We don't need babies from one of those groups more than we need them from another of those groups. Do you agree with me?

King: Well I would say ...

Cuomo: Why do you pause on a question like that, Congressman? It doesn't depend on any definition. You're either an American or not. Muslim American, Italian American, Irish, Scotch, German American which is what your roots are. Either those are all equal things or they are not. What is your answer?

King: They contribute differently to our culture and civilization. There are moderate Muslims that are equal to in all these ...

Cuomo: I said a Muslim American, people who have lived here who are assimilated. There are a lot of people teaching hatred in their families who are white, Irish, Italian, who are Muslim. A lot of people preach hate.

There's hate in a lot of different groups. I get you have Muslim extremism, that there's a concern in this country about it. But I asked you something else. These people are either all equal or they are not in your view. A Muslim American, an Italian American, German American like you and your blood, your roots. They are either all equal or they are not in your mind.

What is the answer?

King: I'd say they're all created in the image of God and they're equal in his eyes. If they're citizens of the United States they're equal in the eyes of the law. Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That's just a statistical fact.

For all the inconsistencies and dearth of clarity in King’s words, he is correct that different individuals will contribute differently, not equally, to the American project. I personally know multiple first-generation immigrants who contribute more than King, whose rhetoric has repeatedly betrayed lazy animus against those unlike himself. Though his family has been here for generations, he continues, at least some of the time, to parrot the Old World belief that ancestry determines destiny and that full membership in Western civilization depends on race and ethnicity.

Much of what’s gone wrong in U.S. history flowed from the Europeans who imported that prejudice.

But unlike the cultures where King’s ancestors were born, where ethnic conceptions of citizenship prevailed for so many generations, the United States is a place that declared in its founding document that all human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Affirming those values, the best rather than the worst of what Western civilization has embedded in institutions, constitutes full patriotic assimilation in the United States.

Full stop.

Among those who’ve failed to assimilate over the years are millions of white Americans.

If mere birth to white parents conferred a special understanding of American values, King himself would grasp them with more clarity. Besides eschewing the idea that babies born of other races are destined to undermine Western or American civilization—an odd belief to square with a country born in a revolution against a British king and a 20th century wherein the greatest threats to both the Western and American projects came from an Austrian named Adolph Hitler and a Russian named Josef Stalin—King would have known better than to decorate his desk with a Confederate flag. That anti-American banner was flown by whites who preferred rebellion in defense of a slave state to the values of the Declaration.

He might also grasp how profoundly the white architects of Jim Crow set back Western civilization and how dramatically African Americans like Martin Luther King advanced it.

That isn’t to equate King with 1950s segregationists. The arc of white nationalism seems to bend toward marginally less damaging manifestations of prejudice. If King hasn’t properly educated himself as to the values of the Declaration and the Constitution, he has done better than bygone generations of European Americans whose failures to assimilate were orders of magnitude more profound.

Think of the Ku Klux Klan terrorists and their fellow travelers in lynching African Americans, who are estimated to have murdered more American citizens than al-Qaeda.

As Chris Rock observed, it is incorrect to sum up the struggle for Civil Rights or the election of the first black president by marveling that black people have made a lot of progress.

“To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he said. “That’s not black progress. That’s white progress … There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.” To keep progressing toward that end, Americans ought to encourage European Americans like King to keep assimilating until they fully embrace the Founding values that made this country’s birth exceptional.

His fellow conservatives have an important role to play.

That Heritage report from last year urged that a number of questions be asked of today’s political candidates, beginning with this one: “Why does the government need to divide Americans into demographic categories based on racialist thinking?”

One wonders how President Trump or Stephen Bannon would answer.

The remainder of the report makes clear that its authors regard racialist thinking as the province of the American left. King is a living rebuke to that too narrow assumption. As a member of the elite, with a perch in Congress and regular appearances on national TV, King regularly emphasizes group differences, undermines national unity by sorting people into ethnic categories, and indulges in a sort of racialist thinking that has grown in power on the right along with Trump.

Or as an article at white supremacist Richard Spencer’s alt-right website put it, “King is more /ourguy/ than Trump has ever been, but would he be saying these kinds of things without Trump? We can only hope these kinds of statements serve to embolden more of our people, as they see that people like themselves are in positions of power.”

The time has come for the folks on the right who’ve spent decades extolling color-blindness, while decrying identity politics and multiculturalism, to show themselves to have been in earnest—or to stay silent, like hypocrites or cowards. Silence abets men like King who would turn movement conservatism into a three-legged stool resting on tax cuts for the rich, opposition to abortion for the religious, and white nationalism for the subset of European Americans who remain unassimilated.

Thankfully, the unassimilated are a minority of whites. A moratorium on immigration from European countries with a strong alt-right, in hopes of giving European Americans the time and space they need for patriotic assimilation, would therefore be overkill.