John McWhorter: Racist is a tough little word
The King supporters I met were broadly concerned with protecting their own ideas of American identity. Newcomers, with their various cultural and religious traditions, are failing to assimilate, they argued. Their traditions don’t become a part of American culture, in this view; rather, those traditions defy it. Leonard, during my visit to Holstein, told me he generally supports the expansion of legal immigration, but only if immigrants are properly vetted to ensure that “they’re not coming here only to re-create their own crumbling society that they left.” He still acknowledged, though, that part of American culture “is the things that people have brought from where they live, but we’ve blended it together.” It’s fun, Leonard said, the way some families in Holstein have kept German and Swedish traditions alive.
Can immigrants from, say, Guatemala do the same—blend in their traditions? I asked.
“They could,” he replied, leaning back in his leather desk chair. “But they have to want to.”
I ended my trip through King’s district in a garage workshop just outside the little town of Fonda, where several white-haired women were seated around a large quilt, piecing together squares of yellow, blue, white, and red fabric. The group, called Freedom Quilts, makes blankets to send to veterans and their families, firefighters, and police officers. It was an informal gathering: The women, who are mostly retired, drive out to the garage a few times a week to sew, eat, and talk. Betty Nielsen, who started the group after the September 11 attacks, told me over the din of the sewing machines that the conversation rarely strays into politics, but if it does, “it's done with respect, you know, which is something that is lacking” in national politics.
Nielsen said she yearns for the days when people didn’t constantly call one another racist, and she thinks her congressman deserves better. He’s devoted to his constituents, she said, noting that he’s attended many Freedom Quilts events. Nielsen has and will continue to vote for King for that reason—but also because, it seemed, she really hates the way he and his supporters have been characterized. “By calling us stupid, deplorable, racist, and all those other names that they've come up with, it just turns you off,” Nielsen said, shaking her head. “And you actually don't even want to hear them. Whether they have good points, you just block them off.”
King is in for a tough primary in 2020. At the end of June, his reelection campaign reported having only $18,000 on hand, the lowest figure King has ever reported in the first six months of an election cycle. And his Times comments had significant repercussions. King “definitely hemorrhaged support from many traditional institutional Republican groups” after he was thrown off the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees, Douglas Burns, a journalist and co-owner of a local newspaper, the Carroll Daily Times Herald, told me earlier this month. King’s remarks, Burns added, have become “toxic” for some local businesses and organizations that would typically support him. King has attracted three challengers from within his own party, including Randy Feenstra, an assistant majority leader in the state Senate who has argued that King is an embarrassment to the district. And Scholten announced on August 5 that he’ll try once again to unseat King from the left.