Representative Steve King’s dog-paddling through the cesspool of white supremacy is winding down. The racist inanities that the Iowa Republican spewed to The New York Times are actually among the tamer comments from a man who not so long ago invited a cable television panel to consider what people who were not white had contributed to civilization.
Deciding that his latest foray into the etymology of “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization”is untenable, House Republican leaders have moved to save their colleague from a harder fall. To that end, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a coup de grace of sorts, stripping King of his committee assignments and—so far—staving off a censure motion from Democrats. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst, Liz Cheney, and Mitt Romney served up lukewarm bromides of condemnation from afar.
In a sense, King paved the way for Donald Trump, thereby helping install an avatar of American bigotry in the White House. Not that any significant elected Republican official has condemned Trump. Who cares what the president says as long as the GOP agenda goes through? But after their drubbing at the polls in November, Republicans leaders may ever so slowly be waking up to the realization that the Pandora’s box that King, Trump, and their ilk opened up has unleashed a motivated, more assertive generation of Democratic politicians. New members of Congress are not cowed into submission by racist salvos worthy of the 19th century. And with Iowa’s moment in the national spotlight just a year away, many of the folks back home are just plain tired of the drama from a member of Congress who would rather pal around with neo-Nazis and right-wingers at home and abroad than meet with his constituents.
One of the benefits of white privilege, after all, is being able to attain and maintain high office—at least, in some of America’s quadrants—while spouting off white supremacist tropes for years with few consequences. Racism, both living with it and perpetuating it, is not beyond the pale for many white people. Republican Party leaders, some of whom clearly share these beliefs, are willing to countenance flagrant displays of bigotry if it means being able to count on ideological foot soldiers like King.
King has been a purveyor of high-end white supremacist rhetoric, the kind couched in affirmations of “western civilization,” which can give cover to those Americans who would never display a Confederate flag in the office. He made life easy for Donald Trump having “market-tested,” as he himself boasted, the anti-immigration policies and rhetoric that the president espouses now.
Republicans saw this train coming around the bend, but they chose to brace themselves for the impact instead of diving out of the way. After all, castigating Mexicans, Muslims, and African Americans, would draw passionate crowds of real Americans who would elect Trump and others who could implement conservative ideas like taking health care dollars away from veterans and children while giving tax breaks to plutocrats.
McConnell happily fed Trump’s peevish obsession with Barack Obama and his legacy and together they are tearing down that legacy program by program. Black and brown people were so much collateral damage. And those whites who absorbed the poisonous rhetoric like mother’s milk have been comforted by the continual assertions of their superiority over their inferiors even as their Republican overlords strip away the social supports that they, too, rely on.
After Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in 2012, a Republican National Committee post-mortem warned that the GOP risked political oblivion, if it did not move out of its “ideological cul-de-sac” and try to attract young people, women, and people of color. But Republicans like Steve King made Donald Trump electable, ushering in minority rule by an amorphous “base.”
Much too belatedly, Republicans are now realizing that embracing racism has a political price. King is merely a stand-in for Trump. How much more political damage are they willing to sustain from the offender-in-chief himself?