Is Steve King’s rhetoric empowered by Trump? Or is it simply born of a similar place?

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) at a June 8 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
January 11 at 1:31 PM

The pattern is so well-established for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) by now that it barely necessitates articulation for anyone who has been paying attention to American politics in the past decade. King’s long-standing distrust of immigration has, in recent years, bled into an at-times-overt embrace of white supremacist ideas and rhetoric.

For those interested in a refresher, here’s an overview of King’s relevant comments and actions through last June, an overview that’s nonetheless heavily outdated. It doesn’t include, for example, a newspaper that had regularly endorsed King’s House candidacies determining last year that it could no longer give King a pass on its past “concerns” over his rhetoric. His endorsement of a white nationalist political candidate in Canada, citing her position as “Pro Western Civilization,” was not, the paper wrote, “the first time King was tied, by his words or actions, to such intolerant ugliness.”

That’s an understatement. Nor was it the last. A bit over a week after the paper endorsed his opponent, King appeared to refer to migrants as “dirt” at a campaign event.

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an interview with King in which he asked rhetorically: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

It was not the first time that King’s reflexive insistence that he was only worried about “Western culture” — as opposed to, say, the dilution of the white race — became mixed up with a race-based defense. There was, for example, his appearance on MSNBC during the Republican convention when he chastised a panelist for disparaging old white people, asking, “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Several Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), subsequently condemned King’s comments to the Times.

“Steve’s language is reckless, wrong, and has no place in our society,” he said in a statement. “The Declaration of Independence states that ‘all men are created equal.’ That is a fact. It is self-evident.” Such criticism from party leadership is unusual.

After the article was published, King hurriedly walked away from the implications of his question, as he has so often before.

“I reject” the labels of white nationalism and white supremacy, he wrote in a statement, “and the evil ideology that they define.” He isn’t a racist, he insisted for the who-knows-how-manyth time, but “simply a Nationalist.” His concern wasn’t white people, it’s just that he’s “an advocate for Western Civilization’s values.”

And that advocacy just happens to manifest itself in tacit endorsement of maintaining white racial purity and repeatedly disparaging immigrants to the United States in terms that frequently suggests they are inherently dangerous.

If that latter point sounds particularly familiar, it should. President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has often overlapped with King’s, to the point that the president has on occasion cited an imaginary figure for deaths caused by undocumented immigrants that originated with bad analysis publicized by King a decade ago. During an Oval Office meeting in 2017, King told the Times, the congressman responded to Trump’s bravado about having raised huge sums for King by saying he had “market-tested your immigration policy for 14 years, and that ought to be worth something.”

Trump’s rhetoric about the danger of people crossing the border with Mexico illegally, his comments about drugs flowing into the United States are indeed the sorts of things that King has argued since well before Trump was a candidate for office. Trump launched his campaign with that rhetoric and the loyal constituency that embraced him once those comments went national helped power his nomination.

It’s interesting that in recent years — during a period when Trump’s remarks have been in the international spotlight — King has so often found himself the focus of attention for his closeness to white supremacists and white nationalist rhetoric. Most Americans, in a poll conducted last July, said they believed Trump had emboldened racists to voice their opinions. Has King been more willing to bring his views out of the shadows because Trump creates the space for him to do so?

There’s another nonexclusive possibility: Both Trump and King are powered by a strain of nativist or racist thought that had been mostly quashed in national politics.

We’ve seen repeatedly that race was a significant factor in Trump’s victory, including as an explanation for the wide gulf in 2016 vote choice by education. That’s not surprising, given the frequent appeals to race that Trump’s campaign included. As president, he has been criticized for his treatment of the subject, including, most infamously, his response to the murder of an anti-racism protester in Virginia in 2017. In polls, many or most Americans see him as racist.

Trump didn’t create the view of immigration that he’s consistently presented; he corralled it. His political views generally reflect the conservative media which he consumes. As Trump prepared for his presidential run in 2014 and 2015, race and immigration were the focus of sites like Breitbart, with both the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the surge in unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the United States from Central America. Trump’s political success is largely derived from his willingness to say the things that were being said on Fox News, instead of the things that were being said among members of the Republican House caucus.

King did, indeed, market-test Trump’s immigration rhetoric but only in the microcosm. It was already market tested by the media that Trump consumed, and it was (at least in retrospect) obvious that an audience existed as a result.

The elevation of race and immigration to the national level, including King’s views, is in large part a function of the occupant of the White House being someone whose views on the subjects are far more in line with King’s, immigration skeptics and — in at least some instances — white nationalists than even with more traditional Republican politicians. For what it’s worth, prominent white nationalists on Twitter like Richard Spencer have not rallied to his cause. Why? Because he backtracked from the implications of the question he posed in the Times interview.

King, for his part, recognizes that his rhetoric reflects some significant part of his party’s base. In another of the incidents that occurred after our summary from June, King defended having participated in an interview with members of a hard-right Austrian political party with historic links to the Nazis — an interview in which he questioned the value of diversity.

The Freedom Party was not a big deal, he suggested. “If they were in America pushing the platform that they push, they would be Republicans,” he told The Post.

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