Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who couldn’t be much clearer about his values if he went around in a conical white hood, said last week that “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” were inoffensive if not honorable terms, and now his fellow party members in Congress are coming down on him like a ton of bricks.
I just do not get it. Why the upset?
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that King’s remarks were “stupid” and “hurtful” and that Americans “ought to be united, regardless of party, in saying ‘white supremacism,’ ‘white nationalism’ is hatred, it is bigotry, it is evil, it is wrong.”
Strong and righteous words. Hats off to Cruz. But that indignation eluded him when he was running for president in 2016. Just before the Iowa caucuses, Cruz touted King’s endorsement of him. For good and fawning measure, he chose King as the national co-chairman of his campaign.
It was not as if King, a member of the House since 2003, had been keeping his hateful values under wraps. By the time Cruz came courting, King had insinuated that Barack Obama was some darling of “radical Islamists,” embraced the birther conspiracy, tweeted a cartoon of Obama wearing a turban and, most famously, said that for every child of an unauthorized immigrant who goes on to academic glory, “there’s another 100 out there 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 passed muster with Cruz, as it did with many other Republicans, because King was a kingmaker from a disproportionately influential state. What’s a little racism among political allies?
On Monday, Republican leaders in the House punished King by stripping him of his seats on both the Judiciary and Agriculture committees, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said King should find “another line of work” because he was unfit for Republican politics.
But he was as fit as a fiddle in many if not most prominent Republicans’ eyes when he was locked in a tight re-election battle last fall and Republicans worried about losing his seat in Iowa’s 4th District to a Democrat.
King was in danger of defeat then in part because of a chilling crescendo in his racist associations and remarks over recent years. In July 2016, he said on MSNBC that “white people” had done more for civilization than “any other subgroup of people.” In March 2017, he tweeted that “culture and demographics are our destiny” and that Americans “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
In June 2018, he retweeted a Nazi sympathizer’s dire warning about the dangers of immigration in Europe, making clear that he felt that same alarm about America. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who covers Congress for The New York Times, went looking for his Republican colleagues’ reactions and reported that representatives of the three top House Republicans — Paul Ryan, who was then speaker; Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader; and Steve Scalise, the whip — “did not reply to emails seeking comment,” nor did a representative of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
Iowa’s other Republican senator, Joni Ernst, “ducked into an elevator as she was being asked” about what King had tweeted, saying that she wasn’t up to speed on the situation and “shrugging her shoulders as the elevator doors closed,” Stolberg wrote.
Shrugging their shoulders: That sums it up. Republicans shrugged last autumn when King endorsed a white nationalist running for mayor of Toronto and also when he did an interview with a far-right Austrian website and said that America must “defend Western civilization” against immigrants or be “subjugated by the people who are the enemies of faith.”
One of the few senior Republican officials who emphatically rebuked this behavior was Steve Stivers of Ohio, then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It could have been a pile-on moment when Republican leaders finally came out and denounced the guy,” Jonathan Weisman, who edits The Times’ congressional coverage, recalled. “But that didn’t happen. We were weeks before the election.”
We are now months after the election, and Republicans have already identified a primary challenger for King in 2020, someone who they believe can keep his seat in the party’s hands. Hence the blossoming of conscience in McConnell, McCarthy and others. I lied before. I do get it. Pragmatism, expedience and the maintenance of power are the real monarchs of politics — and not just among Republicans.
But there is even more than that behind the party’s sudden turn against King. As with most everything else in Washington at this cursed juncture, this is largely about President Donald Trump.
Trump’s own racist behavior and remarks — including, in the run-up to the midterm elections, his proud embrace of the term “nationalist” — have emboldened the Steve Kings of the world. Many Republicans recognize that. And despite all the pride they have swallowed since Trump’s ascent and all the principles they have betrayed, many of them yearn to make a stand or at least a statement against white nationalism, for the sake of their party’s long-term survival and, yes, for the country.
They also want to say and do something right at a moment of so much wrong — wrong that they have abetted and must answer for. The government is shut down. The president fields understandable questions about whether he is a Russian agent. With his ignorance and arrogance, he seems to be hauling the country to the brink of a disastrous international crisis. He degrades his office daily. And most of them mutely watch. They quiver in the face of the president’s wrath.
So they are taking on King instead of taking on Trump. It is safer. That is what this is really about: the sacrifice of one wretched bigot to atone for the indulgence of another; an opportunity for moral preening after so much moral surrender. This has less to do with courage than with convenience.
Be glad for King’s exile. But do not be impressed by the Republicans who are ordering it.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.