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The sickness of white identity politics

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) participates in a Capitol

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) participates in a Capitol Hill hearing in June. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

The Republican Party is on the defensive after the latest inflammatory comments from Rep. Steve King, the controversial Republican congressman from Iowa. King, who has long fielded accusations of racism, all but embraced the label when he said an interview with The New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

While King has since tried to walk back those remarks, House Republican leaders removed him from the judiciary and agriculture committees. But the King problem is not just a matter of one man prone to intemperate comments; it reflects recent trends of intellectual corruption in the GOP and in the conservative movement.

King, an anti-immigration crusader, has a history of vile rhetoric. Most notoriously, in 2017 he shared an article about nationalist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has demanded an end to Muslim immigration and a ban on the Quran, with the comment, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” In response to accusations of promoting white supremacy, he asserted that he was talking about culture, not race — a defense that some conservative commentators, including Ben Shapiro, took at face value. After King’s latest remarks, Shapiro conceded that he had been wrong to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Last year, King shared an anti-immigration tweet by British author Mark Collett, an unabashed Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust skeptic who deplores race-mixing and blames the Jews for slavery. When criticized for the retweet, King stood his ground. Several months later, he went to Europe on a trip financed by a Holocaust memorial group and gave an interview to an Austrian far-right website founded by a former SS officer and run by a former neo-Nazi.

In November, at a meeting with voters while running for re-election, King joked about “dirt” coming from Mexico, in a conversation that started with a reference to importing soil for gardening but turned into an unmistakable attack on immigrants. When the now-defunct Weekly Standard published an account of the exchange, he accused the conservative magazine of lying — until the magazine posted an audio clip.

King was rebuked by fellow Republicans on prior occasions but never has been sanctioned. The fact that he won re-election does not speak well of the state of the party.

It is also hard to deny that King represents the same nativist strain of right-wing populism as the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump, who appeared with King in Iowa in 2014 before launching his presidential campaign, has sometimes professed a belief in U.S. citizenship that transcends race; but he also has repeatedly denigrated immigrants from Third World countries. This is a stark contrast to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, for whom the essence of America was the fact that anyone can come and become an American.

Just the other day, Trump tweeted a column by Pat Buchanan — whom he once called an anti-Semite and a racist — arguing that unless the border wall is built, “the United States, as we have known it, is going to cease to exist” because of the rise of ethnic, racial and cultural diversity.

Both King and Buchanan have accused the Democratic Party of hostility to white men. It is true that current progressive identity politics often promotes racial and ethnic division rather than integration. But this is no excuse for the embrace of nearly overt white nationalism by large segments of the right. Until Republicans repudiate white identity politics, the sickness will continue to spread.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.