“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked during an interview with The New York Times. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
King’s statement set off a flurry of responses from prominent politicians. The Republican Party moved to denounce him, stating that his views were extreme and unrepresentative of conservatives. King was unanimously voted out of his positions on the Agriculture and Judiciary Committees, significantly lowering his political power.
Individuals in the party such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have taken a more forward stance, lashing out at King and saying, “if he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”
Perhaps most fascinating was the response of Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate. His scathing op-ed, published in The Washington Post, called for Republicans to speak out against politicians like King. “When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” he wrote, bemoaning that conservative economic policies have become inextricably tied to racism in the minds of many Americans.
The mass condemnation of King, while constructive, leaves many outside of the Republican party with a question: why is now the time to denounce King instead of five, ten, or fifteen years earlier, when he first entered office? There’s nothing that distinguishes this event from King’s long history of bigoted statements, and yet Republicans have not taken action until now. Their unanimous opposition to King seems to have come far out of left field.
Still, the response from Republicans is far from earth-shattering. Commentary has been limited in scope, focusing specifically on King’s statements about white supremacy rather than addressing his other racially-tinged outbursts. Those who have acknowledged his past have avoided acknowledging its weight, with Paul Ryan telling The Washington Post he “would like to think [King] misspoke” when he referred to non-white people as “someone else’s babies.” Trump took avoidance a step further, declaring that he was not familiar with the white supremacy comments when asked for his opinion of King. The statement seems implausible, given King’s strong connections to Trump.
The reaction to King’s statement as an isolated incident rather than a recurring situation blocking a desperately-needed national conversation about tolerance and America’s growing diversity. In choosing to narrow their dialogue to focus on King’s actions instead of using him as a starting point to address bigotry as a whole, Republicans have remained complicit with nearly identical commentary by other Republicans, even from those at the top of the party like President Trump.
The President has emerged unscathed from the uproar against King, despite the lack of difference between their views. As The Atlantic points out, the two men are, in fact, close allies. In 2014, Trump attended a King rally and called him a “special guy, a smart person, with really the right views on almost everything.” He explained that their views on political issues were so similar that they “don’t even have to compare notes.” And yet, despite labeling immigrants as drug mules and gang leaders in his past rhetoric, Trump has been met with no substantial punishment compared to King’s swift fate.
The wavering Republican approach towards racism shows that there’s still a long way to go before the party wholeheartedly refutes bigotry. Weeding it out will require massive upheaval within the party, but avoiding it will require massive complacency. For now, Republicans have made their choice.