Iowa Rep. Steve King
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Rep. Steve King of Iowa is a strange dude. He exhibits one of the rarer qualities in conservative circles in that he’s completely unapologetic about being a white supremacist. He just made the following remark in an interview with the New York Times:

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Mr. King said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

It’s an almost refreshing degree of candor. And, yet, he still won’t embrace being a racist.

Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. He pointed to his Twitter timeline showing him greeting Iowans of all races and religions in his Washington office. (The same office once displayed a Confederate flag on his desk.)

At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is “the culture of America” based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.

It’s true that almost all Republicans will deny being a racist but then they almost all will deny being white supremacists or white nationalists, too. Rep. King still sees some merit in distinguishing between these terms, and it’s not clear why he thinks “racist” is toxic but that other terms can be safely embraced.

If we take King to mean what he says, he’s convinced that western civilization is superior to other cultures, which isn’t all that unusual a view, and he’s convinced that race is the primary explanation for its superiority, which is a decidedly less prevalent sentiment. Yet, it used to be a mainstream view. Take the following statement from Abraham Lincoln, delivered during the 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas in Charleston, Illinois.

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”

Lincoln’s true private views were probably more enlightened than this, but not by a whole lot. The racial superiority of whites was taken as too much of a given to be worth challenging in a debate over the expansion of slavery, and it’s not clear that Lincoln questioned this himself.

These basic assumptions persisted in the mainstream of American politics for another hundred years, and not only in the South. In 1957, as Congress debated a civil rights law, William F. Buckley wrote Why the South Must Prevail in his magazine, the National Review.

Here’s part of the argument he made:

The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

Buckley went so far as to rationalize denying people the vote because they had an inferior culture. It was by then an outlier view in Buckley’s New York City, but not in much of the rest of the country, and certainly not among the segregationists in the South.

The argument against civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, as delivered by Southern Democratic politicians, was unapologetically based on white supremacy. It wasn’t until after the success of the Civil Right Era that white supremacy became a minority view among whites in the 1970s.

“The 1970s” is thus probably the correct answer to Rep. King’s query: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

In support of this, I’ll note that Republican strategist Lee Atwater made his most infamous comment during an interview in 1981.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

This doesn’t so much date when racist language became “offensive” as it pegs when it became a political vulnerability in most of the country. It became more costly to be openly racist once blacks won the right to vote, and after the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965, it gradually became most costly to openly embrace white supremacy.

This cost hasn’t been sufficient as of yet to deny Steve King his western Iowa congressional seat, but he barely won reelection and has now invited a primary challenger.

On Wednesday, Mr. King drew a formidable challenger for his Fourth District seat in the 2020 Republican primary: Randy Feenstra, an assistant majority leader in the State Senate, who said Mr. King had left Iowa “without a seat at the table” because of “sideshows” and “distractions.”

For now, at least, these views are still politically viable enough to account for the present occupant of the White House.

Mr. King may have been ostracized by some Republicans over his racist remarks and extremist ties, but as much of the nation debates immigration, his views now carry substantial influence on the right.

Early in Mr. Trump’s term, the president invited Mr. King — who was long snubbed by establishment Republicans like the former House speaker John A. Boehner — to the Oval Office. There, the president boasted of having raised more money for the congressman’s campaigns than anyone else, including during a 2014 Iowa visit, Mr. King recalled in an interview with The Times.

“Yes, Mr. President,” Mr. King replied. “But I market-tested your immigration policy for 14 years, and that ought to be worth something.”

Mr. Trump is doing all he can to revive white supremacy as a political strategy, and it’s not going too far to say that the government shutdown that is now underway is the truest test yet of his potential for success.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at