Kaleb Van Fosson, Who Confronted Steve King on White Supremacy, Reacts to the Congressman’s Dramatic Week

The 4th District constituent was booted from a Des Moines forum days before the 2018 election for asking King about his racist beliefs, in a moment that went viral and contributed to a long-overdue reckoning for the congressman

Steve King constituent and political organizer Kaleb Van Fosson, center, asking the congressman before the November election about the views he shared with the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Screenshot: MSNBC/YouTube

When the Informer spoke to J.D. Scholten on the night of Jan. 9, Steve King’s most recent Democratic rival in Iowa’s 4th District predicted a “big coup” among Republicans against the congressman ahead of the 2020 election. Scholten’s words were prescient: The very next day, King was quoted defending white supremacy in the New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he asked.

As he’s done repeatedly before, King pleaded ignorance, accusing the Times of misquoting him. But this time, his denials didn’t stick. Already, he’d gotten a primary challenger in state Sen. Randy Feenstra, and Gov. Kim Reynolds, who just over a year ago praised King’s “conservative values” when she announced him as an honorary co-chair of her successful campaign for her first full term, said she would sit out the primary. After the article’s publication, King was stripped of all his House committee assignments, formally condemned by his colleagues, faced calls from prominent members of his own party to step down, and was also encouraged to resign by the editorial boards of the Des Moines Register and Sioux City Journal.

Scholten’s impressive campaign against King — he lost by a margin of less than three and a half points, compared to King’s 22-point victory two years prior — helped lead to this moment. But there was also a palpable change in the campaign’s final weeks, after King endorsed a white nationalist neo-Nazi sympathizer for Toronto mayor and the Washington Post reported that he met with members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party during a recent Holocaust memorial foundation-funded trip to Poland.

Related article: J.D. Scholten on Steve King, Randy Feenstra, and What’s Next for Him

The controversies surrounding King finally boiled over on Nov. 1, thanks in large part to Kaleb Van Fosson, a political activist and Ames resident who at the time was attending Iowa State University in King’s district. He attended a candidate forum hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership to ask King about the views he shared with Robert Bowers, perpetrator of the recent Tree of Life Synagogue gun massacre in Pittsburgh.

“The terrorist who committed this crime, he was quoted as saying, ‘They bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit back and watch our people get slaughtered,’” Van Fosson read from a statement off his phone. “You, Steve King, have been quoted as saying, ‘We can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.’ You and the shooter both share an ideology that is vehemently anti-immigration.”

King exploded, threatening to leave the building if the Partnership didn’t remove Van Fosson from the room (the organization complied, even though King, Bowers, and Goldy had all voiced similar beliefs that included versions of the white genocide conspiracy theory). The incident went viral; that evening, Van Fosson appeared on MSNBC’s All in with Chris Hayes, and, just five days out from the election, support for Scholten again surged.

“Making sure that the people you’re quoting, the voices that you’re propping up, aren’t the voices of white supremacists is a pretty low bar.”

On Wednesday, the Informer reached out to Van Fosson for his thoughts on what’s transpired since he confronted King last November (he also told us he plans to get involved in the Democratic presidential primary and is currently not backing a candidate, but hopes Bernie Sanders runs again). Here’s what he had to say.

I’m sure you saw the tweet that Steve King sent out after the forum with the Iowa Starting Line video, where he wrote, “Leftist Media Lies have reached Peak Insanity and compared me to the evil Pittsburgh murderer of 11 Jews!” Do you feel vindicated now?

I felt pretty vindicated. I felt pretty confident before, because it’s been pretty common knowledge for a long time now that Steve King is a racist. He hasn’t really made any attempt to hide it. Now, the Republican Party is finally starting to wake up — or, at least, finally starting to call him out on it.

Steve King uses phrases that directly echo those of white nationalists and supremacists, and then he denies it. Before the election, he talked to Dave Price on WHO-TV and [in response to a question about his endorsement of Faith Goldy, the white nationalist conspiracy theorist running for Toronto mayor] said he couldn’t be expected to go research all of these people’s views. He did it again after the election, claiming the New York Times took him out of context.

Related article: Steve King Said His White Supremacy Comment Was Taken Out of Context. That’s a Lie.

The claim that he can’t be expected to go back and research all the people he’s quoting — you’re an elected representative, you should be researching the people you’re quoting. If you don’t know that your sources of information [have these views], and where their beliefs are coming from, then you’re not doing your job.

Making sure that the people you’re quoting, the voices that you’re propping up, aren’t the voices of white supremacists is a pretty low bar.

Do you think King will continue to get away with any of this? In his response to being stripped of his committee assignments, he said he would continue to represent the 4th District “for at least the next two years.”

There’s really two options going forward that might happen. Either he’s going to be pushed to resign out of pressure from his own party, or he’ll resist that pressure, go into the election, and be defeated. I definitely don’t think he’ll be re-elected next time, especially considering how close it was in 2018. Just the changing demographics, more young people coming out to vote, his approval going down, down, down. Every news article you see about him is negative. I think when you look at the current climate, he’s not going to last much longer.

There’s a fascinating dynamic that’s emerging, as if King has maybe flown too close to the sun. At that forum, after they kicked you out, he said, “I’ve worked a lifetime to be in this position” and talked about his private meeting with Donald Trump at the Oval Office. On one hand, his views have become mainstreamed to some extent, but on the other, there are those questions about whether [his political future] is sustainable.

I think that in Steve King’s mind, he lives in this racist bubble where he thinks, yeah, most people think like me. Now, because Trump is president, he feels very emboldened to spew his racist beliefs. And I think what we’re seeing now is people are saying, no, we don’t agree with you. He’s surprised by that backlash.

“They’re finally saying something. But they’re not actually talking about changing their policies that are racist.”

The Informer interviewed J.D. Scholten on the night before the New York Times article was published last Thursday. He predicted a “big coup” among Republican against King, and then, the next day, it all started faster than I’d expected. Do you think that Republicans are doing enough now?

I don’t think they’re doing enough. I think what they’re doing right now is seeing all the media backlash, all that criticism, and it’s scaring them. Now they’re finally coming out and doing the right thing. But they’re really only doing it for political reasons.

If you look back throughout the past several decades, ever since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party has been using dog-whistle racism and promoting racist rhetoric in more of a low-key, subtle way that isn’t as blatant as Trump or Steve King. Now that the white supremacy and racism in the Republican Party is just becoming more apparent, they’re starting to see the backlash from that.

I think that’s an important point. Douglas Burns wrote in the Carroll Daily Times Herald in 2016 that King could probably start using the N-word “casually and regularly” and still be re-elected. What’s happening now may be disproving that, but it seems that with anything up to that point, it’s quite easy for a lot of people to just dismiss it as if racism isn’t [prevalent] in society anymore.

Yeah, definitely.

What do you think, specifically, of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stripping King of his committee assignments; and Liz Cheney, who chairs the House Republican Conference, calling on him to resign, as did Mitt Romney, who ran for president against Barack Obama as King was promoting birtherism?

I think it just shows that they‘re hypocrites. All this time, they were buddy-buddy with Steve King, they had no problem with his rhetoric, they never spoke out on it. They were constantly making excuses.

“You can’t justify bad behavior by pointing towards more bad behavior.”

Now that we’re seeing a backlash, they’re worried that it’s going to hurt their chances of re-election; now, they’re finally saying something. But they’re not actually talking about changing their policies that are racist. They’re not talking about ending mass incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color. They’re not talking about stopping racist policies like stop and frisk. They’re not speaking out at all or supporting any systemic reforms that would actually fight racism. It’s pretty fair [to say] they only care about electability.

I saw a tweet to that effect the other day. Republicans are now jumping on this bandwagon against King — as they continue to promote one of his main policy objectives in getting the wall built.

Exactly. They’re condemning Steve King’s white supremacy, but at the exact same time they’re perfectly happy to shut down the entire government so that we can build a giant wall on the border, which is ineffective border security at best, and at worst a giant monument to white supremacy.

What do you think of the response of Republicans here in Iowa? Randy Feenstra, a state senator, launched his primary bid against King and criticized his “caustic nature” without actually making any explicit reference to the white supremacist rhetoric he’s been employing.

They’re typical Republicans. They’re not running against Steve King because they disagree with his racism; they’re running because they see that the tides are turning, and they see that King is vulnerable. They want to be the ones that take his place. If they actually cared about condemning white supremacy and the kind of rhetoric that King espouses, they’d be talking about the policies that uphold racist, systemic oppression.

Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director, drew a comparison between King, and Republicans speaking out against him now, and Nate Boulton [a state senator who dropped his bid for governor last year over a sexual misconduct scandal] and Democrats, in his view, not acting strongly enough on that.

I disagree with what both the Republicans and Democrats are doing when it comes to Nate Boulton. They should be speaking out against Nate Boulton; he has no business being in the Legislature with the accusations facing him. But the allegations against Nate Boulton don’t justify Steve King’s behavior. A wrong on one side doesn’t make the other side right — you can’t justify bad behavior by pointing towards more bad behavior.

The Story County GOP in 2016 hosted an event on respect and civility in politics, but they invited Steve King as one of the featured speakers. Months later, when I finally heard back from Brett Barker, the county party’s chairman, his rationale was that they always invited their local representatives. It’s what the Ames Chamber of Commerce told me when I asked them about their members who donated to King. And that obviously played out at the Greater Des Moines Partnership forum. The moderator [Des Moines attorney Tim Coonan], at the end, shook King’s hand and thanked him for being civil.

Related article: The Story County GOP’s Deafening Silence on Steve King

The Republicans constantly hide behind civility. They have no problems with having racist rhetoric and insulting and denigrating anyone who’s marginalized in our society. And then, when you don’t like that, they point the finger at you and say, how dare you not be civil? How dare you be hostile? When they’re the ones espousing an ideology that is fundamentally hostile and violent and dangerous.

It’s basically just deflection and projection.

I think you were challenging that, at least indirectly, when you confronted King at the forum.

Yeah: If he cares so much about civility, then why didn’t he just answer my question when I politely asked a question? I was very respectful asking the question; I used my manners, and he lashed out and screamed at me. If he cares about civility, his actions at that event certainly didn’t show it.

You were on MSNBC later that night and I’m sure fielded a bunch of other interview requests. It obviously had an influence on perceptions of Steve King. How significant do you think that your question to King on that day has been on influencing what’s followed?

I think it was pretty significant. I remember, before, reading headlines about King’s racism, and the headlines would say things like “Congressman Steve King says controversial remarks about race,” and other trying-to-stay-neutral headlines. When I looked at the headlines about what happened at the forum between me and him, they were quite a bit different than they were previously. Instead, the headlines were “White nationalist Congressman Steve King lashes out.” It definitely felt like there was a change in the narrative.

I don’t want to take full credit for that, because I had a lot of good people helping me to prepare for that and afterwards with the media. It was a collaborative effort with a lot of people that I respect. And there have been a lot of people challenging Steve King. CCI [Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a progressive advocacy organization Van Fosson is a part of] has done great work.

But yeah, there’s definitely been a pretty big shift in the narrative around Steve King [after that].

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.