Steve King Loves to Mock Socialists, but His Own Grandfather Had Leftist Ties

According to a 1937 obituary published in the Correctionville News, the congressman's grandfather, "Curly," was a state organizer for a short-lived labor group founded and run by socialists and communists.

Jay Cecil "Curly" King, the congressman's grandfather, in a photo published on a King ancestry website; and a headline from a 1937 obituary noting his role in a socialist labor organization.

For years, Steve King has gleefully attacked liberals for their supposed socialist and communist views. He appeared in the conspiracy documentary Agenda: Grinding America Down, which falsely claims there is a secret left-wing agenda to destroy the country through communism. In October, after King’s Democratic opponent J.D. Scholten announced that Bernie Sanders would be coming to Iowa to support his campaign, the congressman’s Facebook campaign page posted a bizarre video with dramatic, Russian-sounding music, an image of Sanders next to a hammer and sickle, and a boast about “trigger[ing] lefties.” Last spring, the page attacked high school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez’s Cuban heritage, because the country has a communist government. More recently, the page — which is likely run by King’s son and campaign director, Jeff King — has delighted in mocking Democratic Socialist and newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her ostensibly naive, leftist views.

However, Steve King’s own grandfather, Jay Cecil “Curly” King, had leftist ties, as his obituary published in the Correctionville News in October 1937 shows. Headlined “Alliance Organizer Taken,” the obit mentions that Curly was a state organizer for the Workers Alliance of America, a labor group that was formed in 1935, two and a half years before his death at the age of 52, to advocate for the unemployed.

Curly King’s obituary, published in the Correctionville News in 1937. Via HarmKing.VanDusens.us

As the Nazi Party embraced totalitarianism to solidify its power over Germany, persecuting political opponents including socialists and communists, the WAA sought to resolve the bitter infighting among the Left in the US and unite its competing factions against fascism. Initially headed by David Lasser, a member of the Socialist Party of America, the organization was soon dominated by the Communist Party USA. But the WAA was short-lived regardless. It began unraveling in 1939, the year that Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact and FDR’s Works Progress Administration rolled out a new law banning workers from joining the Communist Party; and it folded entirely once the US entered World War II in 1941.

At least two of Curly’s seven children, Elmer and Steve King’s father Emmett, also went to war against the Axis powers — in the Air Force and Navy, respectively — according to an ancestry website maintained since 2003 by the congressman’s cousin, Laura King Van Dusen, and second nephew, Matt Van Dusen, who died in February. When the Allies won the war in 1945, a consensus emerged in Europe that integration would be essential to preventing the sort of extreme nationalism that took hold in Germany in the lead-up to the war from rising again. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of “restoring the true greatness of Europe” and proposed establishing a “Council of Europe,” which became a precursor to today’s European Union.

The post-war anxieties were well-founded. In 2015, when the numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa seeking asylum or an escape from poverty in Europe rapidly grew, the crisis facilitated the rise of far-right populism that has swept across the continent and now threatens the EU’s continued existence. Much of the far-right’s nativist ire is directed at Muslims, particularly as the threat of Islamic extremism has also ballooned since 2015 (although the recent perpetrators of terrorist acts, more often than not, have been radicalized European citizens rather than migrants). But anti-Semitism has also surged; an EU study presented in December found that one-third of European Jews, wary of disturbing echoes of the past, have thought about emigrating.

The family history adds a contradictory twist to King’s support for far-right European leaders like Viktor Orban, the autocratic-minded prime minister of Hungary whom the EU last September took the unprecedented step of formally rebuking for his hostility toward press freedom, minorities, and the rule of law (“History will record PM Orban the Winston Churchill of Western Civilization…if the West survives cultural suicide,” King tweeted in July 2017); and the Freedom Party of Austria, which was founded by a former member of Adolf Hitler’s SS secret police force responsible for most of the genocide in the Holocaust.

On Tuesday, before the House voted to condemn King’s defense of white nationalism and supremacy, the congressman emphasized that his ancestors included Civil War-era abolitionists — leading to the inevitable questions about why he once displayed a Confederate flag on his office desk.

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.