From the May-June and November-December 2018 print editions of the Informer.
PART I: THE CONGRESSMAN’S FORMATIVE YEARS
There’s an anecdote Steve King likes to tell the press on occasion, a coming-of-age story of sorts, about his first exposure to an illegal alien. It was the mid-1950s in Goodell, a lily-white town of about 250 people in northern Hancock County where King’s father, a state police dispatcher of Irish and German descent named Emmett, had recently been appointed mayor, succeeding J. J. Cook, who had resigned due to poor health. One night, after coming home from city hall, Emmett told the family how authorities had apprehended an undocumented Mexican immigrant, a rare — if not unheard of — sight in the rural community, on a local charge. “They just picked him up, processed him, and sent him on the shuttle run back to his home country,” King told the Daily Beast decades later, marvelling at the simplicity of the situation. “It never occurred to them to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m sorry, I’m just a little-town cop and a little-town mayor.”
King himself wouldn’t become a politician until 1996, when he launched a successful bid for the state Senate, coasting to a general election victory after knocking off first-term Sen. Wayne Bennett in the Republican primary with the help of Christian conservatives turned off by the incumbent’s moderate position on abortion. But it was something else about the campaign that stuck with King. In early October, a month out from Election Day, then-Gov. Terry Branstad hosted a fundraiser for him at Yellow Smoke Park a mile east of Denison off Highway 30. “I was running through my topics and I said, ‘And I believe English should be the official language of the state of Iowa.’ And it just brought the house down,” King later recalled in an interview with Talking Points Memo, describing the moment he took up the cause of the English-only movement. “There was this huge applause. I knew how strongly I believed in it. But I didn’t know how strongly they believed in it.”
In the Statehouse, King set to work cultivating his controversial reputation through actions like filing a lawsuit that prevented Tom Vilsack, the Democratic governor who succeeded Branstad, from implementing anti-discrimination protections for LGBT employees in the executive branch. But his focus remained on immigration-related issues. He introduced his so-called God and Country legislation, which, had it passed, would have stripped multicultural education requirements from school curriculum. And he pushed for an English-only bill until, in 2002 after a years-long effort, he got his wish, earning Vilsack’s reluctant signature that March despite allegations about its discriminatory intent. Two months later, King overpowered House Speaker Brett Siegrist in the state’s first nominating convention in nearly four decades to win his party’s backing for the 5th Congressional District, propelling him to his current position as one of the nation’s most notorious immigration hardliners, a man who now routinely espouses views in line with those of white nationalists.
Those views were shaped by his upbringing, first in Goodell, then around northwestern Iowa as his father was transferred between police radio bases on new assignments. King traces his interest in English-only laws back to the eighth grade, when he studied the American lexicographer and nationalist Noah Webster, who “looked at all the enclaves in the colonies of people who had come from different cultures,” as he told longtime Iowa columnist Chuck Offenburger days before he was first elected to Congress. “There wasn’t as much travel then, and he saw differences developing in language and spelling from one community to another,” King explained. “He wrote the American English dictionary with the sole purpose of bringing the American people together. He saw a common language as the most powerful unifying force known to man, and that’s been my belief today.”
By the mid-1960s, King was attending high school in Denison, an expanding town with a population nearing 6,000 but scant diversity, near where he would make his pitch for an English-only law 30 years later en route to the state Senate. Just two African Americans, the Johnson brothers, attended the school. It wasn’t until after he graduated and moved to a farm outside his current home of Kiron that the first wave of Southeast Asian and Latino immigrants — refugees and job-seekers drawn to meatpacking plants in Storm Lake — hit northwestern Iowa.
As he became increasingly exposed to other cultures, King was initially receptive. “Just look at it in terms of food alone, if you want to,” he told Offenburger. “I was raised pretty much on plain meat and potatoes. The variety of all the different kinds of food that other cultures have brought here is great.” Those differences, he went on, “add to the richness of our life,” and “we should study them and celebrate them.” But before long, he came to see multiculturalism as a political tool of the left used to divide the country. “I like diversity of cultures and peoples, but we also need to recognize there is a greater American culture that unites us,” he said. “It’s fine to celebrate the individual cultures we come from, but it can’t hinder the greater American culture.”
“There is no emotion in chess. If you start getting upset, you lose control.”
King’s views were further influenced by the writings of Thomas Sowell, an African American academic known for parroting conservatives cliches about how social welfare harms black people and “all lives matter.” In 1996, Sowell published Migration and Cultures: A World View, which King told Offenburger he’d read “forward and backward at least three times.” The book criticized multiculturalism and affirmative action, arguing that they “add to the cost of absorbing immigrants, not least by increasing the resentment of them by the native population,” and labeled immigration advocates “ideological zealots.” Anti-immigrant sentiment, Sowell argued, was driven by “lax immigration laws, welfare state benefits, and schemes to keep foreigners foreign,” rather than allowing them to assimilate into American society.
Growing up in Goodell, Steve King enjoyed playing chess — the only board game in the house — with his father and younger brother, Jon. “It teaches you to be logical and not emotional,” Jon told the Sioux City Journal in 2012, “because there is no emotion in chess. If you start getting upset, you lose control.
“A lot of the decisions that Steve makes that are so unpopular at first are because he removed emotion from it and got right down to the brass tacks to begin with,” he went on. “We have so many people in Washington that are making decisions based on emotion, the way it makes them feel. That is a mistake.
“A lot of times, the things he says, they may not be as sugar-coated as some people would like them to be.”
Douglas Burns, a fourth-generation Iowa journalist who co-owns the Carroll Daily Times Herald newspaper in King’s district, described King’s rhetorical flourishes much differently in July 2016. “I think Congressman Steve King could simply start short-cutting his rambling narratives on race relations,” he wrote, “and just incorporate — casually and regularly — the N-word (the ugly term used to describe black people) into interviews and speeches without jeopardizing his US House seat in western and central Iowa.”
PART II: “I’VE WORKED A LIFETIME TO BE IN THIS POSITION”
King came closer than ever before in November to testing that hypothesis, which Burns published a few months before the congressman coasted to an eighth term in a 22-point rout of Kim Weaver, his Democratic rival then. The 2018 election, on the other hand, presented a striking study in contrasts for the notorious Iowa lawmaker, who found himself at once both in the most powerful position of his political career but also at his most vulnerable.
On Nov. 1, five days out from an election he would win by just 3.4 points — 10,430 votes above his Democratic rival, a former baseball standout-turned-paralegal and political novice from Sioux City named J.D. Scholten — King attended a candidate forum hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a business coalition similar to a local chamber of commerce. His appearance came under the cloud of a report in the Washington Post revealing that he’d met with members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which was founded by former Nazis, during a trip to Poland to visit Jewish historical sites including the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The trip was funded by the nonprofit From the Depths, an international Holocaust memorial organization.
At the end of the contentious and at times bizarre event, the congressman spoke to his emergence from the fringes of far-right conservatism since the dawn of the Trump era, highlighting his private Oval Office visit in early October, which lasted for more than an hour. At the one-on-one meeting with the president, King encouraged Trump to shield Matt Whitaker, the Ankeny High School graduate, former Iowa Hawkeyes football player, and soon-to-be acting attorney general, from the shake-up at the Justice Department on the horizon with the firing of Jeff Sessions, who, much to the president’s consternation, had recused himself from the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. “The president said he was a Whitaker fan,” King told the Daily Mail, “and he asked me to call Matt, and tell him that he loves him.” (Trump, who called Whitaker a “great guy” in an October interview with one of his favorite TV news shows, Fox & Friends, claimed after the election that he didn’t know him.)
In Des Moines, King expressed his relief — prematurely, in part — that Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were no longer calling the shots in Washington. Channeling Trump, the congressman then told a bald-faced lie: “You never heard me say a thing, a personal criticism — policy criticism of Barack Obama, yes, but not personal.” In fact, King was a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory, whose early embrace by Trump arguably propelled him to the presidency, that Obama had a fake birth certificate and may have been born in Kenya. King also once tweeted a racist cartoon suggesting a Turban-clad Obama was a Muslim and, before the 2008 election, warned that al-Qaeda “would be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11″ if he became president.
With Obama gone, King said, “I’ve got a whole bag of things that are poised to move through and get to the president’s desk for his signature” that he’d long championed, including a fetal heartbeat abortion ban similar to the one recently passed then subsequently struck down in court in Iowa. “And we can hold it together because we have a Supreme Court that believes in the Constitution.”
He added, “I’ve worked a lifetime to be in this position.”
Earlier during the forum, King was not as cheery. In an eruption of anger that went viral on social media and led to widespread national news coverage, the congressman demanded that a then-Iowa State University student named Kaleb Van Fosson be removed from the room after he compared his views to those of Robert Bowers, an anti-Semite who five days prior massacred 11 people with a semi-automatic rifle at the Tree of Life synagogue 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,’” said Van Fosson, who is a member of the progressive advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which held a protest outside the Partnership building. “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 thrust a finger at Van Fosson, threatening to leave the forum if he didn’t stop talking. “We don’t play these games here in Iowa,” he barked. “You crossed the line. It’s not tolerable to accuse me of being associated with a guy that shot 11 people in Pittsburgh. I am a person who has stood up for Israel from the beginning, and the link to that nation is a link to my life, and I’ve been with them all along and I will not answer your question and I’ll not listen to another word from you.” Van Fosson, who remained calm throughout the exchange, was booted from the event, and the Partnership’s moderator, local attorney Tim Coonan, later thanked King for his civility.
It wasn’t the first time the congressman was forced to respond to his ideological connection to a mass shooter. In June 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof slaughtered nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in an effort, he said, to instigate a race war. On a website titled The Last Rhodesian — a reference to the white minority rule of what’s now Zimbabwe — Roof had posted a manifesto that credited as an inspiration George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager walking back from a 7-Eleven to a relative’s house, during a 2012 neighborhood watch shift in Florida.
“I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up,” Roof wrote of Martin. “I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?”
Now based in St. Louis, the Council of Conservative Citizens is a white supremacist organization founded in Atlanta in 1985 as a successor to the notorious White Citizens Councils of the ‘50s and ‘60s that protested the racial integration of public schools in the name of states’ rights, exploited legal loopholes to purge black voters from the rolls, and violently targeted civil rights activists. The CCC’s tenets include opposing “all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”
“King is more /ourguy/ than Trump has ever been, but would he be saying these kinds of things without Trump?”
After the church massacre, the group issued a statement saying its members “utterly condemn Roof’s despicable killings, but they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed.” Around the same time, news emerged that the group’s president, Earl Holt, had donated to several prominent Republican politicians including Steve King, who received five $500 contributions from June 2012 to October 2014. In a brief statement, the congressman’s campaign said it would give the money to the church and a fund established for the victims.
The statement, however, didn’t address any of the views espoused by Holt or Roof. In an interview with the right-wing Newsmax TV that didn’t either, King had already blamed the shooting on drugs, bemoaning that liberals were politicizing it to advance a gun-control agenda. Four months before the massacre, Roof was arrested for trespassing at a mall and subsequently charged with felony possession of Suboxone, a prescription pain medication used to treat opioid addiction. Violent behavior is not a recognized side effect of the drug — although opioid addiction can cause unpredictable mood swings — and there was no evidence that Roof was even on it during the shooting. (“I used drugs because they get you high,” the killer later wrote in a jailhouse journal entry complaining that people had drawn false conclusions about his actions. “There is no deeper meaning behind this. There is no deeper meaning behind any of my behavior.”)
As with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, King’s worldview is not as far removed from Roof’s as the congressman would have his constituents believe. When Kaleb Van Fosson quoted Robert Bowers at the Des Moines forum, he was closely paraphrasing a comment Bowers had posted on Gab, a social media website similar to Facebook that’s run by Andrew Torba, a Trump supporter who portrays himself as a free-speech absolutist. After its launch in August 2016, the site quickly became a haven for racists who had been banned from other social media networks. Among its users is Andrew Anglin, a malicious online troll who founded the neo-Nazi publication Daily Stormer and, when King tweeted that we “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” in March 2017, praised the congressman as “basically an open white nationalist at this point.” Another user is Richard Spencer, himself a prominent white nationalist. “King is more /ourguy/ than Trump has ever been, but would he be saying these kinds of things without Trump?” read an article on his site, AltRight.com, reacting to the same tweet. “We can only hope these kinds of statements serve to embolden more of our people, as they see that people like themselves are in positions of power.”
Under the username onedingo, Bowers posted a slew of discriminatory messages on Gab. His cover image referenced the Fourteen Words, a white supremacist slogan coined by neo-Nazi David Lane that goes, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” He posted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, a Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist who’s a major funder of progressive and pro-democracy causes. In other posts, including the one Van Fosson cited, Bowers promoted the concept of white genocide, a conspiracy theory started by Lane warning that the white race will soon become a minority population, if it’s not eliminated altogether, in countries under attack by various combinations of mass immigration, race-mixing, abortion, low birth rates, and, in the cases of nations like Zimbabwe and South Africa, government land seizures.
“I will retweet the devil if the devil tweets, ‘I Love Jesus.’ It’s the message, not the messenger.”
Shortly before his appearance at the Des Moines forum, King endorsed Faith Goldy, a white nationalist fringe candidate for Toronto mayor who ended up with 3.4 percent of the vote. In the recent past, Goldy had come under fire for being interviewed on a Daily Stormer podcast, reciting the Fourteen Words on another far-right podcast, and repeatedly promoting the white genocide conspiracy theory. The congressman himself endorsed a version of the same theory, referred to as the Great Replacement, during his recent trip to Austria, where he was interviewed by the far-right, Freedom Party-linked publication Unzensuriert (which means “uncensored”). King explained that he learned about the theory by reading The Camp of the Saints, a xenophobic novel by French author Jean Raspail published in 1973. The book is a favorite of Steve Bannon’s, Trump’s former White House chief strategist who previously ran the alt-right news site Breitbart. It envisions a migrant invasion of racial minorities who threaten to destroy Western civilization. In the interview, King suggested that Soros was financially backing the Great Replacement.
The congressman also frames his anti-abortion views, which played a key role in his initial election to the state Senate in 1996, using white nationalist rhetoric. His “somebody else’s babies” tweet, in which he endorsed Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician, for prime minister, is the most recognized example of this, but far from the only one. “We have a birthrate that’s down now, a low replacement rate, and that’s starting to affect the new people we would otherwise have,” he said during his January town hall in Primghar, responding to a question about the economic stagnation afflicting the 4th District by blaming it on abortion.
With Dylann Roof, King shared unmistakably similar views on the Trayvon Martin case. After George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder, King argued that the evidence against him “didn’t support prosecution and the Justice Department engaged in this, the president engaged in this, and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law and order.” He also accused the media of turning Martin’s death “into a race issue.” (As Zimmerman’s trial began, his father, Robert Zimmerman Sr., published an e-book on the case with a chapter titled “Who Are The True Racists” that singled out a host of black figures and organizations including the NAACP.)
Two Facebook posts from King’s brother, Jon King, after the acquittal made it clear that the congressman’s racial attitudes run in the family. “Equality is a 2 way street,” he wrote in one, sharing a viral post written about reverse racism from the imagined point of view of a 13-month-old white boy killed by a black teenager during an attempted robbery in Georgia. The post falsely implied that a racial motive had been established in the botched robbery, lamented that there was “not a white equivalent of Al Sharpton because if there was he would be declared racist,” and accused President Obama, whose Justice Department considered but ultimately declined to pursue hate crime charges against Zimmerman, of indifference because he “has no children who could possibly look like me.”
Jon King’s other post shared a video from Afterburner, a program on the right-wing PJ Media’s now-lapsed online TV network hosted by Bill Whittle, who is a proponent of scientific racism, or the belief that minorities, genetically, are intellectually inferior to whites. (In an interview with alt-right figure Stefan Molyneux, whose podcast Steve King appeared on in 2017 to argue that the Congressional Black Caucus was a “self-segregating” “grievance committee” that had hijacked Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, Whittle cited a white nationalist to argue that inner-city blacks “don’t have access to cognition.”) Titled “The Lynching,” the Afterburner video lingers on a crime-scene photo of Martin’s lifeless body and another photo, found on Martin’s cell phone and later released by Zimmerman’s defense team, showing him flipping off the camera. Whittle assassinates Martin’s character, portraying him as a delinquent, drug-using thug and claiming that messages found on the minor’s phone revealed he was “violent and highly sexualized.” Whittle would go on to become a commentator for the National Rifle Association’s NRATV.
Since the Charleston shooting, which happened in the same year that Europe’s looming migrant crisis boiled over, King has become increasingly open about his attraction to far-right figures, at home and abroad. A day before he endorsed Faith Goldy for Toronto mayor in mid-October, the congressman indirectly responded to criticism he was already facing for promoting the anti-immigration views of white supremacist Mark Collett, a self-described “Nazi sympathizer” from the UK whose book The Fall of Western Man was glowingly reviewed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke; and Red Ice TV host Lana Lokteff, an American anti-Semite who has appeared on Duke’s podcast, argued that the US “can never, ever be too white,” and called interracial relationships “more devious than blatant, in-your-face mass murdering.” In a tweet reminiscent of the CCC’s qualified condemnation of Roof, King said: “I will retweet the devil if the devil tweets, ‘I Love Jesus.’ It’s the message, not the messenger.”
He expanded on this dubious logic in an interview on WHO-TV’s The Insiders after endorsing Goldy.
“Is she a supremacist, like these articles say?” asked Dave Price, the program’s host.
“I don’t know that,” King replied. “I have not seen the evidence of that. Nothing came out in our conversations that would have indicated that, and I took her through a lot of philosophy — this was over the phone. We have mutual friends. I’ve asked some of those questions.”
With a sly grin, he continued: “But neither can I be responsible to do a deep background research on everybody’s whatever they might have said at any time. And then, we don’t know what the left is going to hyperventilate over.”
During the same interview, Price asked King another question that would soon prove prescient: “What is a white nationalist?”
“Well, I’m not sure of that,” King said, then mentioned a past president of the NAACP’s Spokane, Washington, chapter who resigned in June 2015 after news broke that she was claiming to be black despite having white European ancestry. “I mean, first of all, I think you have to be white, but then we’ve got Rachel Dolezal that didn’t have to be black to be black, so it is a derogatory term today.
“I wouldn’t have thought so maybe a year or two or three ago,” he added, “but today they use it as a derogatory term and it implies that you are a racist. That’s the bottom line for that.”
Featured image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr