“This Is What Joe Strummer Trained You For”: Steve King, Civility, White Nationalism, and Punk Rock

A memorial mural of Joe Strummer on the wall of the Niagara Bar in Manhattan's East Village. Photo: David Shankbone/Flickr

This article was originally published on the author’s blog, LiveLocalMan.com.

As a music writer, I’m well aware there were some limitations in my coverage. I know that I didn’t write that many articles about punk bands. Some of that comes down to taste. A lot of punk sort of fell into a blind spot for me. It was my little brother who was knowledgeable about punk. I had a fondness for the Ramones, an intense love of Henry Rollins, and a deep appreciation for proto-punk acts like The Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.

I knew enough to know I didn’t know enough about punk. But I always appreciated the genre’s political aspects. Well, certain aspects of it. On the political spectrum, I’m infinitely closer to the Jello Biafra style of punk than the ones he was telling to fuck off.
“This is not a time to be dismayed, this is punk rock time,” Rollins told the Seattle radio station KEXP shortly after the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump. “This is what Joe Strummer trained you for,” he added, referring to the late frontman of The Clash who asked, “Are you going backwards, or are you going forward?”

It seems more and more like we’re going backwards.

Political discourse in our country is suffering. Online, we find ourselves in a Facebook bubble, feeding our own beliefs back to us from an echo chamber of like-minded friends. When that cousin from the opposite end of the political spectrum starts posting memes, it’s all too easy to unfollow or block them. Or we may opt to make all future Thanksgiving dinners uncomfortable with a bout of arguing and name-calling.

Recently, many have called for civility in politics. In November, the governor-elect of Kansas, Laura Kelly, penned an op-ed discussing the need to “bring civility back to state [and] national politics.” But civility only works when you assume there is some common ground two parties can find once heated rhetoric subsides.

Civility works when the discussion is about taxes or new laws. It doesn’t work when one group in the argument seems to have issues with the basic existence of those they’re arguing with.

Which brings us to the congressional representative for Iowa’s 4th District, Steve King.

It’s not just that King kept a Confederate flag on his desk. It’s not just that King endorsed Canadian white nationalist Faith Goldy, who has recited the 14 Words slogan neo-Nazis are so fond of (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”). It’s not just that King was interviewed by the far right Austrian publication Unzensuriert and met with members of that country’s Freedom Party, which was founded by former Nazis after World War II.

It’s all of those things. One might be happenstance. King’s behavior over his 16 years in office is a pattern. Being civil to people like Faith Goldy, Freedom Party members, and Steve King is what lets these ideas grow and fester.

Five days after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, King addressed the Greater Des Moines Partnership for a candidate forum. The event was previously scheduled, but the timing was certainly unfortunate. There was a protest, and King threatened to cut the event short when someone in attendance addressed him by asking: “You and the shooter both share anti-immigration views and the view that Western civilization is under attack. What distinguishes your views and your ideology from the views and ideology of the shooter?”

“Election Day is Nov. 6, and it’s important that we keep civility top of mind,” the Partnership said in a statement posted on Facebook later that day. “We encourage Iowans to be civil in their discussions on issues and in support of their candidates. We hope that others, including candidates, will follow our lead.”

Here’s where I must make my bias on this issue clear. My wife is Jewish. My mother-in-law is Jewish. My children are Jewish. Me approaching this issue with civility is not useful when others are approaching it with weapons and murderous intent. I don’t owe civility to someone aligning themselves with white nationalists and their rhetoric.

White nationalists thrive on civility, especially as they attempt to move into the mainstream. Klan robes and Swastikas have been exchanged for khaki pants and pressed shirts. They’re not racists, they’re just proud of being white. They just want to march to unite the right. Those torches, chants of “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us,” and a single car running down protestors, well, people are just willfully misunderstanding.

There may be a solution from a seemingly unlikely source: punk rock. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, punk had something of a Nazi problem. Nazi punks would crash shows, start fights, scare off “regular” punks, and generally made it tough to be a fan. To add insult to injury, skinheads used the same haircut as many punks, causing confusion among the mainstream that there was more of an overlap between punks and Nazi punks.

In an extended Twitter thread, an old-school punk fan using the screen name Puckett related stories of how Nazi punks affected the San Diego scene:

One of my favorite bars refrained from telling a Nazi skin to leave because he said he just wanted one beer and would be on his way … It culminated with about 20 Nazi skins attacking the bar and a massive brawl … it was never “just one” Nazi skin. One became six became 20 … In the punk and hardcore scenes I was part of, discourse led to more Nazis showing up and more problems … The only reaction that prevented Nazis from becoming a problem was not letting them in. AT ALL. EVER.

This isn’t a situation where an earnest conversation will solve things. Being civil to white supremacists only helps the white supremacists. We don’t owe them a seat at the table. We don’t owe them a polite discussion.

When you see it, call it out. Call out the media when they label someone like Steve King as “controversial” or “a firebrand” rather than “racist” or “white supremacist.”

In the words of the newly elected governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, who had King serve as an honorary co-chair her campaign and then, just after the election, tried to distance herself from him: “You never have to question where he stands.”

Correct, Gov. Reynolds. He stands with people who are counting on our civility.