Kicking off an apparent effort to solidify his 2020 re-election odds after a remarkably close campaign last year in Iowa’s deep-red 4th District, Congressman Steve King held his first in a planned series of 39 town hall meetings Saturday morning in the O’Brien County seat of Primghar. He began by defending himself against the latest round of bad press that’s dogged him since Jan. 10, when he was quoted in the New York Times asking, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Shortly before he appeared stage right (first things first, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance), King tweeted that the public meeting, which was streamed live on Facebook, would be “potentially volatile.” Notices on the town community center’s front doors ordered, “NO SIGNS ALLOWED.” A staffer said the congressman would not “shy away from difficult questions,” which attendees had written on slips of paper and submitted at a sign-in table so they could be pre-screened. To further control the narrative, King’s office emphasized in a Wednesday press release announcing the town hall that there would be no press availabilities before or after.
But no protesters showed up among the 100 or so audience members, a quarter of whom were journalists and the rest mostly supporters from O’Brien — which King won in 2018 with 65 percent of the vote — and nearby counties in the district. The lack of commotion came despite the evidently unusual turnout. One of the three county sheriff’s officials policing the event remarked that he wasn’t used to seeing so many out-of-towners packed into the modest meeting hall. After its conclusion, an older woman told a friend, “I’ve never seen this many people of O’Brien County together at one time.” The population of the county, located in the rural northwestern corner of the state, is about 13,800.
Primghar itself is a town of about 860 people whose name is an acronym representing the first initials of the planners who established it following a decision in 1873 to move the county seat to the center of O’Brien. “Probably the only case in Iowa, perhaps anywhere, where a bare spot of raw prairie was actually voted to be the county seat,” a local historian once wrote. A large sign displayed near a gas station a couple blocks from the community center declares the place “The Only Primghar in the World!”
It was a three-hour drive from Ames, where the Informer is based, westward on Highway 20 to the town of Early; north past Storm Lake, a diverse meatpacking community whose immigrant labor force moved to the district after King’s homogeneous upbringing; then northwest toward a windy path up a snowy hill and into town.
Waiting for King to arrive at the community center, a middle-aged man there to support him cracked a joke to a woman about snowflakes of a different kind, using the pejorative adopted by the alt-right to mock liberals as entitled or too easily offended. Two other men of similar ages discussed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision to strip King of his assignments on the agriculture, judiciary, and small business committees in reaction to his comment in the Times, which the congressman has dubiously claimed was taken out of context (on Saturday, King claimed that neither he nor the reporter, Trip Gabriel, recorded the interview, despite having included a purportedly corrected version of the comment in his initial statement alleging he was misquoted). “It’s disrespectful,” one said, not only to King but also his constituents. The other nodded in agreement.
Primghar’s notable past residents include Joseph Welch, who was born near the town in 1890 and graduated from high school there in the class of 1908, then went on to become chief counsel for the US Army. It was in this role that Welch shot to national media prominence in 1954 thanks to Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy, who as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations was alleging, without evidence, that the Army had been overrun with communist sympathizers. With Roy Cohn serving as the subcommittee’s legal counterpart to Welch, its hearings on the matter were broadcast on live television (two decades later, Cohn would become Donald Trump’s business mentor and attorney, first representing the future president in a failed challenge to a Justice Department lawsuit alleging that Trump and his father violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to black tenants). The hearings’ most dramatic moment occurred in early June, when McCarthy scurrilously accused a young attorney at Welch’s law firm of having Communist Party ties.
“Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator,” Welch angrily retorted. “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” His words were met with applause from the gallery. The hearings ended later that month, their fallout, amplified by the constant media coverage, leading to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate that December and, ultimately, the end of his political career.
King, who has praised McCarthy as a “hero for America” and was featured in a conspiratorial documentary with the baseless premise that the left is engaged in a secret communist plot to destroy the country by eroding its moral fiber, opened Saturday’s town hall by addressing “what some might refer to as the elephant in the room.”
“It is stunning and astonishing to me that four words in a New York Times quote can outweigh twenty-some years of public service, twenty-some years of giving you my word every day,” the congressman griped. “Not one soul has ever stood up and said I’ve ever lied to you, or misrepresented anything, or given it to you with any spin that’s anything other than what I believe to be the objective truth.” He then compared himself to Brett Kavanaugh as the judge defended himself against sexual misconduct allegations during his Supreme Court confirmation process. “He at least had accusers,” King said. “I don’t have accusers. Not one soul has stood up and disputed if Steve King has ever acted in a racist fashion. He’s never discriminated against anybody. There’s plenty of evidence out there to the contrary.”
Reverting to the first-person, King added that while his political opponents were spending millions of dollars last year in an alleged effort to brand him as a racist anyway, he was meeting with Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen to hash out the details for an agricultural satellite program in Tanzania, where the congressman partnered with Erik Prince, founder of the notorious private security contractor Blackwater, and evangelist Franklin Graham to help three survivors of a horrific bus crash who are known as the Miracle Kids (and are black) receive medical treatment in Sioux City. He quoted from scripture that warns of false prophets (“You shall know them by their fruits”). Then he quoted Big Brother, the leader of a totalitarian surveillance state in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If you control the language, you control the argument. If you control the argument, you control the information. If you control the information, you control history. If you control history, you control the past. He who controls the past controls the future.”
“We’ve arrived at this place,” King said. “It might be after 1984, but we’ve maybe gone beyond where George Orwell imagined. We have the left that’s policing our language, and they’re adding definitions to this English language that aren’t in Webster’s dictionary — but you will see them in the Urban Dictionary.”
After admitting that he had been inadequately prepared for his interview with the Times (and should never have agreed to it in the first place), King began taking selected questions from members of his more sympathetic audience, who were invited to restate the notes they submitted at the sign-in table to the congressman directly. As promised, the questions did also include a couple of relatively tough ones, although he appeared to be prepared for them.
Asked how he could be an effective leader in Washington for the state after losing his House committee assignments, King replied that more than 200 “national leaders” had already signed a letter to McCarthy demanding that his assignments be reinstated. Those leaders include Frank Gaffney, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who served in the Reagan administration; James Dobson, founder of the socially conservative Focus on the Family; William Owens, an anti-gay African American pastor described in the letter as a “long time civil rights activist,” although there’s scant evidence that’s true; disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay; and others who decried the “fake news” from the Times and ensuing “smear campaign” against the congressman.
King then tried to put a positive spin on McCarthy’s decision, saying that if it had to happen, now was the best possible time for it. There was “dust collecting on the seats of the ag committee,” he said, after the Farm Bill’s passage in December. The Small Business Committee, he added, typically deals with “smaller issues that don’t have big, profound changes across the country.” And with Nancy Pelosi back in charge to push her “hardcore agenda,” House Republicans would just be “playing defense in those committees.” On that note, King said he’d be most missed on the Judiciary Committee, especially if Democrats pursue impeachment against Trump, because he was there to witness it happen to Bill Clinton in the ‘90s.
For now, King said, he would focus his attention on working more closely with the executive branch, later mentioning his recent Oval Office meeting with Trump, where he promoted ethanol-blended gasoline, as part of a defense against claims stemming from his endorsement of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president in 2016 that he opposes the Renewable Fuel Standard. The congressman also said that Trump should use every means within his statutory authority to build the southern border wall. On the day before the town hall, Trump agreed to end a partial government shutdown for three weeks, backing down from his demand that funding first be allocated for the wall. Still, King said, “I think in the end, the president’s not going to give up. He’s going to build the wall.” The confident prediction was reinforced in a pair of tweets on the day of the agreement praising Hungary’s illiberal government for building a border fence in response to the European migrant crisis that began in 2015.
King’s travels in Europe, where he’s developed ties with far-right leaders across the continent, were the focus of another critical question asking if they were a worthy use of the congressman’s time and taxpayers’ money. He responded by saying that he currently had no congressional delegation trips there planned, then claimed that his past trips had been mischaracterized by the media. Several of them, he said, were related to his involvement with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an intergovernmental group headquartered in Vienna, Austria. King also repeated his false claim that a Washington Post report published shortly before the 2018 election about a separate excursion to meet with members of Austria’s far right during a recent trip to Poland funded by a Holocaust memorial group was “fabricated.”
The only remotely contentious moment of Saturday’s town hall came when Anne Slattery, a resident of Spencer who does not support King, asked him what concrete actions he could take to counteract the economic stagnation that’s hurt the town and others across the 4th District. After reflecting on the 1980s farm crisis, the congressman partially blamed the exodus of young people from small-town Iowa on abortion. “We have a birthrate that’s down now, a low replacement rate,” he said, “and that’s starting to affect the new people we would otherwise have.” Slattery interrupted the tangent, resulting in a brief back-and-forth that ended with King agreeing to schedule a meeting with Spencer community leaders focused on economic development.
Several other questions included strong defenses of the congressman — a sign that, even with at least two early primary challengers, it likely won’t be easy to unseat him. One was a softball from Kelly O’Brien, chairman of the O’Brien County GOP, who asked about the Tanzania Miracle Kids and added, “I know you’re not [a racist], Steve. I’ve known you forever.” Another, about the border wall, came from a woman who said that she and her husband “pray that they never silence you.” (This one led to King describing a past trip to meet with cabinet members in Mexico City about the drug cartel problem. “They served tequila at 11 o’clock in the morning,” he reminisced to laughs. “I thought I should take one for the team. Sometimes it’s not easy. It’s not my idea of breakfast.”)
The final audience member who was called on, Pamela Harrman, a retired nurse from nearby Paullina, provided the most revealing glimpse of the worldview of those who remain committed to King. She said that she watches Fox News “18-7” and enjoys taking online courses on the Constitution. “All the answers are in the Constitution,” she told King. “I think the problem is, we’re going to lose our Constitution if we don’t get serious. There’s a serious progressive movement out there that wants to take us away from the America that we know.” The recent criticism of the congressman, she added, was “all coordinated” as part of “a progressive movement to change this country.
“And one of the things that I was bothered by when you had this problem was the reverse racism toward the white European man that founded this country, and that’s the values that we’re built on, and we have to get embarrassed to say anymore that we’re [of a] white European background, and I think that is wrong, and I think we need to push back, and I think we need to take the sting out of the word ‘racism.’”
King did not respond specifically to that comment, but it was clear that the strong support he received Saturday from constituents like Harrman lifted his spirits. In defiant concluding remarks, he took aim at Kevin McCarthy, accusing the House minority leader of sabotaging his bill to ban abortions from the moment a fetal heartbeat can be detected, without exceptions for rape or incest, by deferring to the “incrementalists” at the National Right to Life Committee who have also opposed it. He took credit for putting the wheels in motion that led to the passage of a similar bill in Iowa, saying “we should not despair” over a recent court decision striking it down. “We have to get this to the Supreme Court,” he added, explaining that he introduced his own bill in anticipation of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement.
He then returned to his criticism of the national media. First, he attacked the Washington Post, by name this time, for its report on his recent trip to Austria, falsely denying that he met with people there who are associated with neo-Nazi sympathizers and describing how his son Jeff, his campaign manager, tracked the “tens of thousands” of stories written off of it. Then, he went after the conservative Weekly Standard for its “three nasty, dishonest stories” before the election including one about how King seemingly compared Mexican immigrants to “dirt,” which the congressman has continued to deny even after the magazine released audio that corroborated its reporting. “By the way, that magazine is now defunct,” King added, claiming he was indirectly responsible for its downfall. “The Weekly Standard is gone, and what they did here in Iowa was the last straw for the owner, and he shut that place down. I knew about it a week before they did.” (In truth, the decision was likely due to large financial losses and poor management.)
King ended by reciting the poem “If—,” about keeping “your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” with lies. It was written by Rudyard Kipling, who also wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” an ode to racist, Eurocentric imperialism. The congressman’s audience responded with a standing ovation. Afterward, outside the community center’s front doors, a supporter told a friend that he’d spotted a reporter for the Associated Press at the town hall. “Let’s see if they ever get that one straight,” he said, criticizing the news agency’s recent coverage of King. “They’re one of the worst ones.”
Taking to Twitter, the congressman himself said much the same: “The first of 39 scheduled townhall meetings in the 4th Congressional District of Iowa went well. Iowans know truth from Leftist fiction.”