Iowa congressman Steve King drew a deluge of critical press during his 2018 re-election campaign due to his cringeworthy pattern of xenophobic rhetoric and his associations with far-right politicians in Canada and Europe. But as he went on to win his ninth term in Congress, he continued to be defended by a knot of conservative thinkers who insisted that media attacks accusing King of supporting white nationalism were overblown and politically motivated.
That was then. Now, however, King is seemingly going out of his way to make any lingering defenders rethink their support. A New York Times profile of King published Thursday portrays a congressman bemoaning society’s intolerance for racism and xenophobia.
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” an incredulous King asked the Times reporter. ““Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
King has since released a statement not questioning the validity of the quote but insisting that he personally rejected the labels of white supremacy and white nationalism “and the evil ideology they define.”
“Further, I condemn anyone that supports this evil and bigoted ideology which saw in its ultimate expression the systematic murder of 6 million innocent Jewish lives,” King continued.
King’s statement did not, strictly speaking, include an apology, but even this muted backtracking—as opposed to, say, falsely accusing the media of fabricating quotes— shows how damaging he (or at least his staff) realizes his latest comments were.
And he’s right: Even conservatives who continued to support King in the past are suddenly abandoning him. Prominent conservative pundit Ben Shapiro wrote a column in 2017 accusing King’s media adversaries of straw-manning his arguments and encouraging readers to “read and listen to King’s actual words before jumping on the bandwagon.” After the publication of the Times piece, however, Shapiro reversed himself in an update to the piece: “In light of those statements, this article gave far too generous an interpretation of King’s words. … His later open embrace of the terms ‘white nationalist’ and ‘white supremacist’ suggest that the first interpretation described below was not as implausible as it seemed at the time.” Shapiro additionally tweeted that “Congress ought to vote to censure “King, and then he ought to be primaried ASAP.”
Other conservative activists and pundits followed Shapiro’s lead. On Twitter, gun rights activist Antonia Okafor apologized Thursday for “accepting [King’s] excuses” and “giving this man the benefit of the doubt.” Meanwhile, Lyman Stone, a contributor to The Federalist (and, full disclosure, a friend) who had previously criticized King while pushing back on the notion that he was sympathetic to white supremacy, walked back his previous comments as well: “My statement was that I wasn’t prepared to say he was a white supremacist without compelling evidence. We now have compelling evidence.”
Nor were the criticisms of King confined to the conservative commentariat. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, tweeted that King’s comments were “abhorrent and racist and should have no place in our national discourse.” And Michigan Republican Justin Amash called it “an embrace of racism, and it has no place in Congress or anywhere.”
Accusations of racism had already severely damaged King’s brand during the campaign. After winning a commanding 23-point victory in 2016, he limped to a three-point victory over a rookie challenger in 2018, despite Republicans outnumbering Democrats in his district by a 14-point margin. Meanwhile, Randy Feenstra, a conservative from the Iowa Senate, has just thrown his hat in the ring to challenge the beleaguered Congressman in 2020. By then, the out-and-out white supremacists might be the only supporters King’s got left.