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Steve King Has Said Racist Things Before. What Made The GOP Pay Attention Now?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Thursday in an interview with The New York Times, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

The uproar over King’s comments came swiftly, and there have even been calls for his resignation. On Monday, King was booted by GOP leadership from his House committee assignments, and on Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning white nationalism and white supremacy (even though it didn’t rebuke him specifically.)

All of this raises a question (two questions, actually):

  1. King has a long of history of making racist comments and aligning himself with white supremacist causes, so why are congressional Republicans taking action only now?
  2. And are Republicans opening themselves up to criticism for not similarly condemning President Trump’s racist comments?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): My answer to No. 1 is that typically this kind of action (stripping committee assignments) is related to some kind of scandal (money laundering, sexual harassment) and not just offensive views.

More generally, American politics has not really figured out what we do with racism. (My residence on understatement island is becoming more permanent.)

sarahf: So the fact that King lost his committee tenure because his views were offensive is pretty unusual?

julia_azari: Yes. I don’t have an exhaustive list, but, I mean, Jesse Helms was in Congress less than 20 years ago, and he was known for “racially charged” comments and ran one of the most notorious race-based ads of all time — but I don’t think he faced any formal consequences.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m a bit baffled by the timing. There are a few different theories floating around — like King being electorally weaker now than he’s ever been (he even got a primary challenger), or Republicans being in the minority for the first time in a while — but I’m not totally convinced of any of them.

Probably the most convincing point I’ve seen came from Jane Coaston at Vox, who pointed out that King used to be seen as a kingmaker in Iowa politics (especially in presidential primaries) and a way for other Republicans to validate themselves as tough on immigration.

But that may not true anymore. There’s (probably) not going to be a competitive GOP presidential primary in 2020, and Trump has now arguably become the GOP kingmaker on immigration.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The actual words King used, “white nationalist, “white supremacist” were unusually politically problematic. Trump avoids that kind of language, even as he implies all of the same things. Also, the media started pressing Republicans on this, and that put them in a tough spot.

nrakich: Perry, King made a just-as-bad comment (in my view, anyway) in 2013, when he said that undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children have “got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” But nobody did anything then.

Although it does seem that King was getting himself into hot water more frequently in the 2018 election cycle. And Republicans probably thought doing anything about it before the election was not politically palatable.

julia_azari: There’s a needle being threaded here: People (thinking VERY broadly about the electorate) don’t like overt racism and ugliness, but they also don’t respond well to serious challenges to the racial status quo.

sarahf: So do we think this continues to spiral and that GOP leaders in Congress ask King to resign?

A number of Republicans have begun to call for his resignation, including Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

nrakich: King’s local newspaper also called on him to resign.

julia_azari: They endorsed his opponent, though.

perry: Elected Republicans can call for him to resign all they want, but unless people and entities like Fox News, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Trump turn on King, then I don’t think this dynamic changes.

The next step here is for King to really lean hard into the idea that he is being prosecuted by the “political correctness” police, the media and the progressive left — playing the victim card against the forces of multiculturalism is powerful on the right. I would argue that it helped get Trump elected. I’m not sure King is done, unless he resigns.

sarahf: I have to say I’m a little surprised that “political correctness” hasn’t become a big part of the national conversation yet.

nrakich: Perry, last week, I too was skeptical that King’s political career was in any danger. But now that he’s been stripped of his assignment on the Agriculture Committee, which is a big deal in his district, don’t you think that makes it a lot more likely that his primary opponent (state Sen. Randy Feenstra) could actually win?

perry: I don’t know much about his primary opponent, but in general, I would not want to run as a Republican candidate aligned with the people trying to take down King for being too willing to defend “Western civilization.”

nrakich: That’s very much not the tack Feenstra is taking. He’s a hardcore conservative himself, but he argues King’s controversies have made him ineffective. In an impressive bit of needle-threading, Feenstra says people should vote for him because he’s the one who will advance Trump’s agenda most effectively.

julia_azari: One question, which I don’t know how to answer, is whether some critical number of voters who don’t like political correctness also don’t like white supremacy (lots of people hold conflicting views). It may be that the last couple of years — Charlottesville in 2017, Pittsburgh in October 2018 — have tipped the balance of them toward thinking that the latter (white supremacism) is more dangerous than the former (political correctness).

Given King’s 2018 performance — he won re-election by only a few percentage points — it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a lot of people in his district to make a difference.

perry: Like if King paints his GOP primary opponent as a pawn of the media or elites trying to take him down, that would be smart politics.

One obvious shift: Before the 2018 election, the GOP had to worry about every seat. There was a chance Republicans would wind up with a one-seat majority or even a five-seat majority. If that were the case, I don’t think they would be attacking King in this way.

nrakich: Yeah, good point.

perry: Now that they are in the minority, it’s easier to purge the most controversial members.

sarahf: So you really think some of the timing of this is related to the fact that the comments were made after the election?

perry: Totally.

Nothing to lose now — they might have needed King’s seat before. Now, I think he is likely to lose in the general election in 2020. So Republicans have some incentive to dump him and try to field a better candidate for the general.

julia_azari: Yes, I agree with this assessment.

nrakich: See, I think that reasoning is flawed.

The 2018 midterm election was a historically great year for Democrats … and King still won by 3 points. King probably isn’t in electoral danger in 2020 unless it’s at least as good of a year for Democrats.

That said, I think congressional Republicans might agree with your assessment and that’s why they’re nudging him out.

julia_azari: So did King run ahead or behind people in comparable districts?

I’m guessing behind.

nrakich: Yes, Julia, you’re right. Last month, I did an analysis of 2018’s strongest and weakest incumbents, comparing how each incumbent “should” have performed based on their district’s partisan lean, elasticity and the national popular vote vs. how they actually performed.

King was one of the weaker incumbents; he did 10 points worse than we would have predicted.

Steve King was a weak incumbent

The 10 Senate and House incumbents who underperformed by the most in the 2018 elections*

Incumbent Party State or District Expected Margin† Actual Margin Net Incumbency Advantage
Elizabeth Warren D MA D+39 D+24 -15
Chris Collins R NY-27 R+13 R+0 -13
Sheldon Whitehouse D RI D+36 D+23 -12
Mia Love R UT-4 R+12 D+0 -12
David Cicilline D RI-1 D+45 D+34 -11
Bob Menendez D NJ D+22 D+11 -11
Jim Costa D CA-16 D+25 D+15 -10
Duncan Hunter R CA-50 R+14 R+3 -10
Steve King R IA-4 R+13 R+3 -10
Rob Woodall R GA-7 R+10 R+0 -10

*Excluding open-seat elections, elections that did not feature both a Republican and Democratic candidate, jungle primaries, elections with multiple incumbents and elections where the incumbent was an independent.

†Based on the state or district’s partisan lean, its elasticity and the national popular vote.

Source: ABC News

So I suppose you could argue that these recent comments could make him an even worse incumbent, and that would cause him to lose the next time out.

But again … you’d have to assume another D+9 (or similar) national environment in 2020.

And if that happens, Republicans are getting wiped out anyway; King’s seat won’t matter.

sarahf: But is what’s happening with King a blip, as he’s consistently been one of the party’s more controversial members? Or is this more of a watershed moment where the GOP says, “we’re not willing to tolerate views of white supremacism in the party”?

julia_azari: It could be an early watershed moment, Sarah.

perry: I don’t think this is a watershed moment. But Republicans have now created a baseline: We will purge you if you openly say that you support white nationalism and white supremacy.

But it’s unlikely that Trump would ever cross that exact line. He and ex-senior White House adviser Steve Bannon have always said they are for nationalism, not white nationalism. Arguably, actions that align with a white nationalist agenda aren’t as problematic, at least politically, as words in support of white nationalism.

Most people who are wary of America getting less white and less Christian can figure out how to not declare their intentions so openly. For example,saying Mexico is sending rapists to the U.S. is pretty racist, but it’s still different than saying, “I support white supremacy” or “I don’t see a problem with white supremacy.”

sarahf: But I do wonder if the litmus test for what is and isn’t an acceptable comment will change?

julia_azari: These things are very slow to change, and one of the things that I think is challenging for Republicans today vs. Democrats 60 years ago or whatever is that racism has taken on more subtle forms in the current era — predatory lending, problems with the criminal justice system — that are much less obviously egregious than lynching and de jure segregation. (Even though the contemporary issues are very serious, and I’d point out that Democrats also contributed to these problems in past decades; no one gets a pass on this stuff).

perry: So I don’t think the GOP’s litmus tests can change much right now because Trump has been racist in many ways. He hasn’t used the N-word or explicitly identified as a white supremacist, but any broader definition of racist behavior will include Trump.

To put this another way: The gap between Trump and King is fairly narrow.

julia_azari: I sort of disagree with Perry about the possibility for this being a moment, though, as I said, I think it will be slow. Here’s David Broder writing about Jesse Helms’s retirement in 2001.

He makes a point that Helms had every right as an elected senator to hold and fight for his views, before condemning those views and arguing against “sanitizing” Helms’ legacy. For elected Republicans to actually draw a boundary around a set of views is very unusual in the American context. Not only was racism the norm, but we have tended to see legitimacy in the process of being elected, not in the substance of the views.

nrakich: Yeah, I think it’s really splitting hairs to argue that there’s a meaningful difference between Trump’s (and other Republicans‘) thinly veiled racism and King’s more explicit racism. And King’s crossing of some invisible line is clearly not the real reason the GOP has condemned him. The real reason is that King is one of 435 and Trump is president.

If that rumored tape of Trump saying the N-word comes out, are Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney going to call on him to resign?

I doubt it.

perry: I think Romney would call for Trump to resign if he was on tape calling a black person the N-word.

Liz Cheney, no.

I think Nathaniel is basically right: Trump is being excused because he is president.

But my sense is that a lot of Americans think racist means only using the N-word or something very, very explicit, and Trump hasn’t crossed that line yet.

julia_azari: Which is sort of related to what I was saying before: We don’t really have a political tradition of holding people accountable for substance as long as they hold power through a legitimate procedure.

sarahf: What I find so interesting in the backlash against King is that he didn’t make a racially explicit comment that targeted one group of people. Instead, he signaled that he thought an inherent racist ideology was OK, and that was enough to spark outrage.

perry: So there is a new book coming out by Duke professor Ashley Jardina called “White Identity Politics.”

She argues that we tend to think of white identity politics as being largely prejudices against groups like blacks and Latinos. What Trump has tapped into, she argues, is not only that racial resentment but also a kind of pro-white-people politics.

So it’s not totally about being against minorities; it’s also a kind of white pride.

I think King hints at these ideas at times.

When he defends “Western civilization,” I think people are hearing that he might think ideas from Africa or Asia are bad. And, sure, a lot of what King has said seems to look down upon people who are not white. But part of what he is saying is that “white people are good and have great ideas.”

julia_azari: Combined with this idea is the belief among white people that they face racial discrimination (it has become a somewhat widespread view). This seems like a key element of the white identity appeal, that there’s an element of grievance, in addition to a pride in one’s identity or background or whatever.

perry: So I do wonder if people talking about racial issues are at times talking past one another. King is saying that he is pro-white, but that is interpreted as being 100 percent about being anti-black or anti-Latino.

So if conservatives aren’t allowed to say that “Western” or “white” culture is good and that Mexican immigrants and Muslims diminish that culture, that would affect more Republicans than just King. You can hear these kinds of views on Fox News, from Trump and from other influential conservatives. If Republicans start purging those views, the impact will go beyond King.

julia_azari: Making coded racial appeals has been a successful strategy for Republicans and, at times, some Democrats (Democrats have moved left on racial issues, even in the last decade). But maybe we’re getting to the point where it won’t be.

perry: I agree with what Julia said, but I also thought it was true in 2002. Trent Lott resigned under pressure from his Republican leadership post in the Senate over something way, way less controversial than many things Trump has said. (Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, which was centered on pro-segregation views.)

julia_azari: Yeah, I think these things move really slow.

perry: We may not see a steady decline in the acceptance of racist behavior, but something more complicated, with racist comments being more tolerated at some times than others.

nrakich: I think about that Trent Lott controversy all the time!!

If anything, we’ve moved into a place where coded racial appeals are more socially acceptable, not less — at least in the medium term (i.e., since 2002), not the long term (since 1960) or short term (since 2016).

But I do think that openness is causing us to grapple with coded racism as a society. It’s the latest battle in the culture war.

And the liberal side may very well win in the end. But it took emboldened people on the far right to spark the fight in the first place.

julia_azari: If it is a politically costly move for Republicans to cut King loose, then maybe we are seeing actual change. If not, maybe we are seeing the Lott thing all over again. That was pretty cheap as far as political costs go.

perry: I assume this kind of question is always context-dependent. It is easier to replace a congressional leader or a rank-and-file member of Congress than the president. For instance, it’s easier for Democrats to say in 2018 that Bill Clinton should have resigned for inappropriate behavior with an intern than it would have been to say that in 1998, when Clinton was still in office.

sarahf: So maybe we don’t see pressure on Republicans to speak out against Trump until much later.

julia_azari: But maybe it opens space for a 2020 primary challenger?

nrakich: There are also confounding factors, like Trump’s problems in other areas — i.e., the Russia investigation. If special counsel Robert Mueller’s report implicates him in collusion or obstruction of justice and ends up destroying his legacy, it will be easier for future historians and laypeople alike to pile on him for the other stuff.

I would be curious to see how the legacy of a highly effective, scandal-free racist president would go.

Maybe something like Woodrow Wilson’s, eh, Julia?

julia_azari: He remains a hero in some liberal circles.

I wrote a piece about a year ago about presidential legacy and one of the things I am most sure about is that the mainstream legacy writers — who historically have been mostly white — are very forgiving of racism.

The line most-often employed is something like, “That’s just what people thought at the time.”

Is it easy for me to imagine people saying that about Americans in 2016 or whatever? No. But that’s probably more about my limited imagination than anything else.


Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”