In 1990, former President Ronald Reagan gave a moving speech to mark the end of the Cold War. “I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did,” Reagan said. “He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan, and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.”
Reagan endorsed that view and went on to point out: “If we take this crowd and if we could go through and ask the heritage, the background of every family represented here, we would probably come up with the names of every country on Earth, every corner of the world, and every race. Here is the one spot on Earth where we have the brotherhood of man. And maybe as we continue with this proudly, this brotherhood of man made up from people representative of every corner of the Earth, maybe one day boundaries all over the Earth will disappear as people cross boundaries and find out that, yes, there is a brotherhood of man in every corner.”
So much for the “brotherhood of man.” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has a very different vision. On March 12, he posted a tweet praising the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, who wants to close mosques, ban the Quran, and end Muslim immigration. “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” King wrote. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The next morning he was given a chance on CNN to back off this revolting statement, which has been praised by David Duke and which led the neo-Nazi newspaper the Daily Stormer to exult: “Steve King is basically an open white nationalist at this point. … He is our guy.” King didn’t flinch, saying, “Well, I meant exactly what I said.”
Of course he did. Because King has said similar things many times. Last year he said that no “subgroup” other than “white people” has contributed “more to civilization.” (That will come as news to the Chinese, who invented, among other things, paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, tea, silk, and rockets — or to the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the very first civilizations arose thousands of years ago.) King has also dismissed the contributions made to America by immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” he notoriously said in 2013.
He has opposed putting the noted African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill in place of Andrew Jackson because he thinks it’s “pure political correctness,” as if Tubman is not a personage worth honoring. He has said that “radical Islamists” would be “dancing in the streets” following the election of Barack Hussein Obama, because “his middle name does matter.” He proudly displays a Confederate flag on his desk even though Iowans shed their blood for the Union.
The list of King’s asinine, bigoted, and offensive words and acts is too long to recount. But here’s the thing. It’s not really possible anymore to dismiss him “as a fringe player in legitimate policy debates,” as the New York Times notes that many Republicans would like to do. That may have been true at one time, in the days when the Republican Party was defined by Reagan. But those days are long past. Today it’s Donald Trump’s party, and there is not much breathing room between King and Trump when it comes to white nationalism. Indeed, after initially supporting Ted Cruz in last year’s primaries, King has become an avid Trump supporter.
The echoes between the two men — the Iowa contractor-turned-congressman and the New York real estate magnate-turned-president — are uncanny and disturbing. As Amber Phillips of the Washington Post pointed out last year:
In 2013, King said most immigrants were “drug mules.” In his presidential campaign launch, Trump made his infamous claim that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
King said in 2010 that racial profiling is an important law enforcement tool. Trump endorsed broad racial profiling after the Orlando, Florida, attack, calling it “common sense.”
In 2008, King questioned how a president with the middle name Hussein would play in the war on terror. After Orlando, Trump questioned the president’s commitment to fighting terrorists by seemingly suggesting his loyalties could be compromised.
The ideological links between King and Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, are even closer. In a 2015 Breitbart radio interview, Bannon lauded King as “a great mentor to all of us and a great friend of the site, and a true warrior.”
It is no surprise to learn that Bannon and King have repeatedly praised what the conservative writer Linda Chavez has described as a “shockingly racist” 1973 novel — The Camp of the Saints by the French author Jean Raspail. Its plot concerns an attempt by hundreds of thousands of poor Indians, who are described as “wretched creatures,” to sail to France. The Huffington Post summarizes what happens next: “The French government eventually gives the order to repel the armada by force, but by then the military has lost the will to fight. Troops battle among themselves as the Indians stream on shore, trampling to death the left-wing radicals who came to welcome them. Poor black and brown people literally overrun Western civilization. Chinese people pour into Russia; the queen of England is forced to marry her son to a Pakistani woman; the mayor of New York must house an African-American family at Gracie Mansion. Raspail’s rogue heroes, the defenders of white Christian supremacy, attempt to defend their civilization with guns blazing but are killed in the process.”
This is how the Bannons and Kings view the modern world: The West is threatened by hordes of swarthy outsiders, especially Mexicans and Muslims, and they are lonely defenders of the white Christian race against this insidious threat. There is no evidence that Trump has given this matter as much thought as they have, but, based on his public pronouncements, he has reached similar conclusions. That helps to explain why the administration is building a border wall, expanding deportations, and trying to keep out citizens of as many Muslim countries as possible. This isn’t about fighting terrorism or crime; it’s about fighting changing demographics. And it’s premised on an unspoken assumption that only white Christians are true Americans; all others are “somebody else.”
This is ugly stuff. It is directly at odds with the way the Founding Fathers defined our country — as a nation bound together not by common blood but by common ideals. They thought it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.” Of course that vision was always contested; even the Constitution initially enshrined slavery and throughout our history organizations such as the Know-Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, and the America Firsters have anathematized racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. (Ironically, Catholics like Bannon and King were often victims of discrimination in the past.)
That is not to say that a desire to maintain a mainstream culture, built around a shared language and shared values, is misplaced. But each wave of newcomers — German, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Latino, Asian — has faced handwringing about whether they would become fully “American,” and each in turn has done so. America, for its part, has become more welcoming to people of all colors and creeds than it once was. Over the past half-century, we have made impressive strides in fighting rank racism and institutionalized intolerance without reducing the imperative to assimilate.
The Bannons and Kings appear intent, with Trump’s help, on undoing much of that progress toward a more inclusive society. They are pursuing a vision they share with foreign far-right leaders such as Wilders and Marine Le Pen. They want to turn the Republican Party into a “blood and soil” nationalist party and the United States into a white-supremacist stronghold.
Sadly, their worldview has become so mainstream that, while a few Republicans are willing to decorously disagree with King (“I’d like to think he misspoke and it wasn’t really meant the way it sounds,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said), none is willing to champion a motion to censure him or even expel him from the House Republican caucus. As the Des Moines Register notes, the Republican establishment in Iowa has supported King for re-election in the past and will likely do so again in 2018. The de facto acceptance of King as a mainstream Republican speaks volumes about what the Republican Party is becoming — and how far removed it is from Reagan’s vision of a borderless world and the “brotherhood of man.”