“Oh my goodness!”
It’s early August, and Steve King has just told a handful of constituents gathered in the Charles City, Iowa, public library that their tax dollars are paying for undocumented immigrants to be flown “anywhere in America they want to go,” including Hawaii.
The nine-term congressman from the state’s 4th District has been preaching about the ills of undocumented immigration for years, but he’s especially riled up this morning. This is his first public appearance since returning from a trip to the border, where he got a deep tan tagging along with Customs and Border Protection agents as they rounded up migrants attempting to cross into the United States. He’s eager to relay what he learned, and, far away as Iowa is from ground zero of the immigration debate, the small congregation before him is eager to listen. The outcry over Uncle Sam paying for migrants to jet to Hawaii came from a woman in the third row. “I know,” King responds. “I’m very troubled by this. Eventually, we will lose our sovereignty if this continues.”
King talks a lot about “our sovereignty,” but it’s not always clear to what extent “our” extends beyond the type of people sitting in the rows of folding chairs lined up in the Charles City library: older, conservative, and white. Because Steve King, as much as anyone in Congress, was peddling a nearly identical version of President Trump’s brand of politics for over a decade before Trump entered the 2016 presidential race.
The two share an anti-immigrant sentiment that on a good day could be described as thinly veiled bigotry, and at its worst is plain, naked white nationalism. King may be the only Republican who has spent more time in the latter category than the president. A decade before Trump rode a promise of a border wall to the White House, King in 2006 brought a crude model of a wall, topped with razor wire, to the House floor. King presaged Trump’s campaign kickoff speech when in 2013 he asserted that, among the children of undocumented immigrants, “valedictorians” are outnumbered 100 to 1 by drug runners with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” While Trump was on the campaign trail in 2016, King was palling around with far-right European leaders and tweeting, in a phrase that borrows the language and logic of neo-Nazis, “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.”
The biggest difference between the two is that Trump gotten away with it among fellow Republicans, while King — at least recently — has not.
They rebuked him in 2017 when he tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” and again the following year after his support for neo-Nazi-affiliated politicians was drawn into focus following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This January, after he wondered to the New York Times why terms including “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” had become so offensive, they decided enough was enough, stripping him of his committee assignments and branding him a pariah. Several, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, even called for his resignation.
Much like Trump, King and his supporters insist that, despite all the racism, he’s not actually a racist. If fact, King insists, he’s a victim — a maligned champion of his people targeted by a mainstream media and political establishment that simply can’t understand the way of life out here in rural Iowa, and can’t stand to see him fighting like hell to preserve it.
King has wielded this self-righteous self-pity like a cudgel, and his supporters have lined up behind him. In Charles City, after his sermon on immigration ends, a woman asks why more Republicans in Congress aren’t demanding “antisemitic, racial” lawmakers be stripped of their committee assignments, an apparent reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and others who have criticized Israel. King, who claims he was misquoted by the Times while vowing to expose the truth and regain his committee seats, was ready with an answer. “You would think they would be crying out that it’s an extreme injustice that they remain on their committees,” he says. “I would say instead that it’s an extreme injustice what they’ve done to me.”
“I can tell it’s penetrating into this 4th District,” he continues of the forces opposing him. “It takes time for people to churn this through and talk to each other and read the things that are available.”
King has leveraged these penetrating forces to instill in his constituents a sense of us versus them, and for most of the past 17 years a comfortable majority of 4th District voters have readily planted their feet firmly on King’s side of the line. The 2020 election, however, could be different. J.D. Scholten, the Democrat who came within three points of defeating him in 2018, is mounting another run. Also trying to take him down are a handful of Republican challengers who are tired of seeing their district represented by someone national Republicans have taken to using as a kind of surrogate punching bag — a target for all the righteous indignation they’re too scared to direct toward Trump.
If the ultra-conservative 4th District does side with the forces opposing their longtime representative in 2020, it would be the most concrete indication yet that Trumpism could have a limited shelf life as a public-facing ethos. King is in many ways a more accurate avatar for the movement than the president, and has been working for years to expand the scope of what the Republican Party deems acceptable to include the extreme views on immigration, abortion, and other social issues the president has yanked into the mainstream.
Though these views will, in some form or another, remain woven throughout the party’s policy proposals, what kind of mainstream viability can King’s brand of overt, unapologetic white nationalism have if not even the residents of his own deep-red district will tolerate it? If he can’t get away with pushing it when cameras are rolling the way that the president has, what hope will other politicians have? Will warnings about civilization crumbling because of immigrants have any place in the popular discourse once the man who plucked them King’s populism playbook and put them there is out of office?
The prospect is more than enough to make King squirm in his congressional seat, but for now the 70 year old from Storm Lake is bronzed, refreshed, and plenty comfortable standing in the Charles City library before an audience that applauds heartily after he caps off his appearance by walking them through a convoluted conspiracy theory about how the establishment orchestrated his removal from his congressional committees earlier this year.
“Thanks very much and God bless,” he says. More applause.
THE NEXT STOP on King’s town hall tour is later the same day, just over 100 miles south in Boone. The event again is in a public library, but in addition to a few rows of King’s constituents are a handful of reporters and photographers who figured they’d come up from Des Moines to check in on the controversial congressman. The Charles City town hall was a safe space for King, but the media stalking around the room with cameras and notepads gives the event in Boone the feeling of a clinical examination. King does not do well under the microscope.
This is true not only when he’s trying to rationalize his racist exhortations, but also when his constituents press him on how, exactly, he plans to make their lives better. He wasn’t a particularly effective lawmaker even before he lost his committee assignments, and he’s even more hamstrung now that he’s been booted from the Judiciary and Agriculture committees. The timing of his removal from the latter is particularly troubling: Trump’s trade war is cutting into farmers’ wallets as China closes markets in retaliation, and the multi-billion-dollar federal bailout the administration threw at the problem was snatched up largely by corporate agricultural interests, to which King has made sure to ensure subsidies flow over smaller family farmers.
King doesn’t have much to offer in terms of health care options. Same goes for rural population loss, climate change, or any of the other issues that are actually plaguing the 4th District. All he can muster is the well-trodden illusion that he’s a populist champion, defending his largely rural, disproportionately white district from the twin dangers of liberal snobbery and an invasion of immigrants.
He begins in Boone as he did in Charles City, by recounting his trip to the border and warning that the “face of America” is in danger of being “forever eroded.” But the audience isn’t as interested. The first question he fields is from a woman who wants to know what he plans to do about health care. After King gives a long-winded answer involving tort reform, she presses him about helping those struggling to pay their medical bills. King acknowledges that some people will inevitably “fall through the cracks” before bizarrely tying the private insurance industry to freedom. “The most sovereign thing we have is our own soul,” he says. “We are in control of that and the federal government hasn’t figured out how to nationalize it. The second most important sovereign thing we have is our own health. That has been been to a degree nationalized by Obamacare.”
King really, really likes to talk about sovereignty.
After he finishes, a man cuts in: “I spent some time in the United Kingdom and their national health service works quite well, and people also have the option to opt out. Why can’t these co-exist?”
King says he’ll ask Simon Conway, a Des Moines radio host who describes himself on Twitter as “Conservatism born in Socialist Britain,” when he meets with him later that day. What’s the man’s name, King wants to know. Tom Emmerson. King writes it down at his podium. “I’ll ask Simon,” King says again.
Perhaps sensing that answering a basic question about socialized health care by saying he’d ask a radio host may not be acceptable, King quickly adds that he’s “going to throw something in that popped in my mind that’s off topic.” He spends the next three minutes waxing about Canada’s infrastructure system and the need for four-lane highways in Iowa, barely stopping to take a breath, as if he’s trying to cram as many words as possible in between himself and the health care issue.
King doesn’t talk much with the press, and the chances are good he would have preferred to pass on this particular town hall — or any of them. But skipping events like these are part of what got him in trouble in 2018. Supporters blame his thin victory on two things: the liberal media infecting voters’ perception of King, and the fact that King kind of just mailed it in last November, assuming he’d win easily. With a fierce 2020 battle looming, he’s making now making an effort to solidify the loyalty of the Iowans who have sent him to Washington for nine straight elections. He may have done so in Charles City, but the crowd in Boone is filled with skeptics who aren’t as susceptible to tricks like asking a critical questioners name and writing it down (or pretending to) as if he’s going to follow up later.
“He’s very slick,” Dilys Morris, the woman who asked King about health care, tells me later. “He’s got a lot of statistics. He talks a lot. He fills the time well and I think he knows how to handle an audience. Do I agree with his positions? No, I don’t at all, and I don’t think he has a clue about what can be done about health care.”
“He gave the impression of being on top of everything, but in fact it seemed to me he didn’t answer the question very well,” adds Emmerson. Both Morris and Emmerson are from nearby Ames, home of Iowa State University and one of the more liberal areas of the 4th District.
It doesn’t get any easier for King after his rhetorical diversion from the health care conversation. Emmerson asks about district’s declining population, a growing issue in rural communities that are unable to provide the opportunities necessary to prevent young people from leaving for metropolitan areas. Scholten and other Democrats have stressed the need to bolster rural broadband and explore other ways to diversify the economies of such regions of the country, which tend to lean heavily on agriculture. King has not, and in Boone he blames population loss in the vast majority of the counties he represents on the farm recession in the 1980s, which dissuaded people from having as many children as they might have otherwise, as well as abortion, which he calls a “significant component.”
A man brings up how the farmers he knows rely on undocumented labor. King argues that Americans who don’t work — he cites homemakers, people receiving welfare, and those on disability who aren’t really disabled — can take these jobs. Later, someone challenges him about promoting birtherism, leading to a tense exchange. Unable to connect the issue to immigration or abortion, King ultimately retreats to another patch of familiar ground. “I’ve been accused of a lot of things and I don’t know anybody as bad as I’m designed to be by the left-wing media,” he says.
It’s been a rough afternoon, but just as King wraps up he’s asked a question he can handle, finally, from an older woman sitting in the back of the room: “Will you sign my shirt?” she says.
STEVE KING GOT INTO POLITICS over the issues that have helped keep him in it for so long: abortion and immigration. The owner of an earth-moving company since the late ‘70s, King decided to run for state senate in 1996, irked by incumbent Republican Wayne Bennett’s soft stance on abortion. He won, largely behind a campaign promise to make English the official language of Iowa. He’d try to expand his ultimately successful effort to do so to the rest of America after he was elected to represent the state’s 5th District in 2002, a race he won comfortably after narrowly prevailing in a runoff in a competitive Republican primary field.
His constituents loved him for his efforts to institute his hardline views on abortion and immigration on a federal level, and he never looked back after narrowly winning that first GOP primary (the 5th District was drawn out of Iowa during reapportionment following the 2010 Census, and King took over the 4th). King has since routinely bested his Democratic opponents by 20- and 30-point margins. In 2016, he pulled in over 60 percent of the vote, the same year Trump carried the district by 27 points over Hillary Clinton. Trump didn’t win in any of the state’s other three districts by more than 5 points. Iowa may be purple. The 4th District is deep red.
“We’re a socially conservative district and very pro-life. That matters a lot and he’s on the right side of those issues,” Will Jones, a farmer and chairman of the Clay County GOP, says of King. “The 4th District is the district to be in if you’re somebody like Steve King. This is the one for any Republican to take.”
But in 2018 King defeated Scholten by only three points. He demonstrated one of the primary reasons why the day after the town halls in Charles City and Boone. While defending his controversial Heartbeat Protection Act, which he has described as a direct challenge of Roe v. Wade, in front of a conservative club in Urbandale, King wondered whether “there would be any population left” if not for rape or incest, for which the bill does not provide exceptions. The comments led to renewed bipartisan calls for his resignation, and several prominent Democrats included with their condemnations links to donate to Scholten’s 2020 campaign. It was exactly the type of firestorm that has left 4th District conservatives frustrated with their congressman.
“Whether he deserves to be vilified or not, no one likes to have their congressman in the press for headlines like Steve King has had,” explains Charley Thomson, a former GOP chair of Floyd County, where Charles City is located. “The extent that people are more sympathetic to the opposition and willing to listen to the opposition’s pitch when they have all of this embarrassment, I think it has to play a role.”
“People are getting tired of having to deal with him,” says Jones. “It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong. He wants strong borders and wants to be tough on immigration, which is where the district is. But it shouldn’t be so hard. It shouldn’t be so hard to say what you want. It shouldn’t be so easy for the other side to pick on.”
Jones is one of a growing number of 4th District conservatives intrigued by Randy Feenstra, the state senator from Hull and King’s most popular challenger in the Republican primary. Feenstra has turned heads by outraising King by hundreds of thousands of dollars while drawing support from several of the state’s top conservative influencers, including Christian leader Bob Vander Plaats and former governor Terry Branstad, once a supporter of King’s who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to China.
If King does win the GOP primary, he’s going to have to defeat a far more formidable version of Scholten than he slipped past in 2018. An unknown former minor league baseball player when he announced his first run at King in 2017, Scholten announced his second run at the seat with a viral campaign trailer narrated by Kevin Costner. A few days later, he was a veritable celebrity at the Democratic Wing Ding, a kind of pep rally for the party held annually in Clear Lake. Though just about every presidential candidate was present, no piece of swag was more popular among attendees than ones emblazoned with “I [HEART] J.S.”
“When we launched our campaign two years ago, Clear Lake was the first place we went to,” Scholten says. “We came here and nobody knew me.”
King’s supporters are also noticing an upswell of Democratic energy in the district. “2018 was an extremely good year for Democrat turnout,” says Mark Leonard, longtime King backer and chairman of the Ida County Republican Party, adding that “Republicans listening to liberal media” led to “unusually high Democrat turnout and less than solid Republican turnout.”
“I’d say the Democrats get out there and work a little bit harder,” says Randy Ericksen, who holds the same position in Buena Vista County, which contains King’s hometown of Storm Lake. “They’re going door to door, where the Republicans don’t seem to do that much here.”
Republicans still have an overwhelming majority in the district — in 2018 active registered Republicans outnumbered active registered Democrats 191,000 to 121,000 — but there’s no reason to believe the forces that brought Scholten to within three points in 2018 won’t be even stronger heading into 2020. Though King’s inability to take his foot out of his mouth may be the most significant of these forces, Scholten and others will tell you that if he’s going to unseat him in 2020 he’s going to have to convince the 4th District that he’s the person to carry the district forward, not just that he’s not Steve King. “He needs to run on those issues and not on ‘he said this or he said this,’ which becomes and dismissive to people in the 4th,” says Matt Paul, a veteran Democratic strategist in Iowa who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign in the state. “They get that this guy’s a jackass. They don’t need to be judged for that. You need to show them how you’ll do the job better and deliver for their families.”
IN OCTOBER OF 2014, TRUMP TRAVELED to Des Moines to endorse Steve King’s campaign for a seventh term. King introduced Trump by noting their common belief in a — you guessed it — “sovereign America and the rule of law,” before looking forward to the 2016 presidential election.
“We have the opportunity to offer up planks for the platform for the next president of the United States,” King said. “If we offer those up and sell them and market them, the planks have a chance to be bolted down into a platform. When that happens … we have ourselves a president that carries the heart of the heartland values into the Oval Office of the White House.”
Trump echoed King when he stepped behind the podium. “I’m here to support King, a special guy and a smart person with really the right views on almost everything,” he said. “We don’t even have to compare notes.” When Trump was asked about a potential presidential run, he said “we’ll see what happens” before foreshadowing his own campaign. “I want to see someone who is going to make our country great again,” he added of what he’s looking for in a prospective candidate, “which is basically the same thing as Steve.”
But the bromance was put on hold the following year when King not only endorsed Ted Cruz for president over Trump, but co-chaired his campaign, leading Trump to at one point describe King as a “lowlife congressman who is laughed at by almost everyone in D.C. and beyond.”
Though King may have been a joke to many, he was very much a part of the Republican establishment despite his very public white nationalism. Prominent members of the party like Cruz embraced him, traveling to Iowa to go on hunting trips with him and appearing at events he hosted. Though Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the 2016 campaign may have come as a shock to some, it wasn’t unfamiliar to Republicans, who had already demonstrated they were willing to tolerate it from King.
The mainstream media, however, had not, and as white nationalism exploded into popular culture as Trump locked migrant children in cages at the border and praised the protesters chanting “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville, someone needed to be made an example of by Republicans. It wasn’t going to be the president.
“This is not the first time we’ve heard these comments. That is not the party of Lincoln and it’s definitely not American,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who didn’t seem to have a problem falling in line with Trump’s extreme immigration policies in order to secure his leadership status in the House, said after stripping King of his committee assignments in January. “I think you’ve seen now repeated — this wasn’t the first time — but his language questioning whether or not the notion of white supremacy is offensive is absolutely abhorrent. It’s racist. We do not support it or agree with it,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the number-three Republican in the House.
King has responded to the rebukes by repeatedly bashing those attacking him, particularly McCarthy (he recently called him a Times-friendly hypocrite), and lamenting how he has been persecuted by the establishment (even comparing himself to Jesus). His most loyal supporters have done the same. When I asked Mark Leonard, the Ida County GOP chair, about King losing his committee assignments he bluntly said that McCarthy “better not set foot in northwest Iowa.” Us versus them, even when “them” is the Republican Party.
King and his supporters’ antagonistic stance toward criticism has been a hallmark of his career. But its effectiveness among 4th District voters will be tested in 2020, and with it those voters’ tolerance for white nationalist antics, and with that the long-term viability of such unabashed white nationalism as a political strategy. It’s worked for Trump, but if King’s bigotry gets him booted from Congress by the residents of the district who has supported his ethno-nationalism for years, it could portend a similar fate for Republican lawmakers who try to keep Trumpism alive after its namesake leaves office.
There’s only one thing Steve King knows how to do in his effort to ensure it doesn’t get to that point. “King’s M.O. is to wait until he has a viable opponent and go out with crocodile tears,” says Matt Paul, the Democratic strategist. “The world’s coming for him, and he’s creating a sense of urgency with very conservative individuals. He’s trying to raise money. The only question is how long that will last.”