Political figures from all over the spectrum have been piling on Iowa Republican Steve King for his defense of white nationalism. Their dignified umbrage produced a House Resolution condemning his statements which passed on a nearly unanimous vote. Nearly, but not quite.
All your favorite GOP nutjobs supported this resolution. Wisconsin’s Glenn Grothman, famous for his complaints about the MLK holiday and his bigoted comments on women, was a yes. Matt Gaetz and Louis Gohmert supported it. Even Steve King himself voted for this resolution rejecting his own statements.
The lone holdout was former Black Panther and Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush who explained that the resolution was “not worth the paper it was written on.” He’s right. If this resolution had been a meaningful step away from white nationalism, Republicans would have fought it.
Why are Republicans so eager to punish Rep. Steve King? In the Trump Era, establishment Republicans are struggling to keep their noisy racists in line. King’s crude, counter-productive embrace of racist rhetoric is a breach of decorum with dangerous implications. Steve King violated the first rule of Fight Club.
As Ta Nehisi Coates once pointed out, “there are no racists in America.” Racism, as an idea, is ugly, unpopular and objectively dumb. No one embraces it openly, not David Duke or George Wallace, not even most Confederate leaders. Racism survives through obfuscation, subterfuge and coded rhetoric. White nationalism, the political and social system that racism produced, persists mostly through neglect, nurtured by silence, and enforced when necessary by concealed violence. Civility is crucial to preserving white nationalism.
Crude, angry racists are shadow partners in the preservation of white nationalism, but they are supposed to keep their hoods on. An ironic upside of the Trump Era is the breakdown it has triggered in the white nationalist order. A system tuned by centuries of social evolution is being shaken by an undisciplined white rabble, distrustful of their more affluent friends and family and terrified of being left behind in a dawning post-racial order. Their embrace of a clamoring, unrepentant racism threatens to expose the ugly infrastructure of white nationalism, an all-or-nothing gamble almost guaranteed to fail. Wealthy, privileged white Republicans in Congress are fighting to get these people back in their robes and out of the daylight before they endanger all that white America has struggled to accumulate.
No one need bear the slightest overt racial animosity to maintain our racist order. All that’s needed to preserve white nationalism is indifference. Avoiding “racially-charged language” is a luxury whites can now afford. White nationalism can continue as a fact without anyone acknowledging its existence.
Trump voters often describe their candidate, who lies even when lying isn’t necessary, as a refreshing truth-teller. They are responding to the willingness of men like Trump and King to express their racism openly in defiance of polite convention. Trading their hoods for bright red hats, Trump voters are fighting to bring racism back into the daylight. They don’t realize how much power they have already lost, or the scale of the backlash they have triggered.
Affluent Republicans aren’t particularly bothered by black people being allowed to go to school, play professional sports, or even intermarry. What polite, genteel Republicans care about now are the privileges accumulated over centuries as a consequence of racism. They’ll condemn Steve King for making racist comments, then pass a raft of legislation designed to loot black families. The First Rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club. Silence on matters of race is a value that earned the votes of every Republican Congressman, including Steve King himself.
You can’t say the n-word in public, but the same neighborhoods redlined out of access to capital a century ago are still redlined out of access to capital today, and for the same reasons. The machine still works.
Steve King’s reckless candor is a threat to white nationalism. His values are central to the modern Republican Party, but those values are meant to hide behind a veneer of respectability. Steve King is not being punished by Republicans for his bigotry, he’s being punished for taking off his hood.