To my surprise, the Republican party has actually taken some action against Iowa congressperson Steve King for his comments that suggested that there was nothing wrong with being a white nationalist or a white supremacist. My surprise was because King has been openly saying awful things for the longest time without the party taking action, so I expected them to continue turning a blind eye or issue just pro-forma criticisms. But yesterday, Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy said that King would not be appointed to any committees. This is a pretty serious move because it is by being on congressional committees that members get a platform for their views and, more importantly, many of them get much of their campaign funding because lobbyists for various interest groups target members of the relevant committees and donate to them and wine and dine them in order to curry favor and promote their agendas. A congressperson who is not on any committee might as well be invisible.
Of course in a move that has become all-too familiar among racists who find themselves condemned, King who for so long reveled in saying these things, is now whining that people are being mean to him and have misunderstood him, that he is really not a bad person.
In a speech from the House floor on Friday, Mr King said he regretted “the heartburn that has poured forth” as a result of his interview.
“I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I reject those labels and the evil ideology that they define.”
So what caused the Republican party to decide that King had finally gone too far, since they had looked away for so long? One reason may be to forestall House Democrats from bringing forward a censure motion against him that would force Republicans to take a formal stand against their long-time colleague. It may also be because of the criticisms from Republican senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican senator, who wrote in an op-ed “Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism – it is because of our silence when things like this are said..
Ryan Bort has a more cynical take on the Republican motives and notes that King is one of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, and that Trump has not joined the cavalcade of Republican leaders who have distanced themselves from King.
But while the Republicans may well be hypocritical in their new-found concern about racism in their party, their actions are still welcome. As William Greider wrote back in 2000, hypocrisy can serve a useful intermediate role in social change.
An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy. First, the powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior. Then social activists must spend the next ten years pounding on them, trying to make them live up to their promises or persuading governments to enact laws that will compel them to do so. In the long struggle for global rules and accountability, this new phase may be understood as essential foreplay.[My italics-MS]