For many Americans, Donald Trump’s absurdly orange face has become the living embodiment of racism that has eaten away at the core of modern conservatism. This image obscures more than it reveals. While Trump’s brand of violent racism is grotesque and wildly popular with the worst elements of racist America, the real face of the more traditional racist conservative movement belongs to Iowa Representative Steve King.
King’s recent campaign against putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill is a great example of it. The Iowa Republican is no stranger to stupid, racist statements (google Steve King, cantaloupes or Steve King,Huma Abedin for a few examples). In fact, such comments seem to be his bread and butter. The GOP establishment has repeatedly condemned King’s rhetoric but vote in lockstep with him on nearly every issue that involves race (immigration, welfare “reform,” crime, and education to name a few). The GOP hates the way King speaks about these issues because he undermines their plausible deniability when it comes to charges that their policies are racially biased.
King doesn’t use the naked racism of Trump, his is a more genteel approach. But the motivation is no less clear: ensure that the civilization and culture of white supremacy remain as fully entrenched as they were in the glory days of the 1950s.
Typically, these sorts of conservatives have defended the merits of the status quo by making appeals to our collective fear of social change creating economic or social chaos. If we abolish slavery both the agricultural and industrial economy will collapse! Letting women vote will destroy government– they will be obsessed over silly things and stop men from confronting the “real” issues of the day! Other times, they will point to abstract ideas that would be undermined by change. Ending slavery or segregation is an attack on local/state control and would destroy the principles of self-government! Letting gay people marry will subvert the rights of religious folks.
The key to this approach has always been to position the argument as a zero-sum game. If blacks/gays/immigrants gain rights, I lose rights. Explicit in this worldview is the notion that freedom is not for everyone– just a chosen (straight, white, male) few. But you never come out and say that.
Steve King gets that. The days of a conservative being free to simply say “nigger” in public are long since gone. Now you have to use “clever” codes like “thug” or “urban” to describe them. It is harder to apply these codes to the past, as Rep. King has found out.
“It’s not about Harriet Tubman, it’s about keeping the picture on the $20,” King said Tuesday evening, pulling a $20 bill from his pocket and pointing at President Andrew Jackson. “Y’know? Why would you want to change that? I am a conservative, I like to keep what we have.” (courtesy of Politico)
King’s argument is that all change is bad. This is, of course, false. King seems to enjoy the use of modern fibers in his clothing, travels in vehicles using internal combustion engines, and utilizes electric lighting on a regular basis. Indeed, change is at the heart of entrepreneurship and capitalism– also known as the backbone of conservative economic philosophy. King does not really believe all change is bad. He simply thinks changes that put people of color or women into positions of honor or power are wrong, but there is no good way for him to argue that point.
King went on to say that this is all part of President Obama’s insidious plan to “upset this society and this civilization.” This is a barely concealed dog whistle to racist conservatives. All you have to do to uncover it is ask two basic questions: What civilization and society is King referencing? How would putting Harriett Tubman on the 20 WITH Andrew Jackson accomplish that goal?
What King is saying (in the laziest and most unaccountable way possible) is that honoring a black woman who fought against the institution of slavery by putting her image on our currency would tear down his preferred narrative of this nation. The answer to the first question is that this civilization is Western European and Christian. This society, in King’s view, was founded by infallible white men, ruled justly and in accordance with the will of God. Like all “anti-PC” crusaders who seek to preserve “their” society and civilization, any challenge to that narrative is an attack on their worldview. White, male supremacy must be maintained at all costs. Which leads to answer number two: putting Tubman on the 20 celebrates a non-white, male hero who is historically relevant for fighting against the entrenched establishment. Her presence declares that our nation/society/civilization has not always (ever) lived up to its lofty ideals. Her story is one of fighting oppression. She is a figure of inspiration and hope to those who carry on her work today. Steve King opposes that work, so he naturally opposes the honoring of Harriet Tubman.
As his opposition is based on racial and gendered grounds, King was prepared to combat the narrative that “King is a racist/misogynist.” In his own words, King is simply standing up to the “sexist” and “racist” agenda of liberals like President Obama. This textbook example of the fallacy of “reverse racism/sexism” is as craven as it is callow. I believe him when he says that this has nothing to do with Harriet Tubman– the odds that he knows anything about the woman is very low. But it is clear that it is very much about a black woman being on our currency. As noted above, he has given us no other plausible explanation.
This is the major problem for the GOP and conservatism in America moving forward. Racism and sexism like King’s are prevalent in their coalition. It has fueled Donald Trump’s embarrassing rise in the party. It is the motivation behind much of the “culture war” they have fought (and lost) in education and social policy. The educated conservatives I know eschew this part of their agenda. They care more about Constitutional freedoms, economic policy, and national security– you know, the stuff the elites in the party establishment have long made the pillars of their governing policies.
But they have catered to this ugly element since the 1960s. This deal with the devil was necessary to get the south on board back then. Now, they maintain the facade to keep the lunatic fringe and the “grassroots” folks who backed folks like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, and finally Donald Trump under the tent. Their anger with the party for not following through on the batshit crazy stuff they promised these lunatics is palpable. Rather than stand up and tell these loons that their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-intellectual agenda is a small-minded disaster waiting to happen, they continue to promise that they will fight harder on their behalf. You can totally trust them this time!
This deal has poisoned the brand. Minorities rightly fear a party that plays up racist policies and ideas. Women are leery of a party that tells them that they really shouldn’t have a say in anything from public policy to their own reproductive systems. Immigrants (and the descendants of recent immigrants) have little love for a party that demonizes them as an element that is destroying the fabric of the country. Committed intellectual conservatives are finally backing away, aware that the deal has gone south and that the party may be irreversibly damaged. After all, if the people of my party overwhelmingly chose Donald Trump to represent them as President, what does my party even stand for anymore?
That is where they get it all wrong. Trump is nothing but the logical conclusion of the bigoted pandering they have been doing for decades. The only way to kill this disease and reclaim your political body is to attack it at its core. Conservatism as the motivating philosophy of one of the two major political parties in America can only be saved by confronting and removing cancerous elements like Steve King and repudiating the elements of their base who desire such representation. There can be no future for the movement with them in it.