What Steve King Reveals About The GOP
Gavin Aronsen reviews the former congressman's memoir
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell At Me, a newsletter about personhood and politics in red-state America. This week, Iowa journalist Gavin Aronsen reviewed the recently published memoir by former Iowa congressman Steve King, who was successfully primaried in 2020, after his racist comments made him lose his committee assignments.
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. You can read more of Aronsen’s work covering Steve King here. And you can follow him on Twitter.
If there’s one takeaway from Walking Through the Fire, the new autobiography from Iowa’s most notorious former congressman, it’s that Steve King has a hard time letting go of a grudge.
The author, of course, sees things differently. “You walked toward the fire,” he addresses his family, friends, and former staffers in the book’s dedication. “You walked into the fire. You walked through the fire with me. We all came out the other side stronger, wiser, and grateful to our Lord and Savior for walking through the fire with us.”
But evidence of any wisdom King might have gained through the ordeal that ended his nearly two-decade career in Congress is lost amid a bitter litany of grievances involving former House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, scheming journalists, and the Iowa GOP establishment that forsook him — to say nothing of his ham-fisted attempts to dismiss accusations of racism over his continued embrace of noxious beliefs like the Great Replacement conspiracy theory without a hint of self-reflection.
As a result, the book breaks little new ground; it could be dismissed as another of the attention-seeking moments that came to define, and eventually undo, the 73-year-old former lawmaker. But that would be too easy. King spent a third of his life representing western Iowa, including his six years in the state Senate. The beliefs of his constituents who enabled this didn’t change overnight after his ouster. King’s ultimate sin was not his racism but that he said the quiet part loud, underscoring the endemic prejudices that exist in the state and require an honest examination as Iowa continues on its sad rightward march conducted by his allies past and present.
Walking Through the Fire was released by Fidelis Publishing, an LLC run by disgraced Reagan administration official Oliver North with a mission “to shine the light of truth into the darkness of our time’s base pursuits” using the Bible as its “sole standard.” It’s fitting, then, that King’s autobiography borrows its title from a verse in the Book of Isaiah reminding Christians that God will be at their side in times of hardship.
The title, King explains in the prologue, was also inspired by right-wing media provocateur Andrew Breitbart and his advice to “walk toward the fire” rather than cower when confronted with accusations of racism, homophobia, and — in Breitbart’s words — being “a violent heteronormative xenophobe with fascistic impulses.”
King recalls how he delivered the eulogy for his “close personal friend” at a memorial service following Breitbart’s death in March 2012. In the speech, King likened him to Horatius, an army officer in ancient Rome whose courage in the face of great risk prevented an invading force from laying waste to the city (he survived, the story goes, suffering a spear wound to his buttocks).
The book could have benefitted from more personal touches like this, particularly when it comes to members of King’s family, who occasionally appear in the context of controversies that resulted from his unceasing obsession with race.
Taking issue with language in a House resolution censuring him over his racism that described white nationalists as seeing “race mixing as akin to genocide,” King argues that this contradicted his support for assimilation: “When one of my sons was single and uncommitted, I tried unsuccessfully to play cupid between him and a very cute and bubbly young black lady. The same son who later pointed out to me the press declared me a racist precisely for advocating for interracial marriage.”
King also explains how he fact-checked his widely ridiculed remark about undocumented immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert” by measuring his “wife’s well-toned calves” and comparing them to “a crop of real cantaloupes” he grew “in the summer of 2019.”
It’s not until the sixth chapter that King takes us back to his formative years, “a family life right out of the Dick and Jane primers of my childhood” (which have long been criticized for their racial and gender stereotypes), and his informal education through dinner-table debates with his father, whose critical thinking abilities he credits for his own outspokenness. Later, he describes the early years of his marriage and decision to found his construction company in 1975.
But the book misses an opportunity to provide deeper insights into what shaped King’s far-right worldview — and why it resonated for so many years among his constituents in western Iowa — by allowing its narrative to be driven chiefly by his sense of victimhood.
His resentment is especially fixated on New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel, whom he seems to hold almost single-handedly responsible for ruining his political career. It was King’s infamous quote in Gabriel’s January 2019 article that was the impetus for his removal from his three committee assignments, House censure, and primary defeat: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
King goes to comical lengths relitigating how a misplaced hyphen in the quote supposedly gave the defamatory impression that he sympathized with white nationalism. And eight of the book’s final 12 chapters are focused on attempting to refute a timeline Gabriel subsequently wrote to cast doubt on claims by Republicans that his racist views were new to them. All told, King mentions the reporter by name nearly 100 times.
This demonstrates the contradictions inherent in King’s reductive worldview, one in which his literal interpretations of far-right dogma, isolated from any broader context, are self-evident truths. King conveyed a similar thought in October 2018, when he declared, “I will retweet the devil if the devil tweets, ‘I Love Jesus.’ It’s the message, not the messenger.”
It ought to also serve as an indictment of how local reporters (myself included) and elected officials, downplayed King’s rhetoric in an effort to be objective or because his re-election had been a foregone conclusion, or just shrugged him off as a kook.
The book’s official publication date was March 16, but I managed to snag a copy through King’s website in January labeled “Early Release Limited Edition Friends & Family” — a generous consideration to afford someone who devoted half a year of their journalistic output almost exclusively to documenting King’s far-right worldview amid his political downfall. The former congressman signed the book with a personalized message: “Gavin, you will see the level of corruption at the highest levels of the Republican Party that you have long expected.”
King’s message hardly delivered on its promise, but of all his complaints, those targeting fellow Republicans are the most legitimate.
There is an unsettling irony in how King’s career imploded just as the once-fringe views he’d championed since his days in the Iowa Legislature were entering mainstream Republican discourse. Even as the writing was on the wall, he reveled in it. “I’ve worked a lifetime to be in this position,” he said at a Greater Des Moines Partnership business forum just days before his remarkably narrow victory against Democrat J.D. Scholten in 2018 — but also just a month after his private, 75-minute Oval Office meeting with President Trump.
Before that, King played a central role in killing comprehensive immigration reform efforts during Obama’s second term. In the book, he explains how the 2016 Trump campaign adopted his immigration policy proposals after its early hire of Chuck Laudner, King’s former chief of staff. The congressman, meanwhile, was making regular stage appearances as a national co-chair for Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses. His star was rising.
“The Iowa GOP has a clear incentive to pretend otherwise, but there was never a true reckoning over King’s vile politics.”
But it got to his head. By the time he spoke at the business forum, King was already under withering scrutiny for his recent promotion of a British neo-Nazi, endorsement of a white nationalist running for Toronto mayor, and news of his interview with a far-right Austrian publication during which he blamed George Soros for funding the Great Replacement on the tail end of a Holocaust memorial–funded trip to Europe.
Then, after his election win, there was the Trip Gabriel interview.
King gives a behind-the-scenes account of his futile efforts to convince Kevin McCarthy, Senator Joni Ernst, and other ostensible allies that the Times had wronged him. He fills in the gaps with assumptions about how longtime Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel conspired with Ernst and fellow Republicans to replace him with his eventual successor, Randy Feenstra.
What King gets wrong about this perceived betrayal is that he was cast aside not for his determination to boldly speak uncomfortable truths — Ernst, after all, went on to win re-election in 2020 after proclaiming in a debate that systemic racism didn’t even exist in Iowa — but because his antics had become a political liability.
The Iowa GOP has a clear incentive to pretend otherwise, but there was never a true reckoning over King’s vile politics. The Republican-controlled statehouse that last year passed a law to silence public educators from talking about race routinely entertains far-right conspiracy theories with few consequences. The cognitive dissonance that has allowed King to confidently deny his obvious associations with extremists is commonplace among Iowans who will assure you they don’t see color or can’t be racist because they have a Black friend.
Walking Through the Fire has so far garnered little media attention but was quickly promoted by the anti-immigration website VDARE, which invited King to appear on its subscribers-only Book Club podcast for an agreeable, hour-long interview hosted by James Kirkpatrick.
The book’s foreword was penned by “investigative journalist” Michelle Malkin, a longtime contributor to VDARE who in 2019 was fired from the speakers bureau of the conservative Young America’s Foundation over her support for the white nationalist Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes. In February, VDARE founder Peter Brimelow, King, and Malkin all attended the America First Political Action Conference in Orlando organized by Fuentes as a far-right alternative to CPAC.
Kirkpatrick is a pseudonym used by Kevin DeAnna, a prolific and often explicitly white nationalist author. In 2019, writing under his other pen name, Gregory Hood, for the online magazine American Renaissance founded by white supremacist Jared Taylor (a fellow AFPAC attendee), DeAnna effectively invalidated the central grievance of King’s book in an article titled, “Western Civilization Is White Civilization.”
“It’s not surprising that ‘Western Civilization’ is offensive to those who are offended by ‘white identity,’” he wrote. “Defining Western Civilization into nonexistence or defining it in universal terms amount to the same thing. It robs whites of their past, a prelude to robbing them of their future. The classical world shows whites they have a real, positive identity deeply grounded in history. Whites aren’t just a newly invented ‘social construct.’”
This interpretation of Western civilization tracks with the Great Replacement theory that the demographics and culture of Western countries are being erased by non-white immigrants. It’s a theory that King defends repeatedly in his book, both implicitly, in the rhetoric he employs while describing his anti-abortion views and meetings with far-right European politicians, and explicitly.
“King’s ultimate sin was not his racism but that he said the quiet part loud, underscoring the endemic prejudices that exist in the state and require an honest examination as Iowa continues on its sad rightward march conducted by his allies past and present.”
In a chapter titled “Reviving a Dying Civilization,” King complains about an article that began with a quote from neo-Nazi terrorist David Lane — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children” — and suggested it sounded like a tweet the congressman would make. King claims he’d never heard of Lane and neglects to explain that the quote is the Fourteen Words, a popular white nationalist rallying cry that was recited by Faith Goldy, the candidate for Toronto mayor he endorsed in 2018.
“Yes, words do matter. That is essentially the theme of this book,” he adds, accusing the left of twisting the words of its political rivals before expounding about how declining fertility rates, abortion, and illegal immigration are threatening “America’s cultural continuity.” King titles another chapter “Calling the Suicide Hotline,” a crass reference to criticism he faced for tweeting, “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end” during a meeting in Amsterdam with anti-Islam hardliner Geert Wilders.
Near the book’s end, King describes how he first learned about the Great Replacement theory by searching Google, determining that it is primarily a threat concerning Muslim immigration in Europe. He praises Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban for “refusing to play the multicultural game,” describing a meeting he attended with Orban in Budapest, which King left convinced that he was the “gold standard in leadership for our shared civilization.”
Two months after the release of King’s book, an 18-year-old white supremacist murdered 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in a mass shooting targeting Black shoppers. A manifesto he apparently wrote to explain his motivations repeatedly cites the Great Replacement theory as an inspiration. On the semi-automatic rifle he used to carry out the attack, the shooter inscribed several racist messages, including the number 14.
Days later in a nationally televised speech amid celebrations by prominent U.S. conservatives of his far-right politics, Orban endorsed the Great Replacement theory, describing it as a “suicide attempt … which seeks to replace the missing European Christian children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilizations.”
Walking Through the Fire is a sniveling coda to Steve King’s inglorious life in politics. But it’s more than just that, as evidenced by how ideas he’s long promoted have taken hold both in Iowa — where Republicans have enjoyed near-unilateral power for half a decade now — and across the Western world. King may have sacrificed his career in the process, but those ideas have thrived in the time since.
If King’s goal is to convince anyone who’s not already a believer that he’s not a white nationalist, he has almost certainly failed. If anything, his book will cement his legacy as a champion of the cause.
I was able to pay Gavin to write this review because of paying subscribers. If you love this newsletter and want to support it, consider becoming a paying subscriber.
Great review. Thanks, Gavin Aronsen.
Some one fairly high in Iowa politics said that (paraphrasing, since I don't remember exactly) Steve forgets Iowa didn't fight in the Civil War. He had small flags on his desk and one was the stars and bars of the Confederacy.
More of Iowa not quite nice.