After four incredible nights in Cleveland—likely the first time those words have ever gone together—the only storyline more perfectly absurd than the, uh, considerable inspiration that Melania Trump took from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech was the Trump campaign’s subsequent 36 hours of ham-fisted responses, all of which culminated in some poor underling publicly admitting that, yes, she inadvertently cribbed from Michelle Obama’s speech, that it was a horrible mistake, and that she and she alone is to blame. Finally, the Trump campaign could be rid of this stupid story for good!
Except, um, whoops, said underling works for the Trump Organization, not the campaign, and it’s against federal law to use corporate resources without providing compensation (which, spoiler, there is no record that such compensation was ever made). She even released her mea culpa on Trump Organization letterhead, which is sort of the election law equivalent of all those people who signed up for AshleyMadison using their FirstNameLastName@WorkDomain.com email addresses. So there you have it: Melania is not a plagiarizer, but the presidential campaign of her husband, who as of Thursday is officially one of two people with any chance at winning the White House, either does not know the law, does not care about the law, or—STRONG HEDGE YOUR BETS—both. Someday, you are going to tell your awed grandchildren about what 2016 was really like, and they’re going to smile and nod politely and then talk worriedly in hushed tones the whole ride home about how Grandma and Grandpa are going senile so quickly.
Your grandchildren will be wrong. Last night, Donald Trump officially showed all the haters and losers, improbably riding his elaborate-branding-exercise-disguised-as-presidential-campaign to the Republican nomination for president. His deranged, rambling 75-minute acceptance speech (the longest in decades) on Thursday reminded me of Dwight Schrute pounding the lectern and screaming “BLOOD ALONE MOVES THE WHEELS OF HISTORY” while accepting his Northeastern Pennsylvania Salesman of the Year Award. This made me laugh, because The Office is delightful, until I remembered that Dwight’s speech was just a series of Mussolini quotes, and then I got kind of scared.
In terms of superlatives, Melania Trump’s speech was the convention’s boldest move, and Donald Trump’s painted the most vivid picture of post-apocalpytic hellscape America ever offered by a major party presidential nominee. But for my money, neither were quite as jarring as the comments offered on Monday by Iowa Congressman Steve King, a known bad man who took his reputation for casual racism (he displays a Confederate flag on his desk despite the fact that he represents the good people of…Iowa) to new highs and/or lows when he singed the eyebrows of millions of cable news subscribers with this volcanic take:
Yooooooo. First of all, CHALLENGE. Steve King is going to have some serious soul-searching to do when someone tells him that the guns he presumably loves so much were invented in China, or that, well, modern numerals are called “Arabic” for a reason. King offered to clarify the next day, which—prepare to be shocked—did not go well. He explained that his comments referred to “Western civilization” (true, in part!), and that “much of Western civilization happens to be Caucasians” (oh no wait what are you doing), and that “the Western civilization and the American civilization are a superior culture” (BRUH). The only way this “clarification” could have gone worse is if he had sent it out on Trump Organization letterhead.
In an election cycle defined by things like building walls, banning religions, and dismissing dissident journalists with pithy comments about their menstruation cycles—seriously, read that sentence again, and contemplate just how fast you’re going to be ushered into a nursing home when you insist to your grandchildren that, no, all this stuff really happened—it’s easy to portray this particular iteration of the Republican Party as implicitly racist, sexist, and xenophobic. GOP politicians have dealt with such charges for a long time, and have learned in recent years to deftly parry this criticism as the overblown hysterics of political correctness vigilantes. Your cleverest Twitter rejoinders only make them stronger.
This was different, though. Yes, Trump said arguably more outrageous things during his primary campaign, and he is probably just getting warmed up. But at least for now, he remains sort of a novelty political candidate. Securing the nomination is one thing, but if he gets obliterated on Election Day, he takes his place next to McCarthyists and Dixiecrats in history textbooks as a relic from a thankfully-passed era. King may hold a lower office, but he is not a novelty candidate. He is sitting federal legislator—a seven-term elected official in the United States of America in the Year of our Lord 2016—who went on national television and presented as self-evident truth an overt declaration of cultural and racial supremacy. And no one in his party really had the heart to say anything about it. That’s pretty wild!
To be clear, being a conservative Republican is just fine, if you are so inclined. Plenty of wonderful, perfectly reasonable people believe that limited government and the free market and whatnot are the best principles on which to run a country. It is their right, and arguably their duty, to support for public office other people who believe such things, too. Also, whatever he says, Steve King does not speak for everyone who has voted or is voting or will ever vote Republican (feel free to start the #NotAllRepublicans movement here). His offhand remarks do not prove the start of the party’s inexorable decline into the Forever Party of Racists. This too shall pass.
But King’s moment remains notable because although he is a politician, his statements were not remotely political. There is no underlying policy proposal, no appeal to rational thought, no argument that purports to explain why King’s preferred governance philosophy is good and right and deserves votes. This isn’t opposing affirmative action as antithetical to equal opportunity, or disparaging campus protests as the overwrought byproducts of political correctness, or casting xenophobia as a concern for the integrity of the American labor market. All of these are typical (if tired) debates, and if you’re interested, you can probably see them play out today in the law school classroom nearest to you. By contrast, King’s message is a naked, direct, and proud appeal to people’s most basic prejudices, and he can pull it off without fear of repercussions because the 2016 version of the GOP allows him to cloak this insane take as a tenable political position. It’s an accepted part of a major party’s political platform to tout the dominance of the “footprint of Christianity,” and to bravely stick up for all those white Americans over the years who, despite their best efforts, just can’t seem to catch a break, darn it.
The most telling detail of King’s comments is how casually he offers them–part of the reason they’re so disturbing is that they were made so offhanded in the first place. He isn’t ginning up controversy to curry favor with Tea Party voters, or drolly trolling soon-to-be-outraged liberal viewers for his own bemusement. King talks in the same tone you might use when gently correcting your nephew’s insistence that the world is flat: a little exasperated that you have to state something so obvious, but secure in the fact that whatever reaction your words may elicit, everyone you actually care about knows you are right, and finds your words to be just as noncontroversial as you do, and is nodding along in spirit.
For people of color, and especially for immigrants—oh man, for real, Steve King HATES immigrants—this has to be terrifying. An elected official who purports to represent their interests and defend the Constitution (and is paid with their tax dollars) feels absolutely no need to disguise his bigotry by dressing it up as some component of a legitimate political idea. The follow-up questions are as distressing as they are obvious: how far does this go? What does it mean to elect a representative who openly believes that some Americans are not quite as good, fundamentally speaking, as others? How does that affect his votes, his priorities, his willingness and ability to serve his constituents?
The entire Donald Trump debacle, from taco bowls to mid-debate dick-measuring contests, has been an exercise in watching all the chickens the Republican Party hatched over the last eight years come home to roost. But King’s overt, unadorned, apolitical embrace of casual racism, and the Republican Party’s transformation into a safe space for people who value the same, was a standout moment in an election cycle full of them. It deserves to be remembered just as much as Donald Trump’s famous Checkers speech, which is coming soon, probably, to a press conference near you.