The GOP and the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism

The GOP and the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism
© Getty Images

Two years ago, U.S. House Republicans stripped Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingGOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing Pence to visit Iowa to headline event for congressman Former Steve King challenger on rural voters in GOP states: 'They hate Democrats' MORE (R-Iowa) of his committee assignments. For years, King had expressed support for white nationalists and Nazi sympathizers. He compared immigrants — the non-European kind — to lazy dogs. As an elected champion of white supremacy, he was a clear threat.

But the GOP issued this rare intra-party rebuke only days after losing U.S. House control for the first time in eight years. King hadn’t changed; House Republicans’ political calculations had. In their quest to retake the House in 2021, they needed to neutralize a growing national symbol of GOP intolerance. King had defeated his Democratic challenger in 2018 by only 3.3 percent. And so, a plan was hatched to destroy him politically and install a new Republican in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District.

It worked. King lost last year’s GOP primary to State Senator Randy Feenstra, who used King’s diminished congressional power to remind voters that only Feenstra could represent them capably. 


Two years later, the GOP is populated by people far more dangerous than King.

They go beyond mere support for Holocaust deniers and white supremacists. The “Big Lie” perpetuated for centuries about white people’s “superiority” has been coupled with a new one about the veracity of our electoral system — and by extension, the legal underpinnings of our democracy.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThis week: Senate starts infrastructure sprint Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet MORE (R-Utah) recently stated that “democracy isn’t the objective” in the United States. Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarPress: Inmates have taken over the asylum 57 House Republicans back Georgia against DOJ voting rights lawsuit Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' MORE (R-Ariz.) reportedly said “We’re in [a civil war]. We just haven’t started shooting at each other yet.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) has expressed support for executing Democrats.

Based on the standard applied to Steve King, dozens of Republicans should be stripped of their committee assignments. But of course, that’s not how politics works. The GOP could afford to shed a vulnerable colleague like King. They cannot afford to cast out Trumpism, because it seems now there would be little left.

The GOP is at a tipping point. Center-right Republicans fear their party is increasingly tied with insurrection and conspiracy theories. Some fear for their lives at the hands of angry and volatile members of their own party. Yet rather than cast out the Steve Kings of the party, Republicans instead are trying to destroy the few remaining vocal defenders of law and order.


Comedian Norm Macdonald said it best 21 years ago during his opening monologue as host of “Saturday Night Live,” shortly after the show fired him: "How did I go in a year and a half from being not funny enough to even be allowed in the building, to being so funny that I'm now hosting the show?”

People like Steve King used to be on the GOP’s fringes. Now they’re running the party.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.