image: Emmanuel d'Aubignosc

All the Klan’s Men

David Duke and Trump’s white-power voters

One of the many strange and unnerving episodes in Donald Trump’s long march to the GOP nomination was his attempt to avoid criticizing former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and avowed anti-Semite David Duke, who 25 years ago came alarmingly close to being elected governor of Louisiana.

Asked in February by CNN’s Jake Tapper to weigh in on Duke’s radio message to supporters—that a primary vote against Trump amounted to “treason to your heritage”— Trump demurred.

“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” he said. As Tapper continued to probe, Trump added this: “I don’t know any—honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I have ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him.”

Trump’s professed ignorance was as credible as his later claim that the interview had gone south due to a bad earpiece. Indeed, fact-checkers were able to assemble a list of prior Trump statements disavowing Duke, which he did again after the Tapper interview.

Yet Duke clearly has Trump’s number. And after many years of being relegated to the fringe, he sees a presidential candidate who might have coattails—at least in Louisiana—tapping into the same sense of racial grievance that once elected Duke to the state legislature. When Duke unexpectedly signed up to run in Louisiana’s open U.S. Senate contest, he cited Trump’s rise as his inspiration.

While Duke’s unexpected July entry into the race to replace retiring Senator David Vitter caused quite a stir, almost no serious player on the ground gives him a chance. Two dozen candidates signed up for the all-party primary, which will take place the same day voters choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and the sprawling field includes plenty of more acceptable choices, including the popular longtime state treasurer, two current congressmen, and a member of the state public service commission. In the likely event that nobody wins an outright majority, the top two finishers will meet in a December runoff.

Trump’s candidacy, like Duke’s campaigns all those years ago, have given us a peek at something truly disturbing.

Duke’s heyday was a full quarter century ago. In 1989, he drew national headlines when he bucked his own party’s establishment—right on up to President George H. W. Bush—and beat a fellow Republican to win a state legislative seat in the New Orleans suburbs.

Then in 1991 came what Louisianans called the “race from hell,” in which Duke and ethics-challenged former Governor Edwin Edwards squeezed incumbent Governor Buddy Roemer out of contention, then faced off in a media circus of a runoff. Duke won the majority of the white vote but Edwards pulled out the win, served his fourth term, and headed to federal court where he was convicted of gambling corruption charges and sent away for eight years. Duke ran in a couple of subsequent elections, eventually joined Edwards on the feds’ target list, pleaded guilty to using money he’d raised for his white supremacist causes to pay his gambling debts, and he too headed off to federal prison.

One reason for Duke’s marginalization is that other Louisiana Republicans have learned to appeal to the same voters by taking similar positions on issues such as welfare, without carrying the same baggage. Yet he represents an uncomfortable truth that lingers below the surface of polite political life in the state. Mike Foster, the popular former governor who succeeded Edwards, got caught purchasing Duke’s voter list and not reporting it, explaining later that it’s not “cool” to be associated with Duke. Just two years ago, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise squirmed when a local blogger revealed that he’d spoken to a Duke-founded group early in his career.

The other Republicans in the current Senate field have loudly renounced Duke, even as they’ve stayed mum on Trump’s many offenses. In this treacherous environment, they actually seem happy for the opportunity to decry at least someone’s bigotry without worrying about alienating themselves from all those voters who are likely to put Louisiana in Trump’s column come November. The Democratic candidates appear just as pleased, and are eagerly exaggerating his prospects in their ads and fundraising appeals. Duke may not be a contender, but his notoriety has given them something to run against.

Duke’s presence in the Senate race is a bigger deal outside the state than in it. The Clinton campaign regularly invokes his name as a reminder of the white nationalism that Trump’s campaign has normalized. Locals shrug even as national news organizations pounce on his statements of support, and after briefly trying to have it both ways, Trump’s people now profess disgust. When Duke recorded a robocall in August in which he argued that, “unless massive immigration is stopped now, we’ll be outnumbered and outvoted in our own nation,” and urged listeners who agree to support Trump for president and Duke for Senate, it caused nary a ripple at home. But it blew up in the political press, and prompted yet another Trump disavowal.

And yet . . . there are enough parallels to the national mess to give some Louisianans an uneasy feeling. With the primary vote split so many ways, it might not take that much of a showing for any given candidate to sneak into a runoff.

Most analysts think Duke is too far outside the mainstream to surpass the respectable alternatives on the ballot. But then, who would have predicted that Trump would so easily dispatch the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios of the world? Duke polls terribly—82 percent of voters surveyed over the summer by the University of New Orleans gave him an unfavorable rating—but polls have sometimes under-measured his performance.

If you take Duke at his word, Trump’s rise suggests that David Duke’s moment has finally arrived. A self-described champion of “European Americans,” the onetime Klansman insists that Trump’s success vindicates his politics of us-against-them racial resentment, and puts it squarely in the mainstream. He takes credit for using the slogan “America First” long before Trump picked it up. Noting that Trump has tapped into a widespread disgust with rampant political correctness, Duke points out that nobody’s more politically incorrect than he is.

Trump’s candidacy, like Duke’s campaigns all those years ago, have given us a peek at something truly disturbing.

Twenty-five years ago, Louisiana stepped back from a similar brink when enough voters decided that the governor’s race was less about politics and more about the state’s very identity, its economy, its soul. They picked an unpopular candidate over an unthinkable one. Polls suggest the nation will do the same this year, that the overt threat Trump represents will be consigned to an unsettling chapter in history.

But if there’s one lesson that Louisiana has to offer, it’s this: Like Duke voters, those Trump voters will be around long after the man himself retreats into irrelevance, and respectable politicians will still want their votes. Like Duke, Trump has brought some ugly truths about a wide swath of the electorate out into the open. And even after the current race from hell ends, it will be impossible to unsee what we’ve all spent the last year and a half seeing.

 

Stephanie Grace is a columnist for The New Orleans Advocate.

2 responses to “All the Klan’s Men

  1. We will continue to have too many deplorable imbeciles running around the country, even as Trump fades away like a bad nightmare. Sadly, Trump has awoken them and made them feel they’re equivalent to normal people (they’re not). They feel entitled to be treated as rational people, without having any rationality.

  2. I was a subscriber of the print edition, but I don’t think I am one anymore. Please check this for me. I don’t want the print edition. What is the subscription charge for this online edition?

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