David Duke’s Last Stand

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Letter from Louisiana

David Duke’s Last Stand

A quarter century ago, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard presaged Trump’s coded messages about immigrants and suffering whites. Now Duke is considered yesterday’s racist by the alt-right.

By Tyler Bridges

November 03, 2016

NEW ORLEANS—It was strange enough to see former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, his surgically-altered face fixed in a grin, standing on a stage at historically black Dillard University on Wednesday night. But the evening would only get stranger—and uglier—as Duke and five other candidates took part in a statewide televised debate in the race to replace retiring U.S. Senator David Vitter. As the candidates stood behind rostrums on stage 10 minutes before the debate, State Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican who has narrowly led the field, called Duke “a convicted liar and a convicted felon” who was caught not paying his taxes. “It must be terrible to wake up with that much hate in your heart,” Kennedy said to Duke. Another candidate, Democratic attorney Caroline Fayard, standing next to Duke, called him a “snake.”

Moderator John Snell, a veteran TV anchor in New Orleans, tried valiantly to prevent the debate from becoming, as he said, “a referendum on one candidate.” But that’s what happened. Duke loudly characterized the other five candidates as part of a “corrupt” political establishment and repeatedly became the center of attention. He interrupted the hour-long debate to shout down Snell, saying he wasn’t being allowed to answer a question. Adding to the drama: Police twice used pepper spray against 50 to 75 people who were trying to force their way into the building while protesting Duke’s presence at Dillard.

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Afterward, a bizarre scene unfolded in the media room. While the other candidates talked to reporters, Duke entered and began shouting to get everyone’s attention, saying Snell’s attempt to silence him was “an example of the rigged system that Donald Trump talks about.” Reporters and cameramen left the other candidates to surround Duke, who has surged back to national attention after years in the political wilderness because of Trump’s fitful (and not always persuasive) efforts to disavow him. Duke let loose a screed, complaining about “the media hacks” who organized the debate and saying he hadn’t had the chance to make the point that “we have a few rich international globalist banker oligarchs who control 90 percent of the campaign money in this country.”

As Duke’s biographer, I had heard all this before. (For Duke, the media and international banks are code words for Jews.) In the 1990s, working as a reporter for The Times-Picayune, I covered his extraordinary rise as a charismatic, wunderkind white supremacist who won 55 percent of the white vote in Senate and gubernatorial races, and I watched his fall as felon and failure. Now Duke was trying to make a comeback by attempting to grab on to Trump’s coattails. I was on deadline Wednesday night, trying to finish my debate article for The Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate, but I stopped and looked at him, standing a few feet in front of me. Back in 1990, I had first reported that Duke had undergone cosmetic surgery. (The story prompted the most memorable campaign sign I’ve ever seen: “Nose Job Nazi.”) Duke had undoubtedly had more work done in recent years because his face looked almost disfigured, puffy and misshapen.

The thought now came to me: This is his last hurrah. The rise and fall of David Duke is complete. And how ironic, considering that so much of his anti-globalist and pro-white rights message is at last resonating.

Duke stands virtually no shot of finishing first or second on Tuesday in what is the jungle primary in the Senate election to determine who qualifies for the runoff election on Dec. 10. Long gone are the rapturous crowds that greeted Duke when he campaigned to be governor of Louisiana 25 years ago and created a race-based mass movement by tapping into the frustration of white voters. Gone, too, are the campaign donations that fueled Duke’s compelling TV ads back then—with a message that presaged Trump by promising to deep-six an economic and political system that he said was stacked against the middle class.

Duke has scarcely registered in polls despite his efforts at campaigning, including at Oktoberfest, on game day outside the football stadium at Louisiana State University, his alma mater, and at a small local fair. Duke’s campaign manager even quit, saying that Duke had resisted entreaties to moderate his message.

Duke had twin goals in running for Senate, I believe. One was to make the runoff and possibly win the race. The other was to reestablish himself as a leader among the white identity movement, now called the alternative-right. But Duke remains too extreme even for the alt-right, which has gotten its own bounce this year from Trump. A 66-year-old grandfather of three, Duke will be able to take solace that this year’s elections have brought him the media and public attention that he craves. But experts of the extremist right say that most of its leaders view Duke as a has-been and wish he would disappear.

“They want to present themselves as the new face of white supremacism—young, savvy, well-versed in the internet,” said Marilyn Mayo, who tracks extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League. “Duke is considered old school. He’s seen as a throwback.”

***

Duke, in fact, hasn’t changed much at all since he got his political start at LSU in 1969 as a regular fixture at Free Speech Alley, a two-hour public forum held every Wednesday afternoon outside of the university’s student union. There, he identified himself as a Nazi and railed against Jews. James Carville, an LSU undergraduate along with Duke, was among those who challenged him. “I would argue with him,” Carville said. “It made me feel good, but a lot of good that did.”

Since then, Duke has consistently believed that Jews control the media and have used that control to promote integration, which in his mind inevitably brings crime to white neighborhoods, and miscegenation, which weakens the European-American gene pool that is responsible for all the advances of Western civilization.

Duke also believes that Jews are behind what he and Trump call “the massive illegal immigration” from Mexico. For Duke, the browning of the United States is all part of the Jewish plot to weaken the white race. Trump opposes the immigration for other reasons.

While Duke’s views haven’t changed, he has constantly reinvented himself, first in the 1970s as a Klan grand wizard and in the 1980s as the founder and leader of the National Association for the Advancement of White People. In 1989, after switching to the Republican Party, he appealed to white voters during an economic slump. Without using the N-word, he blamed their lack of jobs and stagnant wages on quotas, affirmative action and minority set-aside programs. He narrowly won the race.

When he ran for the Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991, Duke used his charisma and ability to manipulate the media to rally working-class whites statewide who were angry at the status quo and the political establishment. He lost both races but won about 55 percent of the white vote each time.

He lost his next three races, went to prison for 15 months for bilking his supporters to feed his gambling addiction and seemed to have been consigned to the political ash heap—and then along came Donald Trump. Duke has become an avid supporter, to the dismay of Republican leaders in Louisiana. “I don’t consider him part of the Republican Party,” state party Chairman Roger Villere told me. “We don’t endorse his values or what he stands for.”

In August, retired Tulane University historian Lawrence Powell and several others reactivated the Louisiana Coalition Against Nazism and Racism to combat Duke once again. They thought he might catch fire since he was running as an unabashed supporter of Trump, who has been mining many of the same anti-government grievances as Duke had previously.

But Powell had to laugh recently when asked what the coalition has done to confront Duke this year. “We haven’t done a thing,” he said, noting Duke’s low standing in the race.

Powell has gotten nervous lately, though. Duke became a factor two weeks ago after he met the 5 percent polling benchmark, albeit barely, to qualify for the final televised debate of the Senate campaign. Duke was suddenly news again—especially since the debate was scheduled to occur at Dillard.

***

Like other reporters covering the debate, I wrote that Duke dominated the event (and he later tweeted that he had won it). But I am certain that Wednesday night’s debate marks his last gasp in politics. Duke’s only chance this coming Tuesday is his claim that he is dramatically underpolling, but I don’t see it. A recent poll showed that while about two voters viewed the other candidates negatively for one who didn’t, with Duke, for every one voter who viewed him positively, nearly 15 viewed him negatively—an unheard of ratio.

To be sure, Duke has had a heady year. It began when BuzzFeed reported in February that he told listeners on his syndicated radio show to volunteer and vote for Trump. That led Jake Tapper on CNN to ask Trump if he disavowed Duke. The billionaire said he didn’t know Duke and couldn’t comment on him. Trump was either lying or misremembering because in 2000 he ended a brief flirtation with becoming the Reform Party’s presidential candidate by pointing in part to Duke’s association with the party.

Either way, Trump’s comments to Tapper prompted an uproar. Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie followed up with Trump the next morning. Saying a bad earpiece from CNN had kept him from understanding the question, Trump now denounced Duke. Duke didn’t care, though. He was in the news again. Hillary Clinton denounced him, too. That was a political gift.

In July, Duke announced his Senate candidacy. In the succeeding weeks, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News and ABC News all profiled him. News crews from England, Denmark and Japan came to Louisiana to report on him. The reporters may have thought their portraits were unflattering, but the news stories gave Duke the attention he needed to resuscitate his political career. He has gotten more national and international media attention than the other 23 candidates combined in the Senate race—to Carville’s dismay.

“There’s a lot of stuff we need in this state, and there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need,” he said. “In that category of things we don’t need are David Duke and hurricanes.”

To catch Duke’s latest thinking, I listened to his radio show on Tuesday. I heard him express excitement about appearing at Dillard as well as lay out his long-standing conspiracy theories. I noted that since it’s an election season, he generally avoided mentioning Jews.

“American has been under control of globalist bankers and the global media,” he told listeners. “Unless we start to erode that criminal power … we don’t have any future.” Duke asked his supporters to contribute to his Senate campaign. He noted that one donor gave him $14.88. He didn’t note the significance. But I already knew that the number 88 has special resonance among neo-Nazis because the letter H is the eighth number in the alphabet and 88 represents “Heil Hitler.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has tracked Duke for years, told me that 14 refers to a 14-word slogan coined by a martyred white supremacist: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.”

I first reported in 1990 that Duke had celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday, complete with a cake, in the 1970s. He remains at heart a Nazi, although he tries to camouflage that, as became evident when Jim Engster, a radio talk-show host in Baton Rouge who has interviewed Duke for years, played a word association game with him last month during a 45-minute on-air appearance.

Donald Trump? asked Engster. “He has a great possibility for saving this country,” Duke replied.

Hillary Clinton? “The death knell of our country.”

Bill Clinton? “Sleazebag.”

Barack Obama? “He’s actually a Marxist traitor to America.”

Then came the cropper. Adolf Hitler? “Second World War.” That’s all Duke could muster.

Engster followed up and asked if Hitler had been a positive or a negative force. “I’m an anti-war kind of person,” Duke replied and went on to say that the Communists killed 100 million people. (Duke didn’t say it during the interview, but he has always maintained that Jews created the Communist Party.)

Engster tried again. “Can you bring yourself to say that Adolf Hitler was a horrible individual, perhaps the worst person in mankind?” he asked.

“I don’t think he was the worst,” Duke replied. “I think Josef Stalin was by far worse than Adolf Hitler.”

“If you admire Hitler, say it,” Engster egged him on a minute later.

“I’m not saying I admire Hitler,” Duke said and then attacked the media.

During Wednesday night’s debate, moderator Snell asked Duke why his website refers to “CNN Jews.”

“There is a problem in America with a very strong, powerful, tribal group that dominates our media and dominates our international banking,” Duke replied. He added, “I am not opposed to all Jews. I think there are a lot of great Jews.” The latter comments prompted several reporters sitting nearby me to laugh out loud.

Only the day before, I had asked Duke why he prefers not to mention Jews during election season. “It’s not the time in the campaign to convince people of a deeper understanding,” he replied. “It’s time to reach the common man. It’s not necessarily about an intellectual progression. It’s about mobilizing people for their own interests and heritage.”

Duke will no doubt keep going for a few more years. But he's apparently no longer delivering his message with the clarity that the race-based political movement he helped start demands. And it is passing him by.

Tyler Bridges, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, is a former Nieman Fellow who twice was a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Miami Herald. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke, Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards and the forthcoming: Long Shot: A Senator, A Soldier, A Serious Sin, an Epic Louisiana Election.


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