Before I broke the story about Congressman Steve Scalise’s attendance at a white nationalist conference hosted by David Duke’s hate group, I knew there was one enormous risk: I would likely be handing David Duke a microphone.
24 years ago, David Duke captured 55% of white voters in his bid for Louisiana Governor. A year before that, in a bid for the United States Senate, Duke received 60% of white voters. Yet today, he is considered one of the most reviled and toxic “political leaders” (I use that term loosely) in contemporary American history.
It may be reassuring to think of David Duke as a relic of a different time, and for many, particularly for the majorities of white Louisianians who supported him in his bids for both the Senate and the Governor’s Mansion, it may be convenient to recast David Duke as a master manipulator or to conflate him with the segregationists of the 1960s. However, as the coverage of my story about Steve Scalise demonstrated, David Duke may have been finally and thoroughly discredited, but this isn’t exactly ancient history.
William Faulkner once wrote, “In the south, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Consider this: If you were an 18 year old David Duke voter in 1991, you will be celebrating your 42nd birthday this year. The average age of a Fox News viewer is 68.8 years old, which means that the typical consumer of the nation’s leading conservative cable news network was already 44 years old when the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan won the clear majority of the white vote as the Republican candidate for Louisiana governor.
Also consider this: If African-American Democrats had not turned out in large numbers in 1990, David Ernest Duke would have become US Sen. David Ernest Duke (R- LA), and if they hadn’t done the same the next year, David Duke’s portrait would have hung for at least four years on the fourth floor of The House That Huey Built.
No doubt, Louisiana and the nation have changed dramatically since 1991. It would have seemed inconceivable then to imagine that less than two decades later, the country would be led by an African-American Democrat, and a first-generation Indian-American would occupy the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge. It may also seem inconceivable that, today, someone like David Duke could ever convince 700,000 people to vote for him to be their next governor. But it is important to remember that the David Duke of 2015 bears only a passing resemblance to the David Duke of 1991- and not just because of the extensive plastic surgery he’s had.
In his exhaustive biography “The Rise of David Duke,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tyler Bridges traces Duke’s life from childhood to the aftermath of his failed 1992 campaign for president, at which point it became obvious that he would never be the rockstar he once was.
Duke’s father was stern and distant, and his mother was a severe alcoholic. He first became entranced by neo-Nazism and white nationalism as an adolescent. He had very few friends, and his rants about Hitler and the racial inferiority of African-Americans terrified his peers and his teachers, one of whom claimed, years later, that she considered him “evil.” As a student at LSU, Duke began his activism, speaking regularly at a pocket of campus designated “Free Speech Alley.” He joined the klan, and he convinced others to follow him. He was incendiary, provocative, but also strangely charismatic.
A few years after college, he cut his hair, traded in his sheets for a suit, and pursued a career in politics. David Duke had never really renounced any of his racist beliefs; he just figured out a better way to camouflage them. He learned how to speak in code and became a master at the dog whistle. For example, he vehemently opposed affirmative action and welfare programs; it was a centerpiece of his campaign for governor. He wasn’t racist, he claimed; these programs were. With his new haircut and new suits, David Duke did his best to distance himself from his former association with the klan.
When Congressman Steve Scalise told columnist Stephanie Grace that he was “David Duke without the baggage,” he was not suggesting that he was a racist without a resume or that he had somehow misplaced his luggage; he was referring to Duke’s public policy agenda, which was undeniably popular among his constituents in Jefferson Parish and in Louisiana at large.
There is a reason why David Duke’s message resonated with the majority of white voters in Louisiana and a reason why Steve Scalise, as a state representative, would have wanted to appropriate that message. The narrative worked then, and it still works today.
It goes something like this: The government is too big. It is overrun by nepotism and corruption. It is led by a small group of crooked charlatans and career politicians who make their fortunes by pandering to urban elites. It stifles the free market by redistributing tax dollars to undeserving, inner-city minorities. It provides a guaranteed salary for murderers and drug dealers and incentives for impoverished, unemployed single women to have as many children from as many different men as she possibly can.
It is an embittered, toxic, and delusional perspective on the purpose and the reality of our democratic form of government, but if you dress it up in a suit and tie, it wins elections, especially in the Deep South.
For the last 12 years, Jeff Bostick’s website The Library Chronicles has offered some of the most insightful, irreverent, and poignant commentary on Louisiana, and his most recent work, “David Duke: Republican” should be required reading for anyone who cares to understand the context in which Duke rose to prominence. Quoting:
Duke sold his new self remarkably well. He limited his racial rhetoric to code-speak while developing a platform that seemed to position him well within the mainline of reformist Louisiana political tradition. (In Louisiana, “reform” candidates are usually conservatives. That’s more than I have time to explain right now. Read a book.) But he was never going to be accepted among the professional power players. During his term in the legislature, he was widely shunned.
Duke succeeded… maybe we can’t call one victory in a State Rep race success… Duke reached the pinnacle of his career because he happened to come along at a time when white backlash voters were at their angriest, and the Duke brand offered them the primal scream of a “fuck you” vote. But, in order to reach even that level, he had to recalibrate that brand a bit. He had to tone down his rhetoric just enough to play the part of a mainstream professional Republican.
The remarkable lesson, though, is just how easy this was to do.
The difference between Duke and Republican insiders wasn’t about ideology as much as it was personality. Duke really was a weirdo and an outsider, and the insiders hated him for that.
David Duke was and still is a fraud, but he won the white vote with the same message that has animated the modern Republican Party ever since: The notion that the government is always the problem.
Of course, if those in charge of the government truly believe that the government is always the problem, then the government’s eventual failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In 1981, the Republican political guru Lee Atwater explained the evolution of the “Southern Strategy” in an interview with Alexander P. Lamis, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Professor Lamis later quoted Atwater’s now infamous remarks in his book Southern Politics in the 1990s. (Fair warning: Atwater makes repeated use of the n-word, which I have elected not to censor).
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
I struggled with censoring Atwater’s remarks, but I think that what makes his comments so jarring, so cynical, so revolting, and yet so insightful is seeing that ugly word, in print, over and over and over again. Atwater may have not been the architect of the “Southern Strategy,” but he was one of its most prolific and accomplished evangelists. He knew what he was talking about. His comments are not shocking merely because they are offensive; they are shocking because they are brutally, uncomfortably honest.
Lee Atwater, by the way, was terrified of David Duke. Years before Duke’s hometown newspaper, The Times-Picayune, thought to take him seriously, David Duke was already on Lee Atwater’s radar. Atwater, presciently, understood the damage that a candidate like David Duke could inflict on the Republican brand.
Of course, the ascendancy of the Republican Party in the American South had very little to do with welfare reform or tax cuts. Its pathway to victory relied on stoking the fears of poor and working class whites, in convincing white Americans that they were somehow being disenfranchised, that they were the true victims of racial discrimination, that the government actively worked against them. Despite the cartoonish villain he is considered today, as a Republican politician from Louisiana, David Duke, in 1991, was not entirely an anomaly. After all, the majority of whites in Louisiana voted for him to be their governor.
“There was nothing in even the most inflammatory rhetoric from Duke during that (1991) election,” notes Jeff Bostick of The Library Chronicles, “that isn’t squarely within the bounds of the mainstream Republican agenda then or today. ” The observation may seem incendiary and offensive to some, but go back and watch the tapes. On almost every significant issue, David Duke’s position aligns neatly with the mainstream GOP.
“Duke did not run for Senate or for Governor as a Klansman,” Bostick writes. “He ran as a Christian conservative Republican ostensibly regretful of the ‘mistakes’ of his youth. As such, the fact that he was indistinguishable from the mainstream of his party remains the most remarkable fact about his rise.”
To be sure, there are many, like Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jason Berry, who assert that David Duke’s sudden ascendance was also facilitated by a derelict and irresponsible media.
“In Duke’s meteoric rise, the local media had been slow to grasp the importance of his Nazi book list as an organizing and fundraising tool,” Berry writes in The Daily Beast. “He was still selling books on the myth of the Holocaust from his state legislative office six months after he won the ’89 race.” Lee Atwater may have been scared senseless by the prospect of David Duke (R-LA), but The Times-Picayune relegated its coverage of Duke’s successful campaign for state representative to the back pages and treated him like an irrelevant, minor candidate, despite the fact that he had run for president only a year before.
But while the Louisiana media balked and Lee Atwater hemmed and hawed, the Louisiana Republican Party embraced David Duke as a recruitment tool. “When news of his book sales broke,” Berry writes, “John Treen and two members of the Republican State Central Committee pushed the party to censure Duke. GOP leaders refused; they saw that Duke was pulling blue-collar Democrats to the party.”
During the last two weeks, members of Congress and the media have rightfully shamed Steve Scalise for associating with David Duke’s hate group. By now, it should be obvious that Mr. Scalise’s chances of ever becoming Speaker of the House are over, but it’s also obvious that, at least for the time being, he will retain his position in leadership.
Regardless of his perfunctory statement acknowledging his attendance at the hate group and his expression of “regret” (but not “apology,” which seems to be a running theme for him), Steve Scalise knew exactly what he was doing when he strolled into Landmark Best Western Hotel, a place that had long been associated with David Duke, alongside his neo-Nazi neighbor, Kenny Knight, on that warm day in May of 2002.
This was no civic association meeting, and Steve Scalise, then a State Representative, was not on a statewide tour talking about a tax plan or anything of the sort. He was there to meet and greet with a small group of white men whose leader had very nearly become Louisiana governor. David Duke was not physically present at the event; he was piped in from Russia through a rudimentary video feed. Fortunately, for Scalise, there are no photographs of the two men on stage together.
Mr. Scalise, as a state legislator from right down the street, certainly knew that less than 6 years before, David Duke had sold his mailing list for $82,500 to Republican Congressional candidate Woody Jenkins and that, 7 years earlier, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster bought Duke’s list for $150,000. David Duke has built his entire career selling access to his network of racists.
At the time, Duke had already fallen into ignominy, but, as the sitting governor, a fellow Republican, proved, the database of all of those hundreds of thousands of David Duke voters remained immensely valuable.
Steve Scalise did not attend the EURO conference because he’s a secret neo-Nazi. He went because he’s the worst kind of politician: An opportunistic glad-handler who cares more about the accumulation of power than the actual work of governing. His excuses for attending this event are all bogus. He wasn’t there as a part of a tour about the Stelly Plan; that legislation had not even been introduced in committee. He knew exactly who this group was. Kenny Knight, a nationally-known white supremacist, the treasurer of the organization, and David Duke’s campaign manager, was Steve Scalise’s neighbor.
After I first reported about Scalise’s association with David Duke’s hate group, many in the establishment conservative media and blogosphere accused me of waging a “smear campaign,” despite the fact that the Congressman had almost immediately verified the accuracy of my reporting. It was a “political hit piece,” I was told, allegedly orchestrated by a shadowy group of Democratic Party operatives. Truth be told: After the son of Scalise’s Democratic opponent in 2008 mentioned that he once heard a rumor that the Congressman and the Grand Wizard were once photographed together, I simply searched Google for “Steve Scalise David Duke,” and within 35 seconds, I was reading a post on Stormfront about the meeting. There was no massive conspiracy, no animus, no delusions of grandeur; this was merely about exposing the associations between a hate group and the third most powerful member of the United States House of Representatives.
The day after I published the first story on Congressman Scalise, Scott McKay, a conservative blogger from Baton Rouge went apoplectic in an article titled “What Words Should We Use about Lamar White” on his website, The Hey, Right?. (Brief digression: I believe that is the correct spelling and website address. I know there’s a seminal book about Louisiana politics called The Last Hayride, written by the late, great political reporter John Maginnis of Baton Rouge, but there is no way a political blogger from Baton Rouge would ever be so nasty and so cynically opportunistic that he would name his political website after John’s brand. Right? I know “The Hayride” was also a radio show decades ago, and, according to a commenter, “it was likely named after Harnett Kane’s book Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship, 1928-1940“, which covers Long as governor and senator and the overreaching of his followers in the years after his death,” which is where John got the name of his book. But in the world of Louisiana politics, John Maginnis is the “Hayride” guy. I would be astounded if anyone attempted to appropriate his goodwill and his brand, especially if it was done without his blessing and consent. It may not be illegal at all, but it sure seems unethical to me. I’d bet John’s colleagues and friends feel the same way. That would be a great story for The Hey, Right? ).
“This is a nothingburger,” Mr. McKay wrote. “It’s a waste of time, and White has trotted it out on the Monday after Christmas for the sole purpose of smearing Scalise during a slow news cycle and throwing a stinkbomb into the new Republican majority.”
A few hours later, the story appeared in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and hundreds of other publications all across the nation and the globe. My point here is not to gloat or to ridicule a blogger who has somehow spent more time writing about my physical disability (cerebral palsy) than I have. Scott McKay’s series of completely, comically unhinged responses (at one point, he convinced a blogger at The Daily Caller that he was receiving death threats from my “fans”) actually has almost nothing to do with me; instead, it reveals how scared the Louisiana Republican establishment is by the specter of David Duke. Maybe that is a good thing, even when people like me are hit by their shrapnel.
David Duke is kind of a scary guy. He should be marginalized, and so too should those who have associated with his hate group in order to build their own political power. Steve Scalise’s only legitimate excuse for attending this event is stupid, blind ambition. That is it. But instead of apologizing and instead of owning up to his decision, as a 36-year-old state representative, to attend a white supremacist conference, Steve Scalise merely expressed his “regret.”
Why is the distinction important? Ask US Sen. David Vitter who, back then, as a member of the Louisiana House, worked with his colleague State Rep. Steve Scalise on killing a resolution that would have officially apologized for the legislature’s role in codifying slavery. “Vitter echoed Scalise in the meeting,” reports The Hill, “arguing that an apology for slavery implied an ‘admission of guilt,’ according to the minutes. The future U.S. senator said ‘an expression of regret’ was more appropriate.”
But Scalise wouldn’t even agree to support a resolution (which is not a law and merely the reflection of the legislative will) expressing the legislature’s “regret” of codified slavery, because Scalise thought the resolution was about him. Presumably, it was not an earnest effort at acknowledging and correcting an injustice; for Steve Scalise, the whole thing was intended to make him feel guilty for being white. Six years later, he somehow found himself behind the microphone of an international white supremacy group, and two years after that, he voted against affirming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a state holiday.
No one should be surprised, and Scalise’s war of attrition has only increased scrutiny on him and his record. He told the media, for example, that he was “against bigotry in all forms,” which seems like a baffling reversal from a guy who authored one of the most mean-spirited laws in the country banning same-sex marriage and a regular guest on a radio show hosted by yet another president of yet another hate group, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Scott McKay was not the only Louisiana Republican who attacked me for reporting the truth about Congressman Scalise. Roger Villere, the chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, also chimed in. “This manufactured blogger story is simply an attempt to score political points by slandering the character of a good man,” he said. Let me be abundantly clear: Every single thing I have reported is accurate, and this is too: Roger Villere is a liar. (We can still be friends, Roger, but I just know now to zone out when you begin rambling about politics and media conspiracies. You start to sound like a crazy man. The Christian Science Monitor and the Southern Poverty Law Center seem to agree with me about this, by the way).
I understand that folks like Roger Villere, Scott McKay, and Jeff Sadow of Louisiana State University at Shreveport are and will likely always be adamant and fierce defenders of the Louisiana Republican Party. That is fine. But I wonder who they voted for in 1991.
David Duke was a monster created, largely, by the Louisiana Republican Party, and until they firmly and finally reject the politics of hatred that once catapulted him into very top of their ticket, until they learn that they cannot be “David Duke without the baggage,” the ghosts of their past will continue to haunt them. And they have no one to blame but themselves.
On Saturday, a national hate group will be hosting a meeting in Louisiana. Leaders of the group have claimed that homosexuality is the cause of Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac and the Holocaust. They have suggested the welfare destroyed the African-American community and compared African-Americans who support Democratic candidates to drug addicts. They have claimed that Native Americans are to blame for being massacred because they refused to convert to Christianity. They have argued that Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate into the United States.
I’m not sure if Steve Scalise will be at that event. It’s being put on by Gov. Bobby Jindal, and he may consider Scalise to be too much of a political liability.
“In the south, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”