Why the Former Klansman Is More Relevant To Donald Trump’s Campaign Than Any Republican Elected Official, Including Mike Pence
Yesterday afternoon, I was a guest on the Jim Engster Radio Show with former Louisiana State Sen. Ben Bagert, one of a small but prominent group of people who have had the surreal experience and perhaps the misfortune of running against David Ernest Duke for the United States Senate. In Bagert’s case, it was way back in 1990, and Duke was much more formidable, as a candidate, 26 years ago in Louisiana than he is today.
Although he ultimately lost the 1990 election in a run-off against incumbent U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, David Duke still managed to carry an astonishing 60% of white voters. The next year, when he squared off against Edwin Edwards for Louisiana governor- the notorious “Vote for the Crook; It’s Important” election- he lost again, but despite that, he still won 55% of white voters.
This year, for the third time, he’s once again running for United States Senate in Louisiana, and once again, even though there is not a chance in hell that Duke could ever win this election, he has sucked up all of the national and international media attention and likely persuaded countless people who have never been to Louisiana that he has a legitimate shot.
I will dispel that belief right now: David Duke has a greater chance of getting struck by lightning, or, less macabre, a greater chance of winning the Powerball than he has of becoming the next junior United States Senator from Louisiana.
As Sen. Bagert mentioned to me yesterday on the radio, Duke isn’t really a politician; he never has been. He’s a creature of the media, and he’s been delighted to serve in that role for most of his adult life- staging phony vigilante protests at the Mexican border or on college campuses, often carrying around more members of the press than members of his organization at his events.
He relishes in the attention, which the media has often been too willing to oblige him, and for the most part, he’s learned how to present himself as a soft-spoken, unthreatening, faux-intellectual, and not a raging racist lunatic.
Of course, it’s all theater. David Duke may believe in everything he says, but he is still an actor. As Sen. Bagert reminded listeners yesterday, Duke is an extremely effective public speaker and debater. If you listen to the debates he had with Gov. Edwin Edwards, you’ll hear much of the same stuff that Bobby Jindal said sixteen years later and that Donald Trump is saying today. Some of it is uncanny.
Duke knows this, of course. He’s proud of it. It makes him appear prescient and wise, and as we know today, it’s why he’s decided to- yet again- run for the U.S. Senate.
For the first time in his adult life, he recognized a Presidential candidate who was preaching what he’d been practicing for decades. There’s a reason Trump had a difficult time finally (and even then sheepishly) repudiating David Duke. To the dismay of most Americans, the Trump campaign has provided cover for our country’s most virulent racists, and throughout the course of the last eighteen months, it has formed a symbiotic relationship with the so-called “alt-right,” people, like Trump campaign CEO Steven Bannon and online personality Alex Jones, who have made their living peddling absurd and offensive conspiracy theories that appeal, almost exclusively, to older white men who see their institutional privileges being whittled away as the country becomes more diverse, more tolerant, and more globally-aware.
The Trump campaign wasn’t launched after an escalator ride down the lobby of Trump Tower; it was actually launched on Twitter and cable news, years before, when Donald Trump persistently made the absurd claim that Barack Obama had lied about his birth certificate.
He repeatedly told the American public that he had proof; he said that he sent down investigators to Hawaii. None of this was true, of course, as he was forced to reluctantly acknowledge a couple of months ago.
Trump became a force in national politics by embracing a racist and phony story about the true identity of the very first African-American President. It wasn’t just about a chance to earn some free media; it was about planting the seeds for a national campaign, a campaign that would be built by disaffected white men who were offended by the fact that their country was led by a black man. And of course, no one could say it that clearly in the open, so it became about the authenticity of a birth certificate.
Oh, we’ve all seen the short-form, but what does the long-form show?
Ok, fine, now that we all have the long-form certificate, we have some serious questions about the watermark and the typeset.
Lost in all of this coverage and speculation was one simple fact: The birth certificate didn’t really matter, even if it were forged or faked (which it most certainly wasn’t), even if Obama had been born in Kenya or Indonesia. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a white woman from Kansas. Her son, no matter where he may have been born, is considered a natural-born citizen, just as John McCain (who was born in Panama) and George Romney (who was born in Mexico) were.
Try as he might now to discount the importance of the birther controversy or to ludicrously deflect blame to Hillary Clinton because of a memo one of her campaign staff members circulated in 2008 about Obama’s American “roots” (which was really just code for “Hawaii,” not for “obvious Manchurian candidate who faked his own birth certificate as a baby and lied about his own mother so that one day he’d get elected President of the United States by more votes than anyone in American history), Donald Trump’s entire rise in politics was predicated on a blatantly racist, comically ridiculous conspiracy theory.
He didn’t just casually entertain the conspiracy theory. He invested in it. He spent years of his life arguing about it, publicly, on television and on the internet. He adopted birtherism as his political brand. And the whole thing wasn’t just dumb and racist, it also reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the law and the United States Constitution.
It didn’t appeal at all to legal experts or to Constitutional scholars: It appealed to people who were so repulsed by the idea that a black man was elected President of the United States and who believed- or at least hoped- that the only explanation for his election was because he had somehow broken the law, forged his birth certificate, lied about the identity of his own mother. That’s how disruptive an election of an African-American man was to their own sense of identity and self-worth.
And for too long, our supplicant media played along with this racist stupidity, treating it like tabloid entertainment and coddling Donald Trump like an entertainer.
As we know now, Trump’s embrace of birtherism was a harbinger of things to come: Claims that the Mexican government was “sending” rapists and murderers to the United States, tall-tales about witnessing hundreds of Muslims celebrating in the streets of New Jersey on September 11, 2001, stories about the Chinese “inventing climate change.”
These aren’t things that a rational or intelligent or decent American would ever believe, but they all find an ideological home in the alt-right and in white nationalism.
There’s nothing surprising about the fact that David Duke is so enthusiastically supportive of Donald Trump. And it makes sense why- even though Trump has “denounced” his support- Duke is still spending his own campaign money on robocalls encouraging people to vote for Trump. On almost every major policy issue, their platforms are almost identical, but unlike Trump, David Duke has been consistent about all of these issues for more than four decades.
When David Duke was a college student at LSU, he’d dress up in Nazi uniforms, and then, for a time, in klan’s robes. If you ask folks who knew him back then, they’ll tell you that he was treated like a total pariah on campus, that he had very few friends at the time, and that the racist and neo-Nazi screeds he delivered in LSU’s Free Speech Ally were either entirely ignored or universally ridiculed.
But at some point, David Duke decided he wanted to get into politics, and he knew he couldn’t get elected to anything if he didn’t look the part.
So, he traded in his klan’s robes for a suit. He got himself a fancy haircut. He presented himself as an entrepreneur, even though there’s very little evidence he made much of anything. He even spoiled himself with cosmetic procedures- chemical peels, a lift or two for his face, something to fix his nose.
He disavowed his prior involvement in the KKK. He told people he was a born-again Christian. He stopped speaking in overtly racist language and talked, instead, in well-crafted code. He smiled a lot. He held enormous campaign rallies all across the state, and he used his controversial past to earn him more free media than any of his opponents could have possibly afforded.
For a time, David Duke had a powerful and persuasive message that resonated deeply with the majority of whites in Louisiana, many of whom are still alive and voting in this year’s election. It was about crime and drugs and out of control immigration and “welfare queens” and the feeling that our entire country was on the verge of some sort of existential calamity, and you know what? Even though David Duke was the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, that message almost worked when he ran for Senator in 1990 and Governor in 1991.
Previously, during his campaign for the Louisiana State House of Representatives, Duke was publicly repudiated by both former President Ronald Reagan and then-current President George H.W. Bush; they urged voters to reject his insipid racism. It was the first time in modern American history that both a former President and a current President of the United States had intervened in a local state representative election.
Duke won that little race, and Presidents Reagan and Bush privately blamed themselves, believing they had allowed Duke the ability to make himself appeal to those who were simply against “the establishment.”
In only a week from now, the election will finally be over, and we’ll all be able to reflect back, with the benefit of hindsight, about what the last crazy two years really mean about who we are as a country. We’ll study this year’s election more than any other one in modern history. For at least the next two decades, we’ll reference the election of 2016 and what it revealed about our country.
Here’s my suggestion for future historians: If you want to understand the special set of circumstances that resulted in the Republican Party nomination of Donald Trump, you should read about what happened down here in Louisiana 25 years ago.