David Duke is the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial who has nevertheless won election to Louisiana's House of Representatives and once was nearly elected governor. He is also known for his avid pursuit of women and, especially, money — so much so, in fact, that he finally went to prison in 2002 for using cash raised to support white supremacist causes to pay for his own gambling and home improvements. Since then, Duke has become an itinerant anti-Semitic salesman, traveling regularly to Europe to sell his books while his latest white supremacist organization, EURO, remains almost entirely inactive.
In His Own Words
"Racial idealism, or racialism, is the idea that a nation's greatest resource is the quality of its people. It means examining all questions of government on the basis of whether the proposed measure is good or bad for our race. … Neither Communism, Capitalism, nor any other materialistic doctrine can save our race; our only racial salvation lies in a White racial alliance uniting our people with the common cause of racial idealism."
— September 1970 article in The Racialist
"When it's America's time to go totalitarian, we should pray that we get a Kemal [Ataturk, former president of Turkey who modernized that country in the 1900s], who was more aware than any other great public figure of modern times that national resurrection depends first and foremost on the distillation process of racial separation."
— 1984 article in the NAAWP News
"In modern America, Jews lead the effort to de-Christianize America. ... They share little of the heritage of the Old Testament people called the Israelites. … Communism and Zionism were born from the same Jewish soul. ... Jewish power is ubiquitous. ... It is not a [Jewish] conspiracy. It is simply two nations — Jew and Gentile — in a state of ethnic war."
— From Duke's 1998 autobiography My Awakening
"Israel makes the Nazi state look very, very moderate."
— 2005 interview with Syrian television
Duke was charged in 1972 with soliciting funds for the George Wallace for President campaign and then illegally pocketing the proceeds. He was also charged with breaking a New Orleans ordinance prohibiting filling glass containers with flammable liquid. Both charges eventually were dropped. In 1976, Duke was convicted of inciting a riot and refusing to disperse. The latter charge was overturned by Louisiana State Court, while he received a suspended sentence, a $500 fine and six months of probation on the inciting charge. In 1987, Duke was charged with reckless conduct and blocking a highway during an anti-integration march in Cumming, Ga. He was given a $55 fine and a one-year suspended prison sentence. In 2002, after spending two years abroad avoiding a feared arrest, Duke agreed to return to the United States and plead guilty to felony mail and tax fraud charges. He served 15 months in a federal prison and was fined $10,000.
Since first making headlines for his neo-Nazi activities as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University (LSU) at Baton Rouge in the early 1970s, David Duke has built an international reputation as the American face of white nationalism and pseudo-academic anti-Semitism. In his various incarnations, Duke has been a neo-Nazi, a major Klan leader, a slick far-right politician and — most recently — a professional lecturer and author traveling the world to warn of a global Jewish conspiracy and seek the separation of the races. After winning a surprise upset in a Louisiana House of Representatives race in 1989, Duke got the attention of the world when, during the 1991 Louisiana governor's contest, he forced a runoff with the Democratic candidate, Edwin Edwards. Although he ultimately lost a fairly close race, that campaign marked the apex of Duke's career as a mainstream politician.
Duke was born in 1950 into a middle-class home in Tulsa, Okla. His father was an engineer for Shell Oil who took his family to the Netherlands before returning to settle in the all-white suburb of Gentilly Woods, La. As a child, Duke's home life was troubled. His mother battled alcoholism and pill addiction and his father traveled frequently. At school, Duke was known as a bookish loner and was taunted, he says, with chants such as "Puke Duke."
Duke's entrance into the world of far-right politics came at age 14, when he attended a local meeting of the Citizen Councils of America (CCA), an anti-integration group known informally as the White Citizens' Councils. He was soon reading racist tracts such as Race and Reason: A Yankee View by arch-segregationist Carlton Putnam, who argued for separation of the races and the genetic superiority of whites. Putnam's book, Duke would later write, "began my intellectual odyssey."
The adolescent Duke immersed himself in books about Nazism and the Third Reich. His increasingly pro-Nazi speeches at CCA meetings drew concern and disdain from less extreme members, most of whom were far more anti-black than anti-Jewish. When his father sent Duke to a military academy after his sophomore year of high school, he was caught with a Nazi flag and his entire class was punished. In retribution, his classmates beat him badly. The following year he returned to public school, where he argued loudly against lowering the flag when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and continued to proclaim the virtues of the Third Reich.
At LSU, Duke quickly earned a reputation as a loudmouthed neo-Nazi. He hung posters of Nazi officials and soldiers on his dorm room walls, telling acquaintances that George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the post-war American Nazi Party, was "the greatest American who ever lived." More important for his future development, he began taking advantage of a new venue on campus — "Free Speech Alley," a busy hangout where students were invited to stand atop a soapbox and declaim on issues of social and political import. While most students at Free Speech Alley spoke in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, Duke issued daily harangues against integration and Jews. When the radical lawyer William Kunstler visited the LSU campus in 1970, Duke protested, carrying a sign that said "Gas the Chicago 7" (a reference to a group of anti-war leftists Kunstler had defended) and wearing a faux Nazi uniform, complete with swastika armband. Such activities kept him from being promoted by ROTC, even though he came in first in his class.
Also in 1970, Duke founded the White Youth Alliance, a student group affiliated with the National Socialist White People's Party (NSWPP), a hard-line descendant of Rockwell's American Nazi Party. As a campus activist, he attempted to recruit his peers by tapping into the radical sentiments of the times. "Nazis also want to smash the system," he told his fellow students.
After a year visiting his father in Laos, Duke returned to Louisiana and graduated in 1974, whereupon he founded the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan (KKKK).
As national leader of the new organization, Duke achieved a remarkable shift in Klan targeting — from blacks to Jews — by recruiting NSWPP members such as Alabama hardliner Don Black. This effective Nazification of the Klan became apparent in the obsession with Jews found in the KKKK organ Crusader, which began to share bylines with the NSWPP's White Power. In 1975, California NSWPP member Tom Metzger became Duke's California leader.
Duke's attempt to mainstream his Klan led to a steep rise in membership. By opening up the organization to women, Catholics and teens, he expanded its ranks. Also crucial was Duke's successful courtship of the major media. That courtship began in 1974, when Duke challenged popular talk-show host Tom Snyder to invite him onto his nightly show on NBC. Snyder accepted the challenge and, at the age of 23, Duke made his first appearance on national television.
During the next few years, Duke would score several major coups by getting the media to cover Klan actions that were little more than stunts. These included "Freedom Rides North" during battles over school busing in Boston (only a small handful of Klansmen actually made it to Boston) and a much-hyped "Klan Border Watch" in Southern California that involved fewer than a dozen Klansman.
Duke's stewardship of the Klan faltered on his inability to retain top leaders. Frustrated by what they saw as Duke's boundless ego, his well-known womanizing, and repeated accusations that he was embezzling Klan funds, several high-level resignations crippled the organization in the late 1970s. These included the departure of Tom Metzger, who left the KKKK in 1979 and remains highly critical of Duke today. Metzger has called his former colleague a fraud, an egomaniac and a ripoff artist. Many former Duke colleagues continue to make similar charges.
In 1979, Duke began to distance himself from the Klan, running for a Louisiana state Senate seat as a conservative Democrat and winning 26% of the vote (9,897 votes). In 1980, he also made a halfhearted run for president.
As a professional racist activist and perennial failed politician, Duke needed either organizational dues or campaign contributions to pay his bills. In 1981, he founded a new organization, the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) — a "Klan without the sheets," in the words of Duke biographer Tyler Bridges. In building up the NAAWP, he would denigrate the Klan as consisting of simple-minded "nigger haters" with no positive agenda or intellectual heft. But this didn't stop Duke from wooing old Klansmen into his new organization.
Although the NAAWP allowed Duke to make a modest living, the early to mid-1980s was a period in the relative political wilderness for Duke, with little media interest in his activities. Between 1980 and 1987, Duke would appear on national television only once — a stark contrast to his days as the national face of the Klan during its comeback in the 1970s. During this time, his ideology absorbed a bizarre component in the form of the New Age human potential movement, which Duke embraced in the 1980s. He also gambled heavily (Duke has a longstanding and well-known passion for craps) and began dabbling in the stock market. In the mid-1980s, membership for the NAAWP was stagnant at around 1,000.
In 1986, Duke visited Austria and the Mauthausen concentration camp. The visit deepened his interest in Holocaust revisionism, a field in which he today touts himself as an expert.
The following year, Duke had a series of cosmetic surgeries, including a nose reduction, a chin enlargement, and a "chemical peel." He would soon dye his hair and shave his mustache. A well-covered appearance by Duke at an anti-integration rally in Forsyth County, Ga., helped put the "new" David Duke on the map that same year.
In 1988, Duke ran for president again. He claimed to lead his "Sunshine Coalition" in opposition to Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition." Duke won less than 5% of the vote in Louisiana and a negligible amount nationally.
The following year, Duke won his first elected office in a special election for the Louisiana State House. Running as an anti-tax, anti-busing Republican, Duke toned down his anti-Semitism and dodged questions about his neo-Nazi and Klan past. Fueling support for his campaign was fierce opposition to eliminating the state's highly popular homestead exemption, which eliminated property taxes for homes assessed at under $75,000. In unusually high turnout for a special election, Duke won 33% of the vote to his opponent John Treen's 19%. In the runoff that followed, Duke beat Treen by just 227 votes. Among the legislation unsuccessfully proposed by Duke while in office were bills to raise penalties for drug offenders in housing projects and to require drug testing for recipients of welfare and Medicaid.
In 1990, Duke announced his candidacy in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat. In the end, he raised an astonishing $2.4 million and won 607,391 votes (about 60% of the white Republican vote), but lost the primary. Undaunted, he ran in 1991 against incumbent Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, a scandal-dogged, Huey Long-style populist. Although the race was considered too close to safely call weeks before the election, a weak performance by Duke in the second debate — and political work including the famous pro-Edwards bumper sticker, "Vote for the crook. It's important" — helped tilt the balance to Edwards, who beat Duke by 22 percentage points in the Democratic primary vote. (Still, Duke once again took more than half of the white vote, racking up 671,009 votes in total.)
Duke almost immediately began laying the groundwork for another presidential campaign, in 1992, but white nationalist Pat Buchanan stole much of his thunder by running to the right of George Bush. Duke had virtually no impact on the overall race and the media showed scant interest in his campaign.
In 1998, after several years largely out of the political limelight, Duke published his autobiography, My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding, signifying a return to public anti-Semitism and racist activism. In 2000, while raising funds for Buchanan's ill-starred presidential campaign on the Reform Party ticket, Duke formed NOFEAR, or the National Organization For European American Rights. The following year he changed the name to EURO (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) because a clothing line already owned the name NOFEAR and was threatening a lawsuit. EURO remains Duke's primary organizing and fundraising vehicle, along with his books and personal website.
In 2002, more than two years after telling a girlfriend that he was leaving the country to avoid arrest, Duke made a deal to return to the United States and plead guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud; he was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Substantiating movement criticisms of him going back 30 years, Duke admitted to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from his followers under false pretenses and spending the money on luxury goods, home improvement and gambling.
In 2004, David Duke published Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question. The manuscript, drawn heavily from Duke's Ph.D. dissertation, was written for Ukraine's Interregional Academy of Personnel Management and entitled "Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism." It has been translated into nine languages. The university, also known as MAUP, is a center of anti-Semitic teaching.
Duke has found an audience for the book abroad, specifically in the former republics of the Soviet Union and in the Middle East. Since the end of the Cold War, Duke and far-right nationalists in Russia have held each other in especially high regard. Duke traveled to Russia for the first time in September 1995. There he met Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the bombastic neofascist. With his legal problems mounting at home, Duke brought his sales pitch back to Russia in August 1999. While in Moscow, he befriended several anti-Semitic leaders, including Gen. Albert Makashov, head of the ultranationalist wing of the Communist Party, who in 1998 proposed to murder all Jews ("I will round up all the Yids and send them to the next world!").Today, Duke spends much of his time as an international racist dilettante traveling in Russia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere to participate in junkets such as the June 2006 Moscow conference on "The White World's Future," where he praised his host city for having "the largest number of White people of any city in the entire world."
In April, 2009, it was reported that Duke, who had arrived in the Czech Republic at the invitation of Czech neo-Nazis to deliver three lectures in Prague and Brno to promote his book My Awakening, was arrested on suspicion of "denying or approving of the Nazi genocide and other Nazi crimes," and other rights violations charges punishable by up to three years in prison in the Czech Republic. The Czech police released Duke the following day and ordered him to leave the country by midnight. Duke was scheduled to give a lecture at Charles University in Prague but it was canceled after university officials learned that neo-Nazis were planning to attend.
In 2009, it was reported that Duke was living in Salzburg, Austria, on Lake Zeller. From there, he runs an Internet business taking and selling photographs of rare birds and other wildlife. Duke wrote of his new home, "I'm not in Austria for any political activities. I just come to Austria to relax – the mountains are beautiful. The Austrian Alps are just beautiful. There's beauty all over the world."
In 2011, Duke was arrested in Cologne, Germany, while on his way to address a group of rightwing extremists. German authorities detained him for a few days before deporting him back to Austria. The former Klan leader, they said, was “not entitled to stay in Germany” because of a travel ban in an unspecified European country (most likely the Czech Republic).
In protest, Duke issued a self-righteous “Open Letter to the World” to set the record straight on his allegedly innocuous “basic beliefs and principles.” He was not a white supremacist but rather a supporter of every people’s “right to preserve their freedom and their identity.” He was not a Holocaust denier but “a Holocaust exposer.” He is also a man who, at Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2006 Holocaust denial conference, called the Holocaust “the device used as the pillar of Zionist imperialism, Zionist aggression, Zionist terror and Zionist murder.”