Skip to main content Accessibility
The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

Detailing David Duke

For more than a decade, authors have probed the history and ideology of David Duke, America's best-known white supremacist.

In the world according to David Ernest Duke, Europeans are more civilized than people of color; blacks are inherently predisposed to crime; lower IQ test scores among blacks are not the result of inferior education or economic status, but inferior genes; whites suffer from widespread "reverse discrimination" in the United States; and the lynching of blacks was almost always punishment for "serious criminal behavior such as rape and murder."

What's more, Duke maintains that conniving Jews run the economy and the media; they use blacks as pawns in an ongoing war against white Christians; Communism was a Jewish creation; and the Holocaust either never happened or has been greatly exaggerated. And, by the way, did you know that Jews "declared war" on the Nazis first, which prompted Hitler to strike back in self-defense?

These are among the many canards, lies and distortions that fill the pages of Duke's 1998 autobiography, My Awakening. Fortunately, long-time anti-racist activist Tim Wise has written a detailed rebuttal to Duke's rancid prose.

In his forthcoming book, Great White Hoax, Wise methodically dissects and exposes the litany of errors, falsehoods, and outright fabrications that Duke has espoused throughout his career as a professional bigot. The fact that Duke has recently pleaded guilty to two felonies and is headed to federal prison does not make Wise's book any less relevant or timely. This important new study is a valuable tool for countering the pernicious and hurtful myths promoted not just by Duke but by the white nationalist movement as a whole.

"Old Nazis ... never die," says Wise. "They just pass on their sickness to a new generation." While Wise provides a convincing, point-by-point refutation of Duke's racist and anti-Semitic propaganda, several other books have examined his career as a white supremacist agitator and political office-seeker. By far, the best of these is The Rise of David Duke by former New Orleans Times-Picayune staff writer Tyler Bridges.

"On the surface, he is charming, friendly, boyishly handsome. But beneath the mask lurks a twisted fanatic," writes Bridges, who discusses Duke's dysfunctional family background and the lonely childhood that preceded his involvement with a series of hate groups. Born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1950, Duke was raised by an alcoholic mother and an aloof father, a former U.S. army major who worked as an engineer for Shell Oil.

In this exemplary political biography, Bridges exposes Duke's use of front companies to siphon funds from his political campaigns for personal use and many other instances of financial chicanery. Bridges also reports that several of Duke's key allies in the racist movement — including a number of American Nazi Party and Ku Klux Klan veterans — helped to coordinate his campaigns for political office.

Cross to Bear, by political columnist John Maginnis, is a journalistic account of the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial race (dubbed "the race from hell"), which culminated in a high-profile runoff contest between Duke and Edwin Edwards, the scandal-plagued former governor. Although the book lacks an index, it provides an in-depth look at Louisiana politics at its worst, as voters were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

"Vote for the crook. It's important," became the ironic rallying cry for many who backed Edward's successful campaign. It turns out that the two candidates had more in common than most people realized at the time. Both men would later be sentenced to prison for financial improprieties.

David Duke: Evolution of a Klansman by Michael Zatarain was written before Duke ran for governor. It focuses on his early years as white supremacist — from his initial exposure to segregationist writings in middle school to his electoral breakthrough in 1989, when Duke unexpectedly won a seat in the Louisiana state legislature. As a college student at Louisiana State University, Duke paraded around campus in a swastika armband.

Since then, according to Zatarain, "Duke's positions had not changed, only his method of delivery and the public's acceptance of him were different." This largely kid-gloves account, however, steers clear of Duke's womanizing, gambling, and financial misconduct, which figured prominently in the splits that ensued within the Klan as his erstwhile supporters abandoned Duke in droves.

The Emergence of David Duke and the Politics of Race edited by Douglas D. Rose consists of 11 essays that probe various aspects of the Duke phenomenon. This astute collection includes contributions from sociologists, political scientists, journalists, historians, and anti-racist activists who address essential questions, such as: How did an ex-Klansman proclaiming a thinly disguised racialist message became the preferred candidate of hundreds of thousands of Americans? Was his popularity among white voters a Louisiana oddity or a symptom of a nationwide malaise?

Many Duke supporters "feel less racist than victimized," according to Rose. Duke's scapegoating message found a receptive audience among those hit hard by a Louisiana oil recession. Widespread political alienation was also an important factor that played in his favor. Grassroots anti-racist organizations, meanwhile, were instrumental in thwarting Duke's reactionary populist power-grab.

Particularly significant were the efforts of Lance Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism, who wrote an article for this anthology. "Duke entered the far right movement as an avowed National Socialist," says Hill. "Since then, like his Nazi forebears, Duke's politics have been marked by opportunism [as he] searched for a way to popularize his racial views."

In another noteworthy essay, Elizabeth A. Rickey, a member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee, describes her frustration as she tried to get GOP leaders in her state to take a strong stand against Duke. Rickey figured that Duke's neo-Nazi and Klan associations would embarrass other Republicans and prompt them to repudiate Duke in no uncertain terms.

Instead she found herself thrust into a "twilight zone" of dithering, indecisive political elites who did not know what to do about the challenge presented by Duke. As Rickey put it, "I just did not understand how anyone could look at David Duke, listen to him for any length of time, know of his background, and not want to put garlic around their neck."