For a failed perennial candidate, David Duke is casting a long political shadow.
The avowed neo-Nazi and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard never became a governor, a U.S. Senator or president, despite electoral bids for each.
But his stunning victory in a Louisiana legislative special election 30 years ago in February 1989 wasn’t a political aberration.
Instead, Duke’s win set off a larger fight that’s ongoing today as the Republican Party sees more candidates and officeholders who used to be considered the racist fringe of the political spectrum.
The issues, language and techniques Duke used to score an upset over fellow Republican John Treen in a district just outside of New Orleans proved instructive. Duke’s techniques showed others with extreme or far-right views how to dress up sometimes racist and xenophobic positions to win elective office.
Today, Republicans mimic Duke’s language on immigration and diversity. Hardcore racists copy the style and image Duke started to cultivate in the 1970s. Some candidates even court Duke’s supporters and appear on his podcasts.
Duke’s lone winning campaign, the only successful one in the United States by an avowed neo-Nazi, has cast a long shadow on America’s political landscape and laid the groundwork for an attempted takeover of the Republican Party.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tracked more than 300 candidates in 2018 with varying ties to extremism in the last election cycle.
The SPLC tracked neo-Nazis, racists, white supremacists, antigovernment zealots, and, to an extent, President Donald Trump. These candidates follow Duke’s campaign playbook of using racist dog whistle language, couching their ideas in innocuous language and cleaning up their looks for good optics.
President Trump went one step beyond mimicking Duke. Trump retweeted white nationalist and conspiracy theorists Lauren Southern and Paul Joseph Watson the weekend of May 4.
Duke did not respond to multiple interview requests from Hatewatch. But he told the Huffington Post in February 2017 that he was happy to see white candidates and Republicans taking up his issues.
“I think it’s about time,” Duke said in the Huffington Post interview. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of frustration in the white community and that we’re at a tipping point.”
Duke’s mainstreaming of white nationalist language sets the table for what’s happening today in GOP politics.
“In some ways what we saw in Louisiana was sort of a dress rehearsal for conservative Republicans to learn how to appeal to frustrated whites,” Tyler Bridges, a reporter who chronicled Duke in the book The Rise and Fall of David Duke, told Hatewatch. “Trump has very strongly tapped into that. It’s helpful to understand Donald Trump today by understanding who David Duke has been.”
Democratic political consultant James Carville, an LSU student at the same time as Duke, recalls Duke taking advantage of Free Speech Alley, a place on campus where anyone could pull up a soapbox and let their thoughts and opinions fly.
“It was college,” Carville told Hatewatch. “At LSU, he was just sort of one of those things that was part of campus. There’s the campus Nazi.”
But for a young white supremacist on the rise, parading around looking like a member of the Hitler Youth – about three decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II – wasn’t a good image.
A couple of years out of college, with a degree in history in tow, Duke incorporated the Ku Klux Klan, Realm of Louisiana, in 1975. Quickly, Duke ascended in the group, rising to become the youngest leader in Klan history at age 24. He changed the leadership title from “Grand Dragon” to “Grand Wizard” and, while still wearing white robes and hoods for impact, also incorporated blue business suits to professionalize the group’s image.
During this time, Duke also denounced the Klan’s violent history, opened membership to women, and allowed Catholic members, which in heavily Catholic south Louisiana was a necessity to keep membership up.
“Women are the same as men in our organization,” Duke said then. “In fact, some of our best members are women.”
Much like Duke throughout his life, the changes were simply cosmetic. There were few questions about the Klan’s ongoing aims.
It also marked the first major change to Duke’s image and coincided with some of his early political activity.
Duke ran for state legislative office multiple times in the 1970s and 1980s in Baton Rouge and suburban New Orleans.
He also made a presidential bid on the virulently racist and antisemitic Populist Party ticket in 1988. He took 47,047 votes, for 0.04% of the national popular vote.
Less than a year later, Duke abandoned the Populist Party and signed on with the GOP.
Gone were the polyester suits, the shaggy hair parted to the side, flat cheekbones and minimal chin. The new-look Duke – with blow-dried hair, a strong chin and cheekbones, courtesy of surgical procedures – could have stepped out from behind the anchor desk of a local television station.
The cosmetic changes came with a new message. No more talk of Jews, blacks and minorities. Duke now talked about “equal rights for all,” preserving heritage and reforming government programs. Duke adapted the political language of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Duke criticized welfare, immigration and affirmative action, sharpening and using such language to mask his far-right positions and policy proposals, such as requiring people receiving government benefits to have pregnancy-prevention devices implanted in their bodies.
“He wanted to mainstream white nationalism,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
After being seated in the Louisiana House of Representatives, Duke filed a small batch of bills, but only one, an anti-affirmative action plan, ever got to a vote on the House floor. It passed. The Louisiana State Senate allowed it to die.
Underneath the political image, Duke maintained his Nazi and racist ties, even selling Nazi literature from his home, which doubled as his legislative office.
But the public-facing candidate and legislator had more of a mass appeal.
Duke took 671,009 votes out of 1.6 million cast in the 1991 gubernatorial race, but also snagged 55 percent of the white vote.
“He was able to reinvent himself as something very different than what he really was,” said Bob Mann, a former U.S. Senate aide who teaches communication at Louisiana State University.
Between 1990 and 1992, Duke ran for U.S. Senate, for Louisiana governor, and in the U.S. presidential primaries, and lost each time. But in losing, Duke helped others win. He blazed a path that other candidates, including one from his backyard, would follow in the years to come.
Steve Scalise, a young, local, Catholic school graduate and computer technology businessman, cut an attractive figure when he got into state electoral politics in the New Orleans area.
He also knew the district in which he was running was predominantly white, older and conservative, just like the district that elected Duke.
Stephanie Grace, now a columnist for The Advocate in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, met Scalise early in his political career. At the time, Grace was a young reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and Scalise was an aspiring politician.
“This is what I remember about the first time I met Steve Scalise nearly 20 years ago: He told me he was like David Duke without the baggage,” Grace wrote in a December 2014 column.
The context was that Scalise would adopt Duke’s issues, which were becoming mainstream Republican ideas, without his background in the Klan and neo-Nazi movements.
“Scalise was saying a lot of the same things Duke was staying without the racism and antisemitism. Trump makes comments today … in much of the same way that David Duke did 25-30 years ago,” Bridges said.
Scalise’s claim of distance from Duke came into question in 2014, after it became public that Scalise spoke as an “honored guest” to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a racist and antisemitic group once led by Duke and his top lieutenant, Kenny Knight.
But as Scalise went from state legislator to the number two Republican in the U.S. House, that incident haunted him and, by late 2014, he called speaking to the group a mistake while insisting he didn’t know it was a white supremacist organization.
In short, Scalise was courting Duke’s voters while denying he knew they were Duke’s voters.
“He walked into a white supremacist and neo-Nazi convention and didn’t immediately turn around and walk out,” said Lamar White Jr., a lawyer and blogger who first broke the news of Scalise’s speech to EURO. “It sounds like the speech he made was tailor-made for a bunch of white racists.”
For Carville, the use of couched language is typical of Duke and his imitators. Certain words and phrases are a giveaway, Carville said.
Carville said many Duke supporters use coded language to hide the racist meaning behind what they are saying. “[Duke] had more respectable people for him than respectable people want to admit,” Carville said.
Others used Duke’s way with language to great effect.
“He definitely foreshadowed what we’re seeing now,” Mann said. “A lot of people who voted for Duke are still around. They still walk among us.”
Both U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who represented much of Duke’s old legislative district while serving in the state House and later Congress, and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal opposed welfare and immigration and sounded like Duke when discussing it.
“We need to insist on assimilation … immigration without assimilation is invasion. We need to insist people that want to come to our country should come legally,” Jindal said in an interview with CBS in 2015. “[They] should learn English and adopt our values, roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
White said Jindal took Duke’s issues but made them palatable.
“There were a few instances where it almost seemed verbatim from David Duke,” White said.
Others have been very direct about copying Duke’s language.
“First off, I’m not a racist,” The Texas Observer reported Duke saying in 1989. “I love my heritage but I believe in equal rights, and I don’t think you have to put down the races to defend your own.”
Wisconsin Republican Paul Nehlen, an avowed white supremacist but without Duke’s Klan background, has appeared on Duke’s podcasts on Rense Radio Network, which hosts antisemitic and neo-Nazi broadcasts as well as promotes conspiracy theories.
And, in those appearances, Nehlen sounds remarkably like Duke from his political days.
“We should be proud of our history. We’re not suggesting others should not be proud of their history,” Nehlen said in February 2018 on Duke’s show. “But neither should we back down.”
The appearance on Duke’s radio show was a direct appeal to his followers as Nehlen sought the GOP nomination for Congress in Wisconsin in 2018. He lost.
Fear of minorities
One of the issues Duke pushed on the campaign trail, and still pushes hard on his podcasts and Twitter, is the idea that white people are being overtaken and discriminated against.
The concept of white grievance and fear of minorities has been around for a while – but usually tucked neatly into the couched language of respectable campaigning. George H.W. Bush and his campaign strategist Lee Atwater did it in 1988, pushing such themes in commercials about black inmates being furloughed, like in the infamous Willie Horton ad.
Duke, a year later and since, has taken it on directly.
“I do think that there are certain tendencies, certain behavioral tendencies, that are more inherited, and I think that blacks generally, in terms of our society, have more of a tendency to act in anti-social ways,’” Duke told a Tulane student on Nov. 29, 1989. “I think blacks have more of a tendency to commit crime.”
Lawrence N. Powell, a Tulane University history professor and a founder of the anti-Duke group the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, sees a direct line between Duke’s rise in Louisiana 30 years ago and the current political environment in America.
“What happened here in the late eighties and early nineties presaged the ethno-nationalist backlash taking place today,” Powell told Hatewatch.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, may be the best example of Duke’s war playing out. King, who has been known to retweet white supremacists and nationalists, told CNN in 2017 that “western civilization” must be defended.
And, when asked, King declined to say if he believed an American Muslim, an Italian American and a Jewish American could all contribute equally to society.
“They contribute differently to our culture and civilization,” King told CNN. “Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will.”
Duke even took to the U.S.-Mexico border before it became a hot issue.
Duke hyped the “Klan Border Watch” in 1979, which he said was an attempt to help federal officers arrest people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego.
It turned out to be Duke and three buddies in an old sedan with a sign attached to the side of the car.
An unsigned 1984 editorial in the NAAWP News, of which Duke was the publisher, advocated beginning “the creation of the Superman” by shooting “if necessary” illegal aliens entering the U.S. across the southern border.
“The answer? … Create a narrow no-man’s land on our southern border. Shoot interlopers if necessary and establish army bases all along the border and use soldiers to help patrol the border if the above measures don’t meet with enough success.”
Trump has faced criticism for hinting border agents might shoot at migrants and for making a joke after a supporter suggested shooting immigrants. He has also deployed more than 5,000 troops to the border and says he wants to send more.
Trump called for the U.S. military to patrol the border in May 2018 in an attempt to secure it, even though border crossings in 2017 were at the lowest level since 1971.
“Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” Trump told reporters at a gathering of generals.
Nehlen, on Duke’s radio show in January, echoed the NAAWP editorial more directly.
“Armed machine gun turrets every 300 yards,” Nehlen told Duke of his vision for the border wall. “And you can automate those. Anyone who approaches that barrier will be treated as an enemy combatant. Man, woman or child.”
To Mann, comments like that are more than an echo.
“I think it’s pretty easy to draw a straight line,” Mann said.
White sheet blues
Gone are the days of the white-sheeted Klansman or brown-shirted Nazi spewing racist and antisemitic comments.
Today’s extremist candidate looks good in a blue business suit, button-down shirt and neatly coiffed hair.
It’s a style Duke used to great effect in 1989, his 1990 U.S. Senate run and his 1991 gubernatorial bid in Louisiana, in which he won 55 percent of the white vote.
Others have followed that reinvention.
Art Jones, a professional neo-Nazi who won the GOP congressional nomination by default in an Illinois district in 2018, has abandoned overtly Nazi symbols and language in exchange for a blue suit, crisp white shirt and red striped tie on his campaign website.
Others, such as Nehlen, opt for more casual wear of button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up or jeans.
And, among the politicians, gone are the Nazi-style and militaristic haircuts. Neatly cropped hair, even slight comb-overs, are the order of the day for most politicians.
Patrick Casey, the 29-year-old head of Identity Evropa, puts on sweaters, collared shirts and khakis to go with close-cropped hair, as he did early in 2018 at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where he blended in at the large-scale Republican gathering.
Casey is hoping to carry Duke’s work to a new plateau. “To take over the GOP as much as possible,” he told NBC News.
Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education of Human Rights and author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, knows exactly what Casey and others are pitching.
“It is not ethnonationalism, but white supremacy,” Zeskind said.
The new look has spread even to those extremists not running for office.
These days, people such as Richard Spencer, the self-described intellectual force behind the “alt-right,” and his cohorts such as Evan McLaren, are more likely to have a prep school look or a blue suit.
At the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, many of the racists and extremists gathered not wearing stormtrooper boots, but khakis. The Proud Boys, another hate group, favor Fred Perry short-sleeved golf shirts.
It’s all an attempt to look normal and acceptable. It can be traced back to Duke’s political rise, said White, the attorney and blogger.
“He was always this guy,” White said of Duke. “He was always a neo-Nazi. But he dressed himself up and people were willing to believe him.”
A long, white shadow
Donald Trump came down the escalator of his hotel in New York in 2015 to announce his candidacy for president and took to calling Mexican immigrants criminals of all stripes.
“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said in June 2015.
It was a moment that fired up his base of aggrieved white voters. It also fired up Duke for his 2016 U.S. Senate run.
“I think it’s fair to draw a line connecting David Duke to Donald Trump,” Bridges said.
In his 2016 announcement video, Duke, who spent 15 months in federal prison for tax fraud, promised to “stop the massive immigration and ethnic cleansing of the people whose forefathers created America.” He declared, “We cannot have free trade without fair trade.” And he said he was “overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years.”
Duke pulled about 58,000 votes out of 1.9 million cast in that 2016 race to replace the retiring Vitter, a Republican caught in a prostitution scandal. That placed him seventh in a field of 24 candidates – 25 years after his last statewide run for governor.
He also backed Trump in February 2016, saying on the “David Duke Radio Program”: “Voting for these people, voting against Donald Trump at this point, is really treason to your heritage.”
Trump initially refused to denounce Duke, even going so far to say as he didn’t know who the former Klan leader was. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” Trump told CNN. “So I don’t know. I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.”
After five days of bad publicity, Trump simply said “I disavow” when asked about Duke’s endorsement.
Duke, who stays active on Twitter, has also injected himself into political races elsewhere, endorsing Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right wing candidate for president of Brazil, in October. Bolsonaro rejected the endorsement. He also won the election.
Also, Duke’s connection to Scalise has turned up in a Democratic ad questioning the House Republican’s speech to EURO.
In the ad, the narrator describes Scalise as “linked to KKK leader David Duke” as his picture appears behind the newspaper headline “Steve Scalise Once Defended Himself Against Links to David Duke.”
Duke himself has faded from the electoral scene, a result of scandals, criminal convictions and his brand of politics being taken on by more mainstream politicians, Levin said.
“He won’t go away,” Mann said.
Carville suspects he knows why.
“Racism is a potent strain in politics,” he said.
And, if Duke’s legacy is any guide, a long-lasting one.