David Duke wants so badly to be Donald Trump; to matter on a national scale like Donald Trump. And in his ugly exploitation of the debate stage in Louisiana on Wednesday night, he got what he wanted: headlines like Donald Trump.
The former Ku Klux Klan leader now running for the U.S. Senate made his way to the big show on the strength of one poll that found him polling at 5.1 percent. So 32 Louisianans out of 625 polled gave him just enough support to share a stage, and TV time, with three other Republicans and two Democrats at historically black Dillard University—a setting so ironically apt that no screenwriter would dare invent it.
As he’s done throughout his campaign, Duke petulantly and garishly raged against Jewish people, immigrants, and the Black Lives Matter movement, his words echoing hollow in an empty hall. All the while, he invoked Trump in his endless search for relevancy in a race that he will certainly not win.
In the opening minutes of the hourlong affair, Duke got into a screaming match with the moderator who dared ask him about the time in 2003 when he was sentenced to 15 months in jail for tax and mail fraud.
“You’re not a moderator, you’re a typical media hack!” he screamed as protesters raged outside. “You’re gonna silence me?! You’re gonna prevent me from answering the question because you wanna make a point?!” Duke, turning a dark shade of red, continued as the moderator attempted to move on. Stymied by what was essentially racist performance art, and the limitations of one-minute answer limits, the moderator struggled to ask many, if any, followups.
Mike Lawrence, who was essentially running Duke’s campaign but quit last month because the candidate was not playing down his KKK past enough, told The Daily Beast in a text message before the event that it “could be WWF smackdown.”
“Look for Duke to come out swinging real aggressive on the attack,” Lawrence, who said he still speaks with Duke, texted. “Should be a lot of fun.”
Aggressive is one word for the display. Deplorable is more like it.
Duke told The Daily Beast in July that he wanted to run because Trump inspired him to do so. And the contemporaneous shooting of police officers in Dallas made him feel compelled to attempt to defeat the Black Lives Matter movement (who had nothing to do with the shooting).
Ever since February, when Trump went on live television and said he didn’t know who Duke was—the former Klansman said that was hogwash—Duke has tried desperately to tie his fate to the Republican presidential nominee.
He even snuck in one of Trump’s favorite phrases, “America First,” in one of his responses Wednesday, savilly ensuring that the comparison would make it into articles about his debate performance.
In one of the most disgusting exchanges in the history of American political debate, Duke was asked why his shoddily designed website makes constant references to “CNN Jews.” His answer was not at all surprising.
“I’m not opposed to all Jews,” he said, as if in 2016 this was a necessary distinction to make. But then he launched into a more explicit version of the kind of globalist conspiracy-mongering that has been a subtext of some of Trump’s recent speeches.
“There is a problem in America with a very strong, powerful, tribal group that dominates our media and dominates our international banking,” Duke said as if a member of the Third Reich.
He is treated by other members of the Republican Party as an aberration rather than a symptom in a year when their standard-bearer has made excluding entire religions from entry into the United States part of his policy positions. The Louisiana GOP tried to expel him this year and even his beloved Donald J. Trump has disavowed him. But Duke is less like an isolated virus in a test tube and more like the party’s Frankenstein’s monster.
Take his answer on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
“She should get the electric chair and be charged with treason,” Duke proclaimed, which is not all that different than a number of GOP figures who have called for Clinton’s death. He even seemed to strip a line that could have been in any one of Trump’s stump speeches.
“I’m voting for Donald Trump because he’s the only guy there fighting the rigged system,” Duke said when the candidates asked who they were voting for.
No matter how many times Trump has disavowed this kind of support, it’s what his candidacy has wrought. He is the one who has been endorsed just this week by a KKK publication. He is the one who has a white-nationalist financially contributing to his campaign and making robocalls on his behalf. And he is the one who taught Duke how to make headlines, how to say the things that are going to keep the media coming back for more.
“I will be Donald Trump’s most loyal advocate,” Duke said toward the end of the debate. “I hope he wins.”
And if he does, there will only be more David Dukes.