Getting David Duke’s endorsement is problematic for any politician. Candidate Donald Trump said he didn’t know who Duke was when the former Klan leader told his followers that voting for anyone else in 2016 “is really treason to your heritage.” Asked about Duke’s presence at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protest Saturday, President Trump said he didn’t know Duke was there.
Politicians on the right have long had a love-hate relationship with Duke. They don’t like the taint of an official endorsement, but they want his supporters. It’s a microcosm of the right wing’s flirtation with white supremacy, which is now boiling over with confrontations over Confederate symbols.
To win the governor’s race in Louisiana in 1995, Republican Mike Foster secretly purchased Duke’s mailing list for $150,000, a hefty sum for 80,000 names that he could have purchased for a pittance from the state ethics board. “He developed a mailing list that was a powerful list in the ’90s,” says Jeff Crouere, executive director and then-leader of the state GOP in ’97 and ’98. “It wasn’t exactly an above-board transaction, and he was fined by the ethics board. But that was the enduring power of Duke—Foster would not champion David Duke, but he didn’t in any way condemn him.”
Foster won election and re-election with Duke’s tacit backing, and the secret transaction only came to light when Duke told a grand jury investigating him on unrelated fraud charges about the payment. Foster said he kept it quiet because “It ain’t real cool to put out there that you are buying something from David Duke.”
Similar charges surfaced against Republican Woody Jenkins’ 1996 race against Mary Landrieu involving a payment of $82,500 for Duke’s mailing list. Then Rep. Tony Perkins, Jenkins’ campaign manager, said that the payment was made to a media company and he was unaware of Duke’s financial interest in the company. Perkins now heads the Family Research Council, which in response to The Daily Beast, re-sent a statement made at the time that Perkins “profoundly opposes the racial views of Mr. Duke and was profoundly grieved to learn that Duke was a party to the company that had done work for the 1996 campaign.”
Duke went to jail on tax-related charges and for defrauding his supporters, serving about a year in 2002-2003 before he resumed running for political office. He’s run for just about everything in the state, and in last year’s open primary for the Senate seat ultimately claimed by Republican John Kennedy, Duke didn’t even make the runoff. He came in sixth with 3 percent of the vote, “so his star is about burned out,” Jeff Crouere, now a popular talk show host in New Orleans, told The Daily Beast. “But then I turn on TV and see him getting covered. In Louisiana, he’s a joke; he’s not a serious political player; his endorsements don’t mean anything. Nobody is soliciting David Duke’s contributors anymore. We have had 20 years of David Duke’s filth and he’s an unwelcome guest who won’t leave the party. No serious Republican wants him, but we can’t force him to leave the party.”
Duke is now flexing his muscles on the national alt-right stage. His neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi views have found space in Trump’s America even as they’ve lost ground in Louisiana, where he’s been a fixture in the state’s politics since the 1970s. Democratic strategist James Carville attended LSU at the same time as Duke in the ’70s and remembers him delivering regular rants at the university’s legendary “Free Speech Alley.” Duke gained notoriety walking around campus in a Nazi uniform.
“He’s a man of a lot of hate and some talent,” Carville told The Daily Beast. “He’ll go wherever there’s a camera. A bunch of neo-Confederates in a torchlight march and he’s there. I’m sure that anytime anything like this happens, he’s gonna be there. He’s sending out donation requests to his supporters, he needs to fuel his fire.”
Asked what he meant by “some talent,” Carville replied, “talent at getting covered.” Full disclosure, I interviewed Duke in the mid-’70s while he was a student at LSU and I was in the Atlanta bureau of Newsweek. What I remember most from that encounter is seeing Duke’s infant daughter in a bassinet wearing a Klan robe. I didn’t have a photographer with me, and that was before phones with cameras. Still, the image endures in my mind’s eye.
Politically, Duke was a powerhouse back then, an embodiment of white racial resentment. He was first a Democrat, then like so many Democrats in the South, gravitated to the GOP and its more open fanning of white grievance. “He has a real interest in and affinity for money,” says Carville, so cashing in on his mailing lists was a no-brainer.
A perennial candidate, he finally got elected to the state Senate in 1988 running as a Republican even though President George H.W. Bush and former President Reagan endorsed his opponent. Almost as soon as he was seated, Duke began running for the Senate against Bennett Johnson, and in 1990 got 44 percent of the vote. “That was his high-water mark,” says Crouere.
He won a clear majority of the white vote, which he then parlayed into a race for governor that pitted him against Edwin Edwards and produced the memorable bumper sticker, “Vote for the crook, it’s important.” Edwards hadn’t yet gone to jail, but he was fighting charges of corruption and the bumper sticker proved prophetic.
Duke got 39 percent in that race, but he claimed victory anyway, having carried 55 percent of the white vote, maintaining his hold on the state’s politics. “And that’s after they knew this is a Klan guy,” says Carville.
“There are people who say this is good,” what’s happened in Charlottesville, says Carville. “It does kind of smoke people out a bit. They have to come up with a benign reason for attending a white nationalists’ torchlight parade. He’s (Trump) brought them out into the sunlight, and sunshine is the best disinfectant, as they say.”
Carville called Trump’s Sunday statement condemning the Klan and white supremacy groups for Saturday’s melee a “hostage” statement, forced on him by advisers. Trump’s true colors emerged in his press conference Tuesday at Trump Tower. “Trump is not trying to play both sides. He’s playing the white nationalists side,” says Carville. “My guess is he’s pretty happy with all that’s happening. He’s besieged and beleaguered, but the way out of his beleaguerment is to step into the breach of dishonor and restore the country to honor. Name me a single authoritarian who doesn’t want public discord.
“Then he can say at some point the country is falling apart. ‘I will devote my entire energy to saving the country.’ Trump sees disorder as his friend,” says Carville. He can say, ‘This happened under Obama and now it’s happening again, guess who can do something about this: Donald J. Trump.’”
Whichever way this plays out, Duke is back in the news, and relevant again. He loved Trump’s initial remarks blaming violence on all sides, and tweeted after Trump doubled down in his presser, equating alt-left and alt-right violence, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage.” Mailing lists don’t have to be secretly bought and sold to secure Duke’s fealty. The noxious game of racial and religious profiling he has exploited for so long is out in the open now in a way he could only have dreamed about when he was striding around the LSU campus in his Nazi uniform.