Why Donald Trump's rise reminds us of David Duke
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Former KKK leader David Duke was once an aberration in the Republican Party – an unabashed racist and xenophobe seeking higher office by appealing to voters’ baser instincts.

The novelty of Duke, running again for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana this year, was once enough to earn him a rabid following and the widespread scorn of GOP leaders in Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C. A generation ago, Duke cleverly leveraged that establishment scorn into 43 percent in his 1990 U.S. Senate campaign against then-incumbent J. Bennett Johnston (full disclosure: I was Johnston’s campaign press secretary at the time) and 39 percent the following year in a wild runoff for governor. 

In both races, Duke won almost a third of Louisiana’s 64 parishes (counties), including several in the suburbs of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In both races, he captured a majority of the state’s white vote.

It’s been 25 years, but memories of those ugly, racism-tinged campaigns are not distant and certainly not forgotten. Duke’s was a prelude for “mainstream” Republicans who would eventually win almost all the state’s major elected offices. However, as more respectable Republicans harvested the corn Duke sowed, the neo-Nazi, white supremacist hero was sitting in a federal prison after prosecutors caught him bilking supporters of contributions, much of which he gambled away at casinos.

Last Friday, however, he strutted into the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office to file for the Senate. “I’m overjoyed to see Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years,” Duke said.

Duke’s candidacy has thus far elicited little of the popular excitement and enthusiasm that swept the state’s white precincts in the early 1990s. Many of his erstwhile supporters are still around, for sure. But Duke is largely passé in the Bayou State, a sad, corrupt curiosity from a time when his bigotry wasn’t quite ready for prime time in the GOP.

How appropriate, then, that a Trump acolyte like Duke declared his candidacy the morning after the New York mogul formally accepted the GOP standard in Cleveland. The two men deserve each other. Although Trump wanly disavowed Duke’s endorsement, they draw support from the same fetid well.

For Duke, however, Trump’s ascendancy is probably bad news. Some observers in Louisiana think he might make the state’s open primary. With a crowded GOP field, anything is possible. But I have my doubts. 

While all prominent Louisiana Republican leaders have endorsed Trump, they are running from Duke, just as their predecessors did in 1990. That’s understandable, as Duke is now an ex-con, while Trump is merely a con artist.

What GOP leaders here won’t admit, however, is that the two men are very much alike. They admire dictators (Duke: Hilter; Trump: Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan). They shamelessly exploit class and racial grievances. Fear and hatred of minorities are key features of their appeal. Both enjoy support primarily among uneducated white males. 

Their key difference, however, is that Trump’s bigotry is covered by the fig leaf of his history in New York real estate and construction. Duke has to his credit only a brief stint in the Louisiana House, his role in the KKK and a few years wearing prison stripes.

Louisiana Republicans might be supporting a racist for president, but they aren’t stupid. They support bigots who light up $10 cigars, not crosses.

Duke has the misfortune to attempt his “comeback” when he may no longer be necessary for even the state’s rank-and-file bigots. They now have a convenient and acceptable outlet for their hostilities. Trump is simply a more conventional vehicle for the anger they direct at blacks, Mexicans and Muslims. 

Louisiana’s GOP leaders denounce Duke with gusto but they do not stand on any high moral ground. In Trump, they have endorsed a national candidate widely admired among the same voters who once helped rocket Duke into international fame. 

These Republican leaders condemn Duke, not because they oppose his message. Rather, it’s that Duke is an imperfect, embarrassing representative of their ideology. That the same Louisiana leaders don’t find Trump’s bigotry objectionable speaks volumes about their “principles.”

Robert Mann holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. He served as press secretary to U.S. senators Russell Long and John Breaux.


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