Old Nazi in a New Suit

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Scott McLemee

LONG BEFORE HIS recent national prominence, David Duke was a familiar figure in the South. Growing up in Texas during the 1970s, I used to see Duke on TV regularly—on Tom Snyder, or with his “Klan Border Patrol,” or demonstrating against Vietnamese fishermen.

But his use of the press goes beyond arranging publicity stunts. He will appear on a talk show advocating the sterilization of welfare recipients with calmness and joviality of a senior government official discussing a trade agreement And he manages somehow to act as if everyone else in the world but him is stirring up racial conflict.

By the standards of politics-as-usual, David Duke was trounced in his bid for governor of Louisiana. The Republican state representative and former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan got only 39% of the vote. When 61% of the ballots went to his opponent—former governor Edwin Edwards, a Democrat—these were in large part cast against Duke, not from any enthusiasm for Edwards.

The enormous turnout of Louisiana’s African-American voters carried Edwards back into office, despite the scandals of his last term as governor. And many whites voted for Edwards to avoid sending Louisiana’s still-weak economy back into a slump. A drop in oil prices during the 1980s resulted in unemployment rates nearly double the national average. Throughout the final weeks of the campaign, big-business groups warned of the economic consequences if Louisiana elected a Nazi as governor.

But upon closer inspection, the numbers tell a different story. Last year, when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat, Duke received 60% of the white vote. That figure dipped only a little this time, to 55%. Duke’s campaigns have been outspent by about three-to-one; he consistently gets more votes for his dollar than his opponents do. And while running for local office, Duke has been building up a base of supporters—and contributors—around the United States.

Duke wasted little time after the gubernatorial race: On December 4, he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. He will forgo participating in the New Hamphshire primary, but counts on a strong showing in the South and Southwest Duke may also run as an independent or a third-party candidate next fall.

In 1988, he made a brief (and barely noticed) foray into the Democratic primaries, then ran as presidential candidate of the right-wing Populist Party, winning over 48,000 votes. Now, after sewing for three years in the Louisiana state legislature as a Republican, Duke stands ready to re-enter the national electoral arena. In November, a nationwide survey indicated that 58% of those polled recognized Duke’s name—and nearly half that group liked him.

Does the Shoe Fit?

Leading Republicans have tried to distance themselves from Duke. Last year, a representative of the Republican National Committee told me that they did not consider Duke a genuine Republican. She said he had been “excommunicated” from the national party. More recently, before his own unceremonious departure as White House Chief of Staff, John Sununu assured the audience of ABC’s This Week that “The President is absolutely opposed to the kind of racist statements that have come out of David Duke now and in the past.”

At best, these statements are unintentionally humorous—as when Bush called Duke “an insincere charlatan” (to be distinguished, presumably, from the sincere charlatans in his party). At worst, they are cynical evasions of the Republican history of racebaiting.

Dukes Klan endorsed the Reagan campaign in 1980 by saying, with pride, that the party platform “reads as if it were written by Klansman.” During the 1988 race for the state legislature, Duke’s opponent in the Republican primary had been a leader of the racist States Rights Party in the 1950s.

Unlike most prominent Republicans, though, Duke has long been candid about his racism. The “respectable” politicians have long relied on a code language for expressing racist sentiments: “law and order,” “special interests,” “states rights.” David Duke can use that vocabulary as skillfully as anyone. But racism isn’t one plank in Duke’s platform; it’s the material out of which his entire politics is constructed.

A list of the phases in Duke’s political career (much of it now well-publicized) reads like a census of American racist or ganizations over the past quarter century. As a teenager during the mid-1960s he discovered the White Citizens Councils, which sprang up throughout the South in response to the civil rights movement Duke immersed himself in the ideology of white supremacy, reading extensively in the pseudoscientific literature about racial differences.

Along the way, he read White Power by George Lincoln Rockwell—the Mein Kampf of American Nazism. While in college, he joined the National Socialist Liberation Front, a youth group of Rockwell’s organization. When the group transformed itself into the White Student Alliance in 1970, Duke became its head.

As The Dixon Line (a newsletter monitoring the far right) later reported, the older stormtroopers were “elated over the enthusiasm and dedication of their newly found youth leader. He was the highlight of the 1970 Nazi convention.”

But by the early 1970s Duke had given up on the existing Nazi organizations and decided to start his own groups. The White Youth Alliance and the National Party sought to draw in supporters of George Wallace’s campaign. During the same period, he made contact with the Klan. Eventually he started his own Klan group—one of the largest of forty or fifty factions—and took office as Imperial Wizard (the highest position) at age 26.

Later, Duke left the KKK and began operating through another group, the National Association for the Advancement of White People, which he also founded.

The More Things Change

Since the late 1960s Duke in fact built one racist organization after another, adjusting his rhetoric and his alliances each time to draw in a larger and more varied constituency. (For instance, Duke’s Klan admitted Catholics, a departure from the old KKK’s policies.)

It wasn’t in 1991 but as early as 1972 that Duke began trying to cover up his previous Nazi affiliations. Whenever he thought he could, Duke simply lied outright about this aspect of his past Over the past decade or so, photographs of him wearing a swastika have made this impossible. His most recent approach has been to call his activities as a teenage brownshirt a “youthful mistake.”

If the forthrightness of Duke’s hatreds sets him apart from most politicians, his glibness and media savvy likewise put him in a very different league from other ideologues of the extreme right Most racists of Duke’s variety are unable to keep the mask of reasonability on for long. The tone of their propaganda goes very quickly from civility to ranting.

But not David Duke. When he gets on television—as often as possible—he argues: quotes statistics, cites government reports, makes little jokes, refers to history, speaks politely to interviewers, and dances around the more embarrassing questions as best as he can.

The message remains pure hate; but the style is unique Duke is a creature of the media, especially television.

What Makes Duke Dangerous?

Most dangerous of all, Duke has turned the language of the antiracist and civil-rights movements to his own ends. Imitating the NAACP in naming his own group is only the most blatant example.

“Within a generation,” Duke wrote in the NAAWP’s newspaper, “whites will be the minority [in the United States], and we will live under the whims of a cruel majority.” He has taken to saying in speeches that he “believes in equal rights – even for white people!” That slogan is reportedly well received by his audiences.

Frustration with the economy and distrust of the government were the forces Duke tried to channel into victory during his electoral bids. So far, they have carried him only into the Louisiana state legislature—where his term ends in January 1992. But these sentiments are not limited to his home state.

Duke’s candidacy for president will gauge how desperate white working people around the country are “I think I offer a tremendous opportunity for the Republican Party,” Duke claimed during the race for governor. “I am the first Republican candidate [who] actually bridges the gap between fiscal conservatives and labor.”

All Duke really does, of course, is incite fear. For all his charm and smarm, he offers no political or economic platform beyond protectionism in trade (especially against Japan), cutting social programs, and abolishing every kind of affirmative action. And when he launches into his favorite topic, the relative birthrates of various groups, Duke reveals that he is still transfixed by Nazi racial doctrines.

Yet while working- and middle-class whites struggle to make ends meet, Duke finds a ready audience There is a vague but widespread feeling that some kind of social change is in order, with the end of the Cold War. The USSR no longer serves as the officially sanctioned enemy and scapegoat So now anxieties turn to “the danger within.” And David Duke has devoted most of his life to learning the art of provoking those anxieties.

Duke’s presidential campaign can be expected to resemble his gubernatorial race in one important way- will play up his role as an outsider. Like Reagan, he has set of stories and facts (some real, some fabricated) that he has repeated for years—little “sound-bite” items with a strong emotional charge.

Also like Reagan, Duke is not a “Washington insider.” Because he has nothing to lose, Duke can attack the status quo without looking ridiculous, as Bush does when attempting the same gimmick.

The Arts of Manipulation

Meanwhile, the media play along with Duke. Or rather, they let.themselves be played by him. In one important respect, Duke is already a “mainstream” figure in the American political culture Attention to the candidate tends to drift away from his politics, and towards his personality.

In the 1991 campaign, this took the form of discussions of his religious beliefs. Duke claimed that a conversion experience had transformed him from the hateful soul he had been in years past.

A more flagrant example came during his run for the Senate in 1990. A rather trivial fact about Duke—his recent plastic surgery—took on a life of its own. The New Republic ran an article titled “Read My Liposuction.”

At one level, quips about Duke’s face-job seem like an easy way to relieve some nervousness. On a less indulgent view, they resemble the jokes made in the twenties and thirties about Hitler’s little Charlie Chaplin moustache: a cheap and smug way to dismiss the man’s declared intentions by making fun of some ridiculous quality.

Remarks about Duke’s plastic surgery were sometimes more than swipes at his vanity. The reconstruction of his face paralleled his efforts to obliterate his image as a fanatic. As the political essayist Gary Wills wrote in Time magazine: “Cosmetic surgeons, employed in relays, have made him larger of chin, lesser of nose and chemically scrubbed of wrinkles as if to erase an embarrassing past from his face as well as from his record.”

Whatever jokes or interpretations one might want to hang on such details of Duke’s personal life, he remains the great hope of the extreme right, which has longed for respectability and exposure for decades now. Back in 1973, a Grand Dragon of the KKK in Ohio announced: “We don’t burn crosses. We illuminate them.”

Other racist and fascist groups have tried to stimulate the growth of a white racist culture that will last for the long run. (Good documentation of this is provided in James Ridgeway’s recent book Blood in the Face). And the Liberty Lobby’s paper The Spotlight celebrated Duke’s most recent campaign—and the shortsighted response to it by the mainstream press:

“Meanwhile, Establishment newspapers across the country—almost without exception—editorialized on the ‘wise decision’ of the majority of Louisiana voters to reject the ‘extremist.’ Duke, they announced solemnly, was dead along with his ‘evil, racist’ ideas.

“Ah, but wait Duke is very much alive. He is, mostly as a result of the publicity he received from his enemies, one of the best-known people in the United States at this moment.”

Of course, the odds of Duke being elected president are too slight to measure. The greatest risk arises from those still more manipulative and power-minded than Duke himself. Both the National Review and right-wing columnist Pat Buchanan have pointed out that Duke’s rhetoric is not that far from contemporary conservative politics. (Everyone seems prepared to admit this truth except the Bush wing of the Republican party). Those in power will be watching his campaign with interest—and learning what they can.

© 2020 Against the Current

January-February 1992, ATC 36