In the wake of Donald Trump’s fear-and-loathing speech at the RNC, former KKK leader David Duke announced he is running for the open Senate seat in Louisiana. Duke has presented himself as a strong supporter of Trump, and it’s not hard to see why. Trump’s message of producing safety by blaming and excluding subaltern groups and perceived outsiders is in total lockstep with Duke’s historic mobilization of racial animus.
The evolution of Duke’s rhetoric over time can tell us a lot about how racialized politics plays out in a putative “post-racial” America. Duke started his public career as an avowed white separatist and eventual Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His early writings make his racialized world view plain:
Racial idealism, or racialism, is the idea that a nation’s greatest resource is the quality of its people. It means examining all questions of government on the basis of whether the proposed measure is good or bad for our race.… Neither Communism, Capitalism, nor any other materialistic doctrine can save our race; our only racial salvation lies in a White racial alliance uniting our people with the common cause of racial idealism. [September 1970 article in The Racialist]
Unabashed eugenics notwithstanding, in 1991 Duke ran for governor of Louisiana and made it to the runoff against Democratic former governor Edwin Edwards. This race mirrors in many ways the current presidential contest. Duke ran as a Republican in an open primary system against the wishes of the Republican establishment in the state, which had vocally opposed his run for Senate the previous year. He outpolled the other Republican candidates, leaving voters with a choice between a party outsider espousing racially charged attacks on welfare and crime, and a democratic establishment figure facing accusations of corruption that led to his ultimate imprisonment in 2002.
During the election, Duke toned down his explicitly racist language and replaced it with anti-government conservatism. He emphasized the problems of black poverty and social dysfunction and tied them to dependency on the “liberal welfare state,” producing problems like high levels of crime, drug use, and out-of-wedlock births. In a refrain familiar to Rudolph Giuliani’s, he said that liberal policies were responsible for murder’s being the leading cause of death for young black men in the state—something he would fix through aggressive drug testing, harsh criminal penalties, and a dismantling of the welfare state.
Duke was opposed by Republican leaders locally and George H.W. Bush nationally, who pledged their support for Edwards in hopes of saving the GOP from being tarnished with the reputation of being openly racist. One of the most popular bumper stickers of the race said, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important.” Edwards won the election, but Duke won 58 percent of the white vote, which was insufficient because of the high number of black voters. Fortunately, Duke again faces a formidable challenge from a likely galvanized black vote and a growing Latino electorate.