Whether Donald Trump likes it or not, David Duke—the former KKK grand wizard turned failed Louisiana political candidate—will always be linked to him. Duke embraced Trump during the primary and seemed emboldened by his popularity, running for an open Senate seat on a platform of outright white supremacy.
Michael Lawrence ran Duke's campaign for a time before quitting in advance of the election, which Duke badly lost. But Lawrence (who "now claims he has always believed that "all humans are created equal") told me that he thinks Duke's ideas have found a foothold in the White House thanks to Trump, and that Duke would never have run in 2016 if not for Trump.
Note: Duke would not respond to requests to corroborate or deny the account of his campaign. We will update this interview with his responses if and when he does.
VICE: How did Trump's campaign inspire Duke's 2016 Senate run?
Michael Lawrence: I got involved in the campaign when I was writing a book and doing research for a chapter on David. His running again was my idea. He and I met for lunch, just so I could take notes. But then we got to know each other. Trump was doing well in the polls, so I asked David, "Would you ever consider running for office again?" I wanted to see David run in the Louisiana congressional race against State Representative Steve Scalise [who reportedly refers to himself as "David Duke without the baggage."]. David said, "Well, I'm 66 now..." and he talked about the stresses and the workload and the travel involved. We met again a week later for lunch and he said, "If I do that, will you manage the campaign?" I was the one who looked at Trump's demographics. David then reviewed the data I brought to him and he agreed, and that's how the Senate race came to fruition.
In what area is Trump most similar to Duke?
Oh, immigration, without a doubt. Decades ago, when Duke was running for governor before subsequently running for president, he brought immigration issues forward. At one point he formed a vigilante type team called the Klan Border Watch, which was independently patrolling the borders. From Duke's point of view, unregulated unchecked immigration was a huge problem, especially from certain areas of the world. And this was way before we had any real terrorist concerns—which changed after 9/11. But clearly Duke's controversial views years ago have now become mainstream Republican values.
Did Duke share any non-racist conservative ideas with Trump?
Well, in regards to the Environmental Protection Agency, Duke was pretty open-minded about the environment, not pretending like global warming was a scam. He respects science and scientists.
"His sentiment was that press in the United States was controlled with a Zionist interest—and anyone who knows David's history knows his position on Zionists."
You just made Duke sound refreshing! A reporter friend of mine who covered the first Duke campaign said that was the first time he'd ever been treated with real contempt as a member of the press, and that Trump stole that whole playbook.
[Laughs] Trump is better at playing defense than offense when attacking the press's credibility, and David played offense. But I do think there are great similarities in the way they both treat the press. I am not sure if Trump took that from Duke's campaign, that it wasn't just an inherent quality of Trump's personality [laughs]. But David felt that over the years he'd been misquoted and had things taken out of context. His sentiment was that press in the United States was controlled with a Zionist interest—and anyone who knows David's history knows his position on Zionists.
He was also very sensitive about the press always identifying him as former KKK, former Nazi, blah blah blah, and never being identified as "former state representative." I told him, "David you have to realize that your involvement with the KKK put you on the map to begin with!"
And so I handled the local press and the American press. He was much more comfortable dealing with the international press, which in his view had less of a Zionist overtone to it. Duke was spending a lot more time doing interviews with international press while on the campaign trail. He was very comfortable talking to like, Japan. If there was a conflict of time he would always choose the international interview.
Why did you quit his campaign months before the election?
I wasn't comfortable with the fact that he was running to the right of Donald Trump. What I wanted to see was more of a mainstream campaign, where we jump on the momentum that Trump was capturing. I wanted to see Duke play down his past in regards to issues on race and anti-Semitism. I felt Trump had opened the door for that kind of metamorphosis. I wanted to present a reinvented kinder, gentler David Duke. But I was fighting upstream with that idea. As the campaign went forward, what I saw was David Duke reverting back to his old campaign practices, and I was not comfortable with that. I mean, I was raised by two black women...
You were raised by two black women?
Yes. My parents traveled a lot and I was privileged enough to be raised by two nannies that I loved very much. I am a firm believer that all people are created equal. And as far as Duke's anti-Semitism, I wanted him to understand that there were differences in our backgrounds and our views.
"The younger faction of my family also thought my life was in danger. They on more than one occasion asked me to wear a bulletproof vest."
But if you feel that way, how do you then work to put Duke in power? Most people who feel that way wouldn't even stand next to Duke for a photo...
It's one of the reasons I've never had a close relationship with [some people]; they just wonder, "How can a guy do that?" And I respect that and understand it. Initially my family was a bit surprised. It made the younger folks in my family take a harder look at exactly what I was doing—not just reading old news clips—and once that phase was done, there was nothing negative from them, just support for my efforts. The younger faction of my family also thought my life was in danger. They on more than one occasion asked me to wear a bulletproof vest. I mean, they had a lot of questions, don't get me wrong! This was definitely a bomb I laid on my family. When the "Duke" word was said, there were jaws going slack.
If we can return to immigration for just one second: We agree it's the issue on which Trump and Duke are most alike. But don't they each focus on it for a different reason? Trump's reasons seem vaguely political if confused, while Duke's are for reasons of racial purity.
I am not sure there's any difference in their positions. Of course, you aren't going to get Trump to commit suicide by saying what he truly feels, whereas Duke has no position to lose, so he's always been outspoken, and will tell you he believes the founding fathers were white, and he wants to protect America's white population years down the road blah blah blah. I think that's the concern from Trump as well. I think Trump and Duke are almost identical on immigration and the future of this country. Trump won't go all the way there and say it, but I think they're identical.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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