Still Racist After All These Years: Why David Duke Won't Go Away

It's been 25 years since David Duke, one of America's most notorious racists, got more than 670,000 votes in the Louisiana governor's race. Now he's running for a Senate seat and doing surprisingly well.

by Michael Patrick Welch
Oct 31 2016, 3:32pm

David Duke in July. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)

"White people will be a minority in America soon. Every minority has a spokesgroup, except European Americans. We're not allowed."

That's Michael Lawrence's pitch for David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan big shot and perennial political candidate now running for the US Senate in Louisiana. Lawrence ran Duke's campaign before quitting, he told me, to deal with flooding on some properties in Baton Rouge he owned. "For a long time now, David has been the sole spokesman for white people. And he has paid an incredible price for standing up," lamented Lawrence, who still supports Duke, "in being labeled a racist."

The news isn't that Duke has crawled out of the marshes to run for the seat left by fellow embarrassment David Vitter. The news is that Duke recently somehow polled the requisite 5 percent needed to land him in an upcoming televised debate—the most legitimacy the notorious racist and anti-Semite has had in a long, long time. As an added irony, or insult, he will enjoy this honor at New Orleans's historically black Dillard University.

Duke has haunted Louisiana's conscience since the 70s, when he became a regular spouting his rhetoric on Louisiana State University's "Free Speech Alley." To fund his larger ambitions, in 1976, he wrote a pseudonymous sexual self-help book for women titled Finders Keepers. In 1979, he founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People. After failed Senate and presidential bids as a Democrat, Duke turned Republican and in 1989 was elected state senator in a special election. Following a short and uninspired term, Duke ran for governor and lost, though he garnered more votes than he ever would again in his many other failed political attempts.

After his partner Don Black (who married Duke's ex-wife Chloe Hardin) left to start the white nationalist site Stormfront, Duke founded the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) in 2000. Following a short stint in jail for lying to his own supporters in order to fundraise from them and cheating on his taxes, Duke remained mostly in the shadows until this past September when he came to New Orleans to ostensibly stop protestors who were threatening to tear down the city's famous statue of Andrew "Trail of Tears" Jackson. The mostly black crowd reportedly ran him out of Jackson Square with chants of "Racist, fascist, anti-gay! Right-wing bigot, go away!"

Though Duke is one of the most prominent white supremacists to publicly support Donald Trump, state and national Republican officials have disavowed Duke's latest run at power, which the candidate has said was sparked by the violence against police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. "He became very concerned in regards to the Obama administration and the unhealthy way the mainstream media was affecting the racial climate in this country, with this bias toward African Americans against the police officers," said former campaign manager Lawrence.

I asked Lawrence if Duke represents the opposite of the Black Lives Matter movement. "That's fair to say," he admitted.

There's also a pretty strong echo of Trump's campaigns in Duke's latest run. "The issues that Trump is hammering, it's the same social base as Duke's, playing on the same fears, and offering the same false hopes. And they both are making it respectable to be intolerant," said Lawrence Powell, chair of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, a group created specifically to stop Duke in the 90s, and which has removed its mothballs only recently for this Senate race.

John McCusker, a staff photographer for the Times-Picayune for almost three decades, covered Duke's 1991 gubernatorial campaign, where he eventually took nearly 40 percent of the vote—more than 670,000 ballots—in a runoff election. "Those were the salad days for him," remembered McCusker. "You'd go by his house in old Metairie [a New Orleans suburb], and there were cars everywhere. It was packed. Just people organizing. Plus, he had that NOAWP bookstore is his basement, a library where he sold his books."

Watching Trump's recent ascent reminds McCusker of that era. "Today the issue is immigration, but back then affirmative action was the monster under the bed. We also got a taste 20 years ago of what these reporters are going through today, being made to feel uncomfortable at the rallies. Duke was the only other candidate I've seen sort of sic the dogs on the media. If you're covering Duke, he'd just bomb you with kindness and graciousness, to disarm you—he'd go on to talk to the crowd about the liberal media and all that, but he didn't single us out and call us scum," said McCusker, alluding to Trump. "His people would make the press all sit in this little fenced area by ourselves, so that it only took one loudmouth to start yelling stuff about the media, and then everyone focuses on you."

Retired now, McCusker has great empathy for reporters trying to cover Trump today: "We also had to cover both candidates equally and fairly, even when it felt almost ridiculous to do that. Doing it tends to legitimize the illegitimate."

Duke and his support may be a stain on Louisiana politics, but as shown by politicians from Senator Strom Thurmond (from South Carolina) to American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell (from the East Coast), to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace to Trump (from New York), overt bigotry has proven itself nationally popular. As LCARN's Powell pointed out, back in 1989, New Orleans author Walker Percy told the New York Times, "Don't make the mistake of thinking David Duke is a unique phenomenon confined to Louisiana rednecks and yahoos... Don't think that he or somebody like him won't appeal to the white middle class of Chicago or Queens."

"This is not confined to the so-called fever swamps of Louisiana," Powell told me. "It extends everywhere, from Alabama to Michigan."

It's tough to determine how much of a threat Duke actually poses to the current ticket. The latest poll had him down near the bottom of the pack at 5 percent, but Lawrence claims that these surveys underrate Duke's support and that he's consistently overperformed polls in his career.

But win or lose (again), Duke is happy with what he sees as the results of his hard work. "After four decades, the issues that I've spearheaded and fought for are now mainstream," Duke, who wouldn't comment for this article, told the New York Times last month. "I've won, in the sense that these are now mainstream issues."

If his past campaigns can be seen as a precursor to Trump's alt-right movement, Duke himself shows how an outsider candidate can sink.

"When we'd dig up greater evidence of Duke's old racism, there was no negative effect," McCusker remembered. "You'd think that everyone knowing he was a Nazi in the Klan would sink him... But what finally sunk him was a TV forum with Governor Edwin Edwards. No one knows more about the government than Edwards, from the budget to where the bodies are buried... So the debate moderator asks, 'Who is the biggest employer in Louisiana?' And Edwards is levitating, can't wait to answer. But Duke can't answer it. That was the moment."

"For voters it wasn't, Duke's a racist and my morals won't let me vote for him," McCuskers said. "It was that he doesn't know his stuff."

Follow Michael Patrick Welch on Twitter.