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David Duke: Grandfather of the Alt-Right

How a racist teenager at LSU became the most influential white nationalist in the country and nearly the most powerful man in Louisiana.

In the age of Trump, David Duke, the infamous neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has enjoyed something of a comeback, again becoming a part of the national conversation, and launching yet another political campaign. Because of the tragic events in Charlottesville, and the subsequent fallout, it is important for all, but particularly to us in Louisiana, to comprehensively understand a shameful period in our state’s history. More than three decades ago, David Duke took his message of white nationalism into the mainstream.

If Steve Bannon is the father of the “alt-right,” Duke is the movement’s grandfather.

In 1991, then-State Rep. David Duke of Metairie shocked political observers around the country when he edged out incumbent Buddy Roemer to win a spot in that year’s runoff for governor. It was the third time in as many years that the former klansman had rattled the political establishment. At the height of his power, Duke came incredibly close to both the Governor’s Mansion and a seat in the United States Senate.

With bitter political infighting among state Republicans, Duke, much like Donald Trump in 2016, took advantage of a fractured party’s internal confusion and built a movement around his brand. Like Trump, he decried the media as biased and pushed a hard anti-tax, anti-immigration message at raucous rallies packed with frenzied supporters. Drawing massive amounts of free media attention, Duke was the subject of national curiosity and scorn before a 2002 conviction on tax and mail fraud charges threatened to permanently derail his political career. He subsequently exiled himself to Eastern Europe and Russia, and for a time, it seemed as if he had finally faded into obscurity.

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David Duke became known for his radical views while an undergraduate at Louisiana State University. He was often seen around campus in a Nazi uniform, and each week, he delivered impassioned speeches on racial superiority in LSU’s Free Speech Alley. An accomplished ROTC student, he was actually denied entry into upper level military courses on account of his extracurricular activities. While taking an introductory class in German, Duke once told a horrified instructor that he wished to learn the language to better understand the writings and speeches of Adolf Hitler. It was also during this time that he began having parties on the anniversary of Hitler’s birth, accompanied by public homages to the Fuhrer.

While most of his fellow students wrote him off as a “weirdo,” Duke became close to a group of active white supremacists. In 1972, he was arrested alongside Ku Klux Klan leader Addison Roswell Thompson for “inciting a riot” at the (recently removed) Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans. When civil rights lawyer William Kunstler spoke at Tulane, Duke protested outside in full Nazi attire. Even as a student, he built a small band of dedicated supporters, who made up of the core of his future political campaigns.

Around the time he graduated from LSU, Duke became a full member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an active branch of the national organization, headquartered in Baton Rouge. Ambitious, he worked his way into leadership by revitalizing the group’s publications. He also began bringing Nazi ideology to the forefront of local Klan activities, telling supporters that “Jewish conspiracies,” were the biggest threat they faced. However, the young upstart drew the contempt of older KKK leaders, who didn’t appreciate Duke’s flaunting of established rules. For example, he allowed members to join simply by filling out a paper application and opened the organization’s ranks to Catholics, women and children. An oddity, Duke began making numerous appearances on radio, TV and college campuses around the country, honing his message and speaking skills.

Emboldened by the publicity he was receiving, Duke decided to run as a Democrat for the State Senate from East Baton Rouge Parish in 1975. It was a small campaign, mostly staffed and financed by fellow Klansmen. On Election Day, he pulled 33% against the incumbent, Ken Osterberger, who easily won victory in the primary.

After the loss, Duke moved his white supremacist activities to the greater New Orleans area, choosing to operate mostly out of suburban Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes. He also traveled the country in support of the Klan, and during this period, he became their national leader, overseeing operations as grand wizard. In 1979, he again ran for the State Senate, this time from a New Orleans-based district and again, he was defeated.

Facing allegations of stealing Klan funds for personal use, Duke left the organization in 1980, and founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). Claiming that the NAAWP was a civil rights organization, Duke attempted to use it as a vehicle to continue to spread his message of white supremacy without the stigma and baggage of the KKK. It was during this time that Duke began to tone down his rhetoric somewhat. He traded his robes in for a suit. He got a haircut, and he had a series of plastic surgeries. He also professed to be a born-again Christian, claiming that his previous Nazi and Klan activities were youthful indiscretions. He joined the Presidential race in 1988 as a Populist candidate but only received a handful of votes.

In 1989, Duke joined the Republican Party and ran in a special election for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives. District 81, which included Metairie and other parts of Jefferson Parish, was considered to be one of the most conservative in the state. Besides Duke, John Treen, the brother of Gov. Dave Treen, and florist Roger F. Villere, currently the State Republican Party Chairman, qualified to run. David Vitter, then a young attorney in private practice, had considered getting in the race as well, but ultimately decided against running, likely due to questions about whether he had resided in the district long enough. Ironically, Duke didn’t actually live in the district at the time of qualification, but no one challenged his candidacy. He was considered a fringe candidate.

Amid a crime wave in Jefferson Parish and economic troubles, Duke defeated Treen in a runoff by a mere 263 votes. Duke pushed an anti-tax, anti-spending and tough-on-crime message, while Treen focused on his opponent’s past. Using his brother’s connections, Treen also brought in endorsements from Presidents Reagan and Bush, in addition to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the state AFL-CIO. Ultimately, voters saw Treen’s tactics as heavy-handed, and found the candidate uninspiring when compared with the charismatic challenger. Duke’s victory brought much attention and national media scrutiny, and he basked in the spotlight.

More focused with other pursuits, Duke was a poor legislator. He had no understanding of the legislative process and parliamentary rules, which allowed his colleagues to easily stop any measures he proposed. Representative Duke was often prone to speaking out of order, and failing to adhere to other basic House procedures. He mostly used his seat as a platform to spread his message and garner media coverage. Notably, Duke was caught selling copies of Mein Kampf and other Nazi literature, including books denying the Holocaust, out of his taxpayer-funded legislative office in Metairie, which doubled as NAAWP headquarters.

Duke’s presence in the House was an unwelcome headache to most of the state’s elected officials, including Gov. Buddy Roemer. Battling with personal crises and a uneasy relationship with the legislature, the governor was attempting to pass an ambitious legislative package, while trying not to be distracted by the new representative from Jefferson Parish. In attempts to cast Duke out of the mainstream, Roemer and his legislative leaders invited prominent Holocaust groups to the state Capitol, and often made public denouncements. When a reporter asked about Duke’s staunch opposition to his tax reform package, Roemer curtly replied, “I don’t care what the American Nazi Party thinks about this program.” Fearing that Duke would tarnish their brand, national Republicans started quietly talking to the Democratic governor about a party switch.

State Rep. Duke did not allow himself to be distracted by his obligations in Baton Rouge for long. Months after his election to the legislature, he began a long-shot campaign to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.

The centerpiece of Duke’s campaign was a pledge to dismantle Affirmative Action and other federal minority-based initiatives. He promised to cut welfare and other social programs, along with his continued message of cutting taxes. Amid a statewide economic downturn, Duke began filling venues with receptive audiences. Polls showed him gaining on Johnston, while blue and white “Duke for Senate” signs, stickers and buttons began spreading across the state.

With Duke polling reasonably well, the Johnston campaign unleashed the mother of all negative ads. The spot contained footage of a 1970’s KKK rally, in which Duke, exposed, is clearly shown leading a group of hooded Klansmen in Nazi salutes and chants of “white victory,” in the flickering light of a burning cross. The ad was played numerous times on both local and national news and received an unprecedented amount of free airtime.

The Louisiana Republican Party, jolted by the fact that a former klansman and outspoken racist could be their nominee for the U.S. Senate, poured money and resources in to the campaign of State Sen. Ben Bagert of New Orleans. Oliver North and other national figures visited to campaign for Bagert, who criss-crossed the state in fruitless efforts to get his poll numbers up. Despite the support, Bagert’s campaign languished, and he withdrew in order to help Johnston narrowly avoid a runoff with Duke.

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Undeterred by his close defeat to Johnston, Duke quickly jumped into the 1991 race for governor. It would be his third campaign in less than three years. Boasting that he would coast to an easy victory, he continued to receive international press attention.

Edwin Edwards, still bitter over his defeat in 1987, was attempting a comeback. He had been traveling the state for four years, rebuilding relationships and contacts. Gov. Roemer, mostly distracted by his battles with the Legislature, had ignored many of his key campaign relationships, and donors, jilted and angry, were more than happy to open their checkbooks for Edwards

The Republican National Committee, increasingly worried about Duke’s popularity, ramped up the pressure on Roemer to switch parties. President George H.W. Bush and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu led the GOP’s courtship, which included a trip to Ronald Reagan’s 90th Birthday party for the governor. Bush also took the time to call Roemer and write personal letters to his family. Enamored in Washington’s corridors of power, he made the decision to switch parties in March. State officials, however, were entirely kept in the dark, only getting their information from the State Capitol’s rumor mill.

Roemer met with the leaders of the state Republican Party on the night of Sunday, March 10, in the immense Drawing Room of the Governor’s Mansion. Attending were Chairman Billy Nungesser, Sr., Lt. Gov. Paul Hardy and Reps. Richard Baker and Clyde Holloway. The purpose of the meeting was to inform the men of the governor’s decision to join the party. However, rather than a warm welcome, the meeting was tense, with Nungesser and the governor reportedly shouting at one point.

With the stately facade of the Mansion decked out in red, white, and blue bunting the next morning, Roemer made the official announcement to the media. Subdued, Nungesser, Baker, and Hardy stood behind the governor as he spoke. Holloway, still steaming over the news, refused to attend. 

Within days, Hardy, Baker, and Secretary of State Fox McKeithen announced that they would not get into the race. Former Gov. Dave Treen was itching for a rematch with Edwards but he decided to stay out, content in his position as the elder statesman of the Louisiana Republicans. Former Rep. Henson Moore, then working in the Bush Administration, took a few meetings on the race, but ultimately decided to stay at the White House.

Holloway, undeterred by Roemer and Duke, decided to qualify. Promoting himself as a real, conservative alternative without the baggage of the other major candidates, he was able to pull a respectable amount of support. Famously, he held a campaign party at the Capitol House Hotel just hours after Roemer’s initial reception for Republican legislators at the Governor’s Mansion. Many of the legislators were perplexed at the idea of supporting a governor they had mostly been opposing, and bolted for Holloway’s party. According to Roemer’s hand-picked House Speaker, Jimmy Dimos, “When he switched parties, things really starting going downhill.” Content with his position, Edwin Edwards gleefully enjoyed reading accounts of the dueling GOP campaigns.

Duke, meanwhile, was out pressing the flesh, campaigning all over the state. He kicked off his campaign in LSU’s Free Speech Alley, where he was constantly heckled and booed by students. Like George Wallace, he enjoyed the disturbances and talked back, often to the delight of his supporters. He held massive rallies, where crowds filled oyster buckets with cash donations. Money flowed in from all over the country, while Duke’s Ku Klux Klan network and contacts organized in support.

At the Louisiana Republican Convention, Duke’s soldiers packed the Cajundome, where the party establishment haplessly engineered the official endorsement of Clyde Holloway’s candidacy for governor. In protest, Duke attempted to rush the stage himself, only to be physically blocked by Nungesser. Rowdy Duke supporters, angry that their man had been denied the nod and a chance to speak, overtook the convention, while several prominent Republicans slipped out the Cajundome early.

Meanwhile, Roemer procrastinated the start of an active campaign schedule, preferring to make appearances in the safety of the Governor’s Mansion. Like Bobby Jindal, he became fixated on the idea of running for President, and his daydreams of grandeur obscured his current political problems. When the governor hit the stump, it was very reluctantly, and without the evangelical fire that had marked his 1987 run. At the same time the governor was sleepwalking through his campaign, Edwards was tying down traditional Democratic groups, while Duke fired up angry conservatives.

On Sept. 30th, President Bush and the First Lady landed in New Orleans to campaign for Roemer. Despite the successful trip, the governor was forced to answer questions about his support for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and disparaging comments he had made about Vice President Dan Quayle. Opponents said the switch made Roemer disingenuous, while some Republican voters and donors were simply befuddled with the choice of Duke, Holloway, or Roemer. While Roemer and Holloway courted party heavyweights and donors, Duke continued to play the grassroots ground game. National shows such as Donahue and Larry King Live covered his campaign, and brought Duke on as a guest.

On Primary Day, Oct. 19, Edwards easily pulled into first place with 523,195 votes, beating his 1987 turnout by almost 90,000. Duke and Roemer fought hard over the second runoff spot late into the night. Eventually, Jefferson Parish put Duke over the top, giving the State Representative an 80,000 vote victory over an incumbent governor.

Immediately, the eyes of the political world turned toward Louisiana. Duke was the talk of local and national reporters across the country. Tim Russert famously cornered him in an appearance on Meet the Press, when the candidate was unable to name the three largest employers in the state. Stuttering, Duke attempted to redirect to his talking points, only to be pinned down by Russert. Duke also spent precious time outside of the state appearing on New York-based national talk shows, pleading for donations and support. Bush’s Chief of Staff, John Sununu went on ABC’s This Week to say that Duke was not a representative of the Republican Party.

While Duke was playing the spotlight of the media, Edwards picked up endorsements from all of the state’s major newspapers, an unprecedented feat in Louisiana politics at the time. He also enjoyed the very public support of Govs. Roemer and Treen, along with many other members of the state’s Republican establishment. In an informal statement to the press aboard Air Force One, President Bush said that if he was registered voter in Louisiana, he would cast his ballot for Edwin Edwards.

Against the advice of some of his aides, on Nov. 6, President Bush officially commented on the race in a nationally televised press conference. When asked about Duke’s candidacy, the President said, ”When someone asserts the Holocaust never took place, then I don’t believe that person ever deserves one iota of public trust. When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society.” He went on to say, ”When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign. So I believe David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he’s attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”

Ten days after the President’s statement, Edwin Edwards crushed David Duke in the runoff, 61-39%. Edwards received over a million votes and carried 47 parishes. After the primary and confusion, the voters of Louisiana wholeheartedly rejected Duke and his message of hate.

After the 1991 gubernatorial election, Duke mostly faded. By running for governor, he had surrendered his House seat, won by David Vitter. Duke challenged George Bush for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1992, but was never taken seriously as a major candidate, with most anti-Bush conservative support going to Pat Buchanan. With his national hopes dashed, Duke returned to Louisiana and ran again for the U.S. Senate in 1996 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999, failing to make the runoff in either election.

David Duke is a racist, a lifelong Nazi sympathizer who attempted to con the voters of Louisiana with a political message. When he was released from prison, he abandoned his born-again Christian persona and returned to his more hardened Nazi and KKK views. While he portrays himself as a political force, he in fact, has only ever won one election in his career, and that victory was only by 263 votes in a special election for a seat in the state legislature. Duke only served two years in the Louisiana House of Representatives, in which time he passed zero pieces of legislation.

With the tragic events of Charlottesville, it is important for us as Louisianans to know this history. It is a shameful mark on our state’s history. But it is important, because it shows in that 1991 runoff, Louisiana rejected hate and bigotry.

Let’s hope we can do it again if needed.

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