As Donald Trump’s campaign, victory and recent appointments signify a distinct rightward shift toward racial politics in America, many in the white nationalist community are seizing the opportunity to step onto the political stage. And no one is perhaps more symbolic of this trend than former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who — feeling inspired by Trump’s rhetorical strategy — announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana last summer. Duke’s public endorsement of Trump and general presence in the electoral arena sent out a beacon that haunted Trump his whole campaign. Although he did not come close to winning — with only 3 percent of the vote — Duke’s campaign highlighted the essential dilemmas of the Republican Party in 2016.
One of the reasons Duke lost so resoundingly is due to the efforts of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, or LCARN, which formed just over 25 years ago to challenge Duke during his bids for both the U.S. Senate and Louisiana governor. By bringing progressives together with state Republicans, who were horrified at the direction of their party, LCARN created a bipartisan organizing groundswell that not only stopped Duke’s political ascendancy, but also sent him into relative obscurity. That was, of course, until Trump helped bring him back in 2016. But LCARN quickly reassembled the team and got back to the work of successfully fighting off white nationalism.
It is from this strategic plan that lessons can be drawn for how to confront politicians like Duke or Trump, particularly by honing in on their racial rhetoric and driving a wedge into a demographic that may be willing to throw its support behind racial scapegoating. As Trump continues to head to the right by appointing Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon and controversial Sen. Jeff Sessions for cabinet positions, LCARN’s effort to use anti-racist strategies could show a way forward for those still reeling from the election.
A referendum on hate
Duke first made a name for himself as a student leader of neo-Nazi organizations around the Louisiana State University campus during the late-1960s, and then as the Imperial Wizard of the resurgent Knights of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1970s. He first entered the realm of electoral politics in 1979 with a campaign for Louisiana’s 10th district congressional seat, running as a Democrat, but it took another 10 years later before he would win the position.
When Duke came to power, Louisiana was in the midst of an economic crisis, coupled with racial tensions surrounding the problem of drug crime in its urban areas. He used the language of racial resentment to insinuate his Nazi beliefs into mainstream political positions against government equity programs and in favor of white rights.
As Duke pursued a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1990, progressives and left opponents began to formulate a grassroots strategy to confront him, but many tried to ignore his racism and instead focus on the issues — in particular, the fact that there would likely be economic sanctions on the state as companies pulled out in response to a Duke victory. Indeed, polls showed voters were willing to forgive his KKK membership because he had portrayed it as a youthful indiscretion, rather than just a stage in his ongoing white nationalist political development. This, however, was precisely why the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism came together.
“We wanted to show that Duke was trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes,” said Lawrence Powell, one of LCARN’s founders and a Tulane University history professor. “We wanted to show that he is what he was and had always been, which is an ideological Nazi.”
Lance Hill, another LCARN founder and anti-racist organizer, created a large research file on Duke, which the coalition turned into a media resource packet to help define Duke’s political and personal profile. As a part of this project, they set up an expose on Duke’s bookselling operation of neo-Nazi and Holocaust denial literature, which he ran from a home office that doubled as his legislative office. Meanwhile, LCARN’s main conservative ally and co-founder — Louisiana Republican State Central Committee Secretary Beth Rickey — documented Duke’s efforts to befriend her using explicit racial appeals. She even recorded him speaking at a Populist Party meeting in front of known Nazis.
As Duke’s campaign ramped up, he pulled campaign volunteers and workers from neo-Nazi organizations around the country. His own organization, the National Association for the Advancement for White People, continued to push the rhetoric and ideas of his years with the National Socialist White People’s Party and KKK.
At the same time, the coalition mobilized hundreds of volunteers to spread the message of Duke’s Nazi beliefs, even bringing Republicans onto its board of directors. Many of the more conservative members wanted to focus on Duke’s draft dodging, tax problems, and his authorship of strange books — like a hand-to-hand combat guide for African Americans written under the pseudonym Mohammed X and a “sex manual” for women called “Finders Keepers.”
While Duke ended up losing his U.S. Senate race — which was clearly a victory for the coalition — his high numbers among white working-class voters showed that he would continue to hold sway as long as people’s economic needs went unmet.
“We breathed a sigh of relief, but knew this was a pretty dangerous sign,” said prominent anti-racist author and activist Tim Wise, who got his start working with LCARN in the 1990s. “This larger politic of racial scapegoating and blaming black people for problems they did not create — such as the economic crisis ravaging the state at the time — had emerged victorious.”
To that end, Hill called Duke’s first failed U.S. Senate campaign “a referendum on hate, and hate won.”
Vote for the crook: it’s important
A few weeks later, as the coalition began to wind down, Duke announced his candidacy for the governorship, which would move to a primary on October 19, 1991. LCARN immediately got back into action, soliciting contributions and putting out materials to continue the effort to reveal Duke’s politics. While Duke was a long-shot candidate, the structure of Louisiana politics gave him an opening. Instead of holding partisan races, the state uses an open primary, where the top two candidates head to a runoff election later on.
Duke was polling well with Democratic voters who were driven by racism, giving him appeal beyond his Republican base. As a result, he successfully dethroned the incumbent, Buddy Roemer, in the primary, leaving only Edwin Edwards to beat. Because of Edwards’ long history of criminal corruption, the coalition publicized the comical tagline “Vote for the crook: it’s important.” The coalition continued to run ads that highlighted what would happen to Louisiana if Duke won, such as the rest of the country turning its back on the state for accepting white nationalism. The economic boycott threat was incredibly powerful and linked the consequences of racial politics with the economic struggles of the state.
Another piece of evidence came in the form of recordings by Evelyn Rich, who had interviewed Duke a decade earlier as part of her Ph.D dissertation on the fourth generation of the KKK. She had recordings going into the 1980s where Duke expressed his ideas about the biological nature of race, the role of “international Jewry” and the need to temper your rhetoric to gain political leadership.
Duke eventually lost the race for governor in a pretty significant defeat, but he maintained his hold on white voters at 60 percent. This reality impacted organizers who realized that, although many of his supporters would not go along with his more offensive ideological positions, they were willing to support him nonetheless. To a large degree, Duke’s defeat was the result of a massive black vote stemming from black-led organizations that mobilized communities that had not traditionally cast ballots.
Despite the defeat, Duke continued on towards a failed presidential bid in 1992, during which Pat Buchanan appropriated a lot of his talking points and strategy.
Defeating a new generation of hate through education
After the campaign, LCARN founders Powell and Hill created the Southern Institute for Education and Research. They ran workshops for teachers, often in rural areas of Louisiana and surrounding Southern states, developing an anti-racist understanding of social issues.
“We felt the best way to fight against a resurrection of Duke was to shape the historical understanding and the moral values of young kids in these communities,” Powell said.
This included mobilizing the local community of Holocaust survivors to participate in the workshops and helping teachers develop lesson plans around the stories of these survivors. They presented programs for the teaching of the civil rights movement, focusing on landmark pieces like the Plessy v. Ferguson case that was instrumental for setting up racial segregation.
Over these years Duke faded into obscurity, popping up for massively unsuccessful U.S. Senate races in 1996 and 1999. He dropped his tempered rhetoric and began publishing books and speaking at conferences about “Jewish supremacism,” racial differences in intelligence and the need for “white racial consciousness.” He has become a minor celebrity in the world of white nationalism, running a podcast hosted on the Rense Radio Network, which also hosts the Stormfront podcast — one of the central forums for neo-Nazis and white nationalists since the mid-1990s.
Make Louisiana great again
As Trump surged in the primary polls of 2016, and the “alt-right” began to get public attention for white nationalists like the National Policy Institute’s Richard Spencer and the American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, Duke saw an opening again and announced his candidacy on July 22. The connection between Trump and Duke did not lie strictly in their opposition to immigration and Muslims. It can actually be seen more clearly in the fact that Trump took many of the key elements from Duke’s playbook, like fomenting dissension among the Republican ranks, relying on a populist base instead of corporate money, and sending complex signals to older racist tropes.
In response, Powell and Hill decided to relaunch the coalition that successfully took on Duke more than 25 years earlier. LCARN brought together an impressive list of people, including a number of retired and active politicians, military personal, local academics, political consultants and civil rights activists. This included Republicans in a state that went for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, but who also saw Duke as a political anomaly that would put Louisiana under a microscope.
Following the plan from the 1991 campaign, they drew up storyboards for ads that would continue exposure of Duke’s racism. For his part, Duke made it easy, as he returned to his openly Nazi talking points, especially his foaming hatred of Jews. As Duke’s poll numbers stayed low even from the earliest polls conducted, they put fundraising on hold, waiting to reactivate if his campaign surged so that they could squash his efforts before a populist wave began to form.
“The guy is famous for having a hidden vote. He under-polls,” Powell said, noting that surprising things can happen when Duke is in the campaign. “Maybe we did our job well enough 25 years ago, branding him as a loser and a Nazi, that even his attempt to rise from the dead this time was predestined to fail.”
One of the largest media companies in Louisiana, Raycom Media, used a voter poll to determine who would be allowed in the Senate debate. The poll surveyed 625 registered Louisiana voters, asking who they would vote for from the almost two-dozen candidates. Duke, whose white nationalist assertions have always made him an unlikely candidate, came in at just above the threshold of inclusion at 5 percent. This put him directly up against the front-runner, GOP Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy, as well as three other prominent candidates.
Just as with Trump, the polls showed Duke with very low numbers, while he claimed a higher percentage — enough to make it to the runoff. With his unpredictable show of support in earlier elections, it was hard to know what would happen next.
The main event
Amid the morass of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and propositions about race and crime that make up Duke’s Twitter account, an October 20 tweet echoed out past his alt-right base.
“Important news! I qualified for the U.S. Senate (sic) most important debate in Louisiana on Nov. 2. I can’t wait to tell the truth that nobody else dares!”
On the evening of November 2, protesters began to surround Dillard University, the historically black college where the debate was to be held. Students were barred from entry to the event, and protesters pushing up against the entrance were met by pepper spray from the police.
Inside the event, Duke decided to go full-force with his alt-right points, railing against the left, people of color and Jews.
“There is a problem in America with a very strong, powerful tribal group that dominates our media, dominates our international banking. I’m not opposed to all Jews,” Duke said when prompted about anti-Semitic blog posts he published recently.
He joined some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric by stating that Hillary Clinton was responsible for ISIS, and that she should be executed in the electric chair for her “crimes.”
The majority of the panelists avoided engaging with Duke too heavily, focusing on attacking one another as “Washington insiders” in an exposition of Southern populism. Duke seemed less able to keep up with the political issues that were driving the state, instead reverting to talking about Black Lives Matter protesters and accusing them of calling for the murder of the police.
After the debate, Duke went out and talked off-the-cuff with the media, pronouncing the system as “rigged” against him.
He was then escorted out of the venue by police, and his car was surrounded by counter-protesters pushing their way onto the street. On Twitter, he railed against the Jews, accusing Hillary Clinton of secretly having a Jewish background and Zionists as having control of the U.S. government.
Afterwards Duke announced his first campaign commercial to air in Louisiana, which shows him talking at the camera about how the media hates him, just like they do Donald Trump. The video itself is inspired by the longform campaign ads he did in the early 1990s, but looks antiquated compared to other contemporary campaign ads.
Among Duke’s leading points during the campaign was his position as the firmest supporter of Donald Trump. While this move likely endeared him to Trump’s deepest supporters, it was also probably genuine.
“Both campaigns were rooted in the idea of racial scapegoating,” Wise said. “I think Trump’s thing is that he can say all of these outrageous things, and his supporters still have plausible deniability that they are not in bed with a real fascist. With Duke it’s a lot harder to suspend disbelief.”
At the same time, Duke’s loud, aggressive back-and-forths with the moderator may well have had the same backfire effect as Trump’s debate performances, which led to a drop in the polls. Both candidates made punchy statements without any feedback, but when asked to participate in open discussion, their ill temperament and lack of discipline was exposed. Since Duke has been explicit about his Nazism for the last 20 years, however, many doubted he would be able to ride the “Trump train” to Washington.
In the end, there would be no FBI investigation of his competitors to buoy Duke’s popularity after the debate. With 3 percent of the vote — just over 58,000 in total — Duke failed to come even close to what was necessary to head to the runoff race in December.
While the coalition will close up shop now that Duke has been defeated — and its participants will continue the anti-racist education work that they began 25 years ago — other groups are emerging to build on their legacy. The nationwide multiracial organizing network Showing Up For Racial Justice, or SURJ, is one of them.
“We believe what happens in the South is incredibly important for the rest of the country,” said Carla Wallace, a long-time organizer and one of the national SURJ leaders. “It is going to be really critical to build a broad united front … When we look at the list of folks that someone like a David Duke, over his history, has marginalized, targeted, hated on — that is our coalition. It is women, it is poor people, it is Jewish people, it is Muslim people, it is black people, it is white people.”
SURJ’s aim going forward is to find their points of strength inside these affected populations, particularly the blue-collar white-working class, which is often recruited by racialist movements.
With Trump sweeping into power through a series of events that will be scrutinized for decades, anti-racist organizers are pushing straight forward to continue the battle against racial injustice. In the work done from 1989-1992, LCARN created a base by focusing on what was really at issue — Duke’s overt racism — reminding constituents that this type of racism is both explicit and intolerable. Their work provides lessons for how to approach candidates like Trump and his contingent of white nationalists, including controversial figures like Steve Bannon who are riding on his coattails.
Groups like SURJ will continue to do anti-racist work, especially focusing on white communities that can provide allyship for confronting institutional racist violence. With Trump’s recent announcement about the immediate deportation of possibly three million immigrants, this could mean pivoting projects to oppose mass deportations, defend Muslim communities and support the growth of Black Lives Matter’s active organizing.
“We talk about racial justice as something that needs to be addressed if any of us is going to be free,” Wallace said, explaining how SURJ draws in white organizers to actively confront racism in white communities. They say that this still necessitates leadership from people of color and that this cannot be disconnected from the voices of those experiencing racial injustice first-hand.
“It is impossible to do the organizing we need to do in white communities unless there are vital and resourced people of color-led struggles,” Wallace added.
SURJ puts the focus not just on education, but also the connection of anti-racist education projects with organizing, both for adults and children. At the same time, it means moving beyond “privilege politics” and finding a way to empower white working-class movements to continue the fight against racism and respond to leaders of color in the movement.
This is a lesson that many are taking around the country, as Duke’s playbook was finally victorious on a national scale, and people are scrambling to confront the massive victory the far-right has attained in the Trump presidency. While Duke was pushed even further from Louisiana politics, it seems like the politics of racial conflict might remain a central point of Trump’s presidency, as well as invite a slide toward the neo-Nazi agenda of Duke and his network.
For groups like SURJ, who are carrying the mantle of anti-racist organizing forward, this challenge is one they hope will create broad unity and inspire action rather than retreat. After all, it was a persistent commitment to organizing that laid the groundwork 25 years ago to stop a white supremacist from gaining office in Louisiana. There’s every reason to believe this effort can work elsewhere and stem the change that many are fearing is about to take place across the nation.
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