Louisiana born David Ernest Duke was a member of the Louisiana Legislature and Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan. He is often seen as a white nationalist hero and inspiration for the nation’s current white supremacists whose activism has only increased as a direct result of Black Lives Matter and racial reckoning. The Anti-Defamation League has called Duke “perhaps America’s most well-known racist and anti-Semite.”
As part of a recent Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ weekly Bright Lights Online conversation, retired Tulane professor and author Larry Powell interviewed Josh Levin and Christopher Johnson, host and producer of the Slate podcast Slow Burn: David Duke, the Endowment’s 2021 Best in Digital Humanities awardee.
The zoom conversation chronicled the highlights of the six-hour long Slow Burn episodes in which Levin, a New Orleans native, and Johnson explored the complexities of Duke’s life including his well-known habits of self-promoting and self-aggrandizing. One of the many issues Levin addressed is what can happen when white supremacy goes mainstream.
Often described as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist and far-right politician, Duke was the son of a notorious Klan member. From an early age, he was fascinated with Adolph Hitler’s views of world order and until 1975 was a member of the American Nazi Party. While a student at LSU he would parade around campus in a Nazi uniform.
Duke yearned to hold elected office. He quickly became a political sensation and used the Klan as his launching pad. Duke successfully made the transition from a white robed clan member to a business suit-wearing politician with only minimal changes to his rhetoric.
Duke sought the 1988 Democratic nomination for President. After 53 primaries and caucuses, Duke was in ninth place but had received 45,290 votes. Duke then became a Republican and qualified for the Louisiana House District 81 seat, which he subsequently won by 72 votes out of more than 16,000 cast. It was his only election victory.
During his term in office, Duke was caught shamelessly selling Nazi books and tapes out of his legislative office.
In 1990 Duke ran for the U.S. Senate, garnering 607,091 votes and placed second behind incumbent U. S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston. Almost 60% of Whites voted for Duke. He won nearly all of the working-class and rural precincts.
Had not several nationally prominent Republicans endorsed Johnston in the weeks before the election and trailing Republican challenger Ben Bagert dropped out, Duke could have been victorious.
In 1991, Duke ran for governor of Louisiana against incumbent Governor Buddy Roemer, former Governor Edwin Edwards and others. After Duke’s announcement almost 70,000 Louisiana residents registered the vote, more than half of them Black. Many waited hours for the chance to get on the rolls.
The race drew a tremendous amount of national media attention. Once again more than 600,000 Louisiana voters cast their ballots in favor of Duke. Yet Edwards emerged as the winner with 61% of the vote. During the campaign Edwards was quoted as saying, “the only place David Duke and I are alike is we’re both wizards under the sheets.” He also said “Duke will never be governor of Louisiana and the swastika will never replace the pelican (Louisiana’s state bird.)
Like Adolph Hilter before him and Donald Trump after him – Duke was able to hone in on the anxieties and frustrations felt by conservative audiences of a certain mind-set and craft appealing messages that resonated with their lives.
Duke, like Trump during the 2016 election, was also able to fly under the radar. As Louisiana-born author and documentarian Deno Seder wrote in his book Dead Fish: Humor and Satire in Political Advertising, pollsters at the time failed to detect Duke’s true range or velocity. Seder’s production firm was hired to develop a campaign strategy and television ads for a third-party group, The Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, during the 1990 U.S. Senate race.
People would not admit they were planning to vote for Duke. “Were these voters too embarrassed to tell the truth? Were they ashamed? Ignorant? Racist? High on Meth? Perhaps a combination thereof,” Seder wrote in his book.
The similarities between Duke and Trump cannot be overlooked.
After Trump won the Nevada and St. Carolina primaries, Duke endorsed him during a radio show on February 26, 2016. He urged his audience to volunteer with the Trump campaign because they would meet people who had the same mindset. “Vote for Donald Trump. He is just like us,” exclaimed Duke. He also said he was afraid that failing to vote for Trump could be a blight on their heritage.
For most of his administration, Trump was able to embrace many of the same issues that Duke’s supporters believed in without being tagged as a white nationalist. At the same time he was also able to thoroughly energize the white supremacist movement. As the election took place, Trump’s tactics crystallized, especially after he adopted the mantra of the election being stolen.
Duke claims to have thousands of online followers. Still a self-promoter, Duke tried to convince Levin and Johnson to give him airtime on the Slate podcast. They wisely declined Duke’s request.
A graduate of Brown University, Levin is Slate’s national editor and co-hosts the sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. He is the author of The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, which won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Johnson is supervising producer of the 99% Invisible podcast, co-hosted the award-winning podcast The Realness and hosted the Audible Original series 100 to 1 – The Crack Legacy.
An influential storyteller, Powell taught history at Tulane University from 1978 to 2012. He also served as director of the Tulane/Xavier National Center for the Urban Community and New Orleans New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. Powell is a prolific author whose works include The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, a must read for anyone interested in an unvarnished history of New Orleans.
The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ Bright Lights Online conversations take place almost every Friday. Registration is free through the LEH website. Presentations are available on the LEH’s Facebook page. Slate’s Slow Burn: David Duke podcast series is available at Slate.com as are other stories about Duke. Slow Burn is also offered on Apple Podcasts.