The following article was written for the Swedish magazine Expo in 2005. It was geared towards a Swedish audience unfamiliar with the various permutations of David Duke’s career. IREHR has brought it out of mothballs because of the recent interest in Duke’s presidential prospects, and this piece presents a useful summary of pertinent information.
By Leonard Zeskind
He cheats his followers. He lies about himself. He lives like a caricature of a Hollywood playboy. And that is not the bad part: He is also a national socialist propagandist named David Duke. No longer able to make enough money off the backs of white nationalists in the United States, he has turned to sucking funds out of his European comrades like an American bankster on holiday.
The outlines of Duke’s public career are well known. While attending Louisiana State University as a youth, he stood on a soapbox and railed against the idea of racial equality while collecting a few recruits for his own little neo-Nazi youth group. He marched around town in a swastika-armband uniform, and a camera caught the picture for all eternity. He then started his own Klan group from scratch, apparently believing that white robes would catch more fish than brown shirts. A shameless self-promoter, he alternated guest slot appearances on television talk shows with cow pasture stand-ups excoriating the media as a tool of the Jews.
Tired of the rigors of Grand Dragonhood, in 1980 he took several years of semi-retirement; nursing along a mailing list he called the National Association for the Advancement of White People. In 1988, he ran for President as the candidate of a group calling itself the Populist Party. This so-called party formation was created by Willis Carto, who also founded the Institute for Historical Review—a Holocaust denial outfit with headquarters in California but with friends like Ahmed Rami. The Populist Party served as a front group for Christian patriots, fallen away Klansmen and neo-Nazis, but it never won ballot status in more than a dozen and a half states. Duke received very few votes as a Populist candidate—about 50,000 out of 91.6 million votes cast. He did manage to fatten his mailing list of campaign contributors, however.
In 1989 he used that money list to jump start a campaign for the Louisiana House of Representatives. He won that election while claiming his youthful national socialism was a prank and his days as a Klansmen were over. Nevertheless, he still sold Holocaust denial material out of his office and talked grandly about things racist. An opposition coalition of black and white religious leaders, academics, mainstream Republicans, liberal Democrats and old-fashioned anti-racists combined to tell “truth about Duke.” A clever politician, Duke took advantage of weak Republican Party politicians who ran against him. In two back-to-back campaigns in 1990 and 1991, he campaigned statewide using the Republican Party label for United States Senator and then Louisiana Governor. Although he lost both elections to Democrats, he actually won a majority of the white vote in both races, over 600,000 each time. If it had not been for the black people of Louisiana voting against Duke, Louisianans would have had a confirmed national socialist ideologue representing them in the Senate.
Duke put up a perfunctory campaign in the Republican Party presidential primaries in 1992, but Pat Buchanan carried the same message to the same constituency—without the former Klansman’s baggage. In Buchanan’s own words: Duke’s ideas without the white-robed affiliations. During the decade following, Duke ran unsuccessfully (again) for the U.S. Senate in 1996, won a seat on a local Republican Party council in 1997, and lost a Congressional primary in 1999. Running for office became a way of life for Duke, but as the money and votes dried up his career as a semi-mainstream politician ended. Simply put, the white voters who had pulled Duke’s ticket in 1991 had long ago tired of his constant huckstering. Nevertheless, he continued to use the honorific title “Representative” as if winning one election had brought him a lifetime title.
Without a politician’s soapbox to stand on, Duke finished writing his book, My Awakening, a 700-page tome he self-published in 1998. As a piece of literature, the book doesn’t rise to the level of a bad comic book. Part memoir (with all the necessary omissions and additions) and part Aryan primer, it contained no new ideas or great thoughts. But the book did become a commercially successful product to sell on the white nationalist speaking circuit. In the mid-nineties, Duke resurrected old ties to National Alliance, the outfit founded by Turner Diaries author William Pierce. And so began a conjunction of mutual opportunity: a grim national socialist cadre organization fronting an almost charismatic speaker with a knack for grandly identifying his own personal fortunes with the Fates buffeting the white nationalist movement.
Throughout his career, Duke always required a strong Number Two, someone who would play lieutenant to his role as captain. Always a gifted propagandist and charismatic speaker, he lacked the basic skills to keep an organization functioning from the inside. During his Klan days, a number of gifted state leaders distinguished the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from other Klan factions. California’s Tom Metzger, for example, served under Duke in the 1970s and then became a godfather to the emergence of white power skinheads in the late 1980s. Louis Beam from Texas later became the blood-thirsty strategist behind much of the clandestine underground and then the openly paramilitary militia. Don Black from Alabama became Duke’s successor at head of the Knights, went to jail for involvement in a plot to overthrow the government of a small Caribbean nation, and is now the mastermind behind the Internet website, “Stormfront.” (He is also Duke’s closest personal friend.) As a Republican politician, Duke relied on the organizational skills of an ex-cop named Kenny Knight. And when Duke returned to the white nationalist speaking circuit in the mid-1990s, he hired a National Alliance cadre named Vincent Breeding.
Knowledge of Duke’s twists and turns through national socialist, Klan, and Republican Party circles illuminates some of the principle ideological routes white nationalists in the United States have traveled during the last three decades of the 20th century. A closer look at some of the less publicized stories, however, can provide a more complete picture of David Duke as a person.
His childhood, for example, provides a case study in white blindness to the world around him. An absentee father traveled extensively while his alcoholic mother stumbled drunkenly through the house. The young Duke was nurtured by a black woman who served as both nanny and domestic do-all to the household. Yet, he would grow up and preach about the supposedly wanton uncivilized ways of black people, treating his own upraising as if it did not happen. Plain and simple: he ignored reality and recreated himself in an “Aryan” image.
An incident from early 1972 may reveal even more about his character. At the time, Duke was creating an organization he called the National Party, recruiting members from a youth group once affiliated wit the National Socialist White Peoples Party. The FBI had an open investigation at the time, and a January 25, 1972 Letter Head Memo (LHM) from the Special Agent in Charge to the FBI Director states clearly that “Agents to whom DUKE furnished information contained in enclosed LHM are SAS…” The agents names are redacted out, a standard practice when the FBI is forced to release documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
The same set of documents show that an unidentified source had brought the FBI information “in person.” The memo also indicates the information was “applications.” It was then forwarded to FBI offices in 20 cities—indicating that it was most probably a membership list with names dispersed across the country.
During this same period, January 18, 1972, Duke was arrested for possession of bottles filled with a flammable liquid and topped with rags. Most people call such items Molotov cocktails. Not Duke, he claimed they were torches for a National Party parade. In any case, the charges were dropped several weeks later—and the local police missed an opportunity to prosecute someone they had been keeping surveillance on. When asked in 1992 by this writer about these incidents, he denied that he had given the FBI any information or provided his group’s membership list in exchange for having the charges against him dropped. Duke acknowledged that he had been interviewed by the FBI, but claimed they must have gotten the membership list through some other Counter Intelligence Program. There is no way to independently determine the truth of this matter, in part because the FBI documents are heavily blacked out. But there is enough information available for individuals with some personal knowledge of Duke to draw their own conclusions.
Control of mailing lists became a constant source of trouble, as an incident from 1980 further illustrates. At that time, Duke and several of his top lieutenants wanted to leave the Klan and establish a new organization from which they could run for political office. To further this goal, he proposed a secret deal with a leader of a competitive Klan group, Bill Wilkinson. Duke was prepared to leave his Klan group and sell the mailing list to Wilkinson for $35,000. Wilkinson suckered Duke, however, by secretly taping and recording the supposed sale event. He did not go through with the money transfer; thus denying Duke both the money and discrediting him with his own Klan membership. Duke formally quit the Klan shortly thereafter.
After Duke left the Klan, a number of his former comrades let loose a steady stream of criticism about his personal behavior. During this period he was married with two young children at home, but one of the Kluxers who knew Duke best, his California state director Tom Metzger, claimed that Duke would come to town and try to bed other Klansman’s wives. The Knight’s New York state leader, Karl Hand, released a report saying much the same thing. And his periodic visits with a prostitute in Colorado were well known among associates. After leaving the Klan and being divorced, his behavior became even more flagrant. A regular gambler, he had a spot at a Las Vegas casino and became well known to the staff. Only his relatively short but intense venture into mainstream Republican Party politics in Louisiana slowed Duke’s public womanizing and gambling—pushing it under the table until he was indicted on various fraud charges. But even then, Duke’s vanity and egotism ran to the front; and he underwent cosmetic surgery on his face—ostensibly to make his Aryan message more appealing by looking a bit more “Aryan” himself.
And then there is his guilty plea for mail fraud and income tax evasion, and the relatively short prison sentence he served. After authorities investigating Louisiana politicians discovered a link to Duke, a full-fledged federal inquiry began. Once again, it involved a mailing list. This time he allegedly sold the names of his contributors to Gov. Mike Foster for $150,000. In 1999, Duke was subpoenaed to appear before investigative grand juries on two different occasions. Both times he refused to give evidence.
Duke implicitly acknowledged the investigation in a fundraising letter dated October 17, 2000. “Your gifts,” he wrote of the past monies he had received, “have given me a decent living…and even enabled me to relax away from the pressure sometimes.” Translated into plain talk: donors gave Duke money, and he spent it on everything from groceries to gambling—and not just on the white nationalist struggle as he had previously pretended. Meanwhile, federal authorities continued their inquiry and on 16 November 2000, they raided Duke’s home and office. The affidavit they filed for the search said that Duke had misused over $200,000 in contributions from his supporters—much of it gambling at local casinos.
At the time of the raid, Duke was in Russia—for his fourth visit since 1995. Rather than come home and defend himself, he spent the next two years traveling across Europe (East and West) and the Arab countries of the Middle East. He established a home base in Italy. In France, Duke had his picture taken with Jean-Marie Le Pen. In Russia, he turned his 1995 meeting with Zhironovsky into a spot at a 2002 “anti-Zionist” conference in Moscow. In Kiev in August 2002, he received an honorary doctorate from the National Academy of Management. And that same month, he attended an NPD convention in Germany. The following November, he spoke at a meeting in Bahrain.
Less than six weeks later, on 18 December 2002, Duke suddenly reappeared in Louisiana and signed documents pleading guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion. He admitted bilking his supporters, and lying about his income to the feds. Almost as if it was scripted from the beginning, this was a remarkable turn of events: Knowing that he was under investigation, he left the country for Europe and points east. During a two year period (and then another year while he is in jail), Duke left his office in the hands of an American native unfamiliar with the white nationalist scene in the United States, but highly versed in the byways of international neo-Nazi intrigue: Roy Arthur Armstrong, also known as Roy Gudenau. And then he shows up to face just two small charges.
Armstrong is a character in his own right. Born in Seattle, he moved to Germany in the 1970s. He married a German national, Ingeborg Godenau, in 1977 and began using her name. Using his American passport, Godenau reportedly traveled across the globe selling anti-Semitic materials produced by Reinhard Kops, a former Abwehr officer living in Argentina while using the name Juan Maler. During this period Armstrong -Godenau became an intimate participant at all levels of the neo-Nazi movement in Germany. And when Yaron Svoray, an Israeli posing as an Australian, “infiltrated” the Germany white nationalist scene in 1997, Armstrong-Godenau was one of the men he supposedly duped into giving him access to other Aryans. Three years later, Armstrong-Godenau showed up in New Orleans and baby sat the office while Duke served about a year in prison. When Duke got out, Armstrong-Godenau was there to meet him.
During the 18 months since his release Duke has continued on as before, traveling extensively in Europe while hosting two “international” conferences at home in Louisiana. In the end, that may be all that is left of David Duke’s contribution to his movement. He provides a location for an international assemblage of neo-Nazis to convene once a year. And in return, like any other good American businessman—from MacDonald’s to Disney World—David Duke receives favored trading status, selling anti-Semitic and racist materials as if they were hamburgers and Mickey Mouse.
Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, is president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.