David Duke is a white nationalist who benefits from his near universal description as a “former Klan leader.”
In July 1990, when Mr. Duke was running for a United States Senate seat, a group called the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism (LCARN) ran a 108-question poll to help them with strategy in the campaign that year. At a time when most polls severely under-counted the level of support for Mr. Duke, this LCARN poll did not. It became the gold standard of measurements. When asked “If you knew that David Duke had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” only 35% of white people said it would make them less likely to vote for him. A solid 61% of white people said it would have no effect on their vote. By contrast, when asked “If you knew that David Duke had been a member of a Nazi organization,” however, 50% of white people said they would be less likely to vote for him. And only 41% said it would have no effect.
The 15% drop in votes for Duke when he was described as a member of a Nazi organization, rather than as a Klansman, was important in 1990 and 1991. Those were close statewide races for Senate and Governor. And Duke won more than a majority of white votes in both races.
A difference of 15% of the vote, made all the difference in the world. And it allowed the black voters of Louisiana, who turned out in record numbers, to keep an ideological racist and anti-Semite out of the Senate.
David Duke has been an ideological national socialist all his adult life. (Remember that the real name of Hitler’s Nazis was the National Socialist German Workers Party.) Before he became a Klansman, he was a junior national socialist, even marching around the LSU campus wearing a brownshirt uniform with a swastika armband once. His Klan, as Evelyn Rich and other authors besides me have described it, was a “nazi” Klan. He quit his Klan in 1980 and it has been 36 years since David Duke was a Ku Klux Klan member. In all of those intervening years he has kept his national socialist commitments fresh. He was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2009 for denying the Holocaust and thrown out of the country. He was arrested in Germany in 2011 also, but simply for visa violations. When Mr. Duke’s home and office were raided as part of the investigation that lead to his guilty pleas for mail fraud and tax evasion, Mr. Duke was in Russia meeting with like-minded bigots over there. In 2002, He spoke at an “anti-Zionist” conference in Moscow. And there is more, much more.
Reporters and writers of all stripes should stop describing him as a “former Klansman.” He is a national socialist ideologue, plain and simple, who is not above obfuscating his actual beliefs.
Mr. Duke is no longer the premier white nationalist movement leader that he once was. Others have emerged to push him into the second-tier ranks. It is a mistake, however, to discount his campaign. In this year of the “angry white male,” a significant stratum of white voters could be available if he asks for it. With 24 candidates in the primary, Mr. Duke needs a relatively small number of voters to push him into the run-off.
Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (2009 FSG), is president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.