Most journalists who’ve run across David Duke probably remember their initial encounters. This is what happened during mine.
It was early 1996, and the Louisiana Republican Party was taking a stab at shaking up the presidential nominating process by jumping to the head of the line and staging a caucus before anybody else. Most candidates stayed away out of fear of alienating voters in proudly first Iowa, but far-right commentator Pat Buchanan saw an opportunity, came to town and held a rally in Metairie.
The hotel ballroom was packed, the mood was menacing and the venom seemed to fuel Buchanan’s fire-breathing denunciation of racial and gender set-asides. Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and, by then, a former state representative and frighteningly competitive gubernatorial candidate, showed up and told me that he was backing Buchanan.
The feeling wasn’t mutual. When Duke followed Buchanan into the parking lot and tried to welcome the former candidate to the district he’d briefly represented, Buchanan kept his head down, quickened his pace as he walked toward a waiting car and pretty much slammed the door in Duke’s face. Asked about the endorsement, Buchanan said, “He supports me. I don’t support him.”
I bring this up, of course, because we have now entered the Duke phase of this year’s presidential nominating contest, just in time for Saturday’s Louisiana primary.
Given the ascent of Donald Trump, whose arena-size angerfests are kind of like Buchanan’s 1996 rally on steroids, was there ever any doubt?
Keying in Trump’s anti-outsider rallying cry to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban Muslims from entering the United States, Duke, who rarely misses an opportunity to emerge from obscurity and grab a headline, declared that white people who didn’t back Trump were committing “treason” to their “heritage.”
While Buchanan, a political communications pro by trade, knew just what to say in a similar situation, Trump has flailed and flopped all over the place. He first disavowed Duke’s support, then on Sunday reversed himself during a genuinely shocking ABC News interview.
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?” Trump said. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
After a day of denunciations from the press and rival Republican candidates, Trump backtracked again, claiming that he hadn’t heard the question despite the specificity of his answer. This latest maneuver came as journalists were busy digging up evidence that Trump knows all about Duke, including a 2000 statement foregoing a presidential bid with the Reform Party because its high-profile members included Duke, “a Klansman,” and Buchanan, a “neo-Nazi.”
That doesn’t mean Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. A slew of Southern states vote this week, and Trump is canny enough to understand that the vein of resentment he’s tapped into isn’t so different from the impulse that fueled Duke’s Louisiana rise. So, truthfully, did the far-slicker Buchanan 20 years ago.
Many Louisiana Republicans who denounce Duke and his past have also played to so-called Duke voters. Former Gov. Mike Foster did it when he purchased a voter list from Duke. U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise did, too, when he spoke to a group headed by a top Duke lieutenant back when he was a state representative. They’re the ones who got caught, but they’re not alone. Nor is the dynamic unique to our state, even if it played out in more extreme fashion here.
Just as it’s now trying to close ranks against Trump, the GOP establishment was mortified by Duke’s initial success in Louisiana. Top officials, all the way up to then-President George H.W. Bush, denounced his candidacy for the state Legislature and endorsed his respectable Republican rival. But official disdain only seemed to make Duke’s voters dig in their heels, and Duke narrowly won the race. It took a gubernatorial race and an all-out bipartisan crusade on behalf of disgraced Democrat Edwin Edwards two years later to finally end Duke’s rise.
With each day of this crazy primary season that passes, it’s looking more and more like the country could be headed for a replay of the “race from hell,” writ large. And just like then, party officials already are discovering that their problem is way bigger than one person, even one as larger-than-life as Trump.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.