WORLD

SHOWDOWN IN DIXIE

EX-KLANSMAN DAVID DUKE HAS BECOME A DARK NEW FORCE ON THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCENE

MARCI McDONALD November 25 1991
WORLD

SHOWDOWN IN DIXIE

EX-KLANSMAN DAVID DUKE HAS BECOME A DARK NEW FORCE ON THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCENE

MARCI McDONALD November 25 1991

SHOWDOWN IN DIXIE

WORLD

EX-KLANSMAN DAVID DUKE HAS BECOME A DARK NEW FORCE ON THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCENE

On the makeshift stage raised over the finish line at Evangeline Downs race track outside Lafayette, in the heart of what Louisianans call Cajun Country, the lights of television crews from around the country—and the world—glinted off his ash-blond hair blowing in the warm night breeze. The camera lenses framed his profile, sculpted by a plastic surgeon’s scalpel into the sort of bland good looks that might have won him a TV newscaster’s job. There was nothing strident in his rhetoric, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s or George Bush’s, as he railed about taxes, welfare cheats and getting government “off the backs of the people.” Mining the pentup frustration of 2,500 farmers and small-town businessmen, most in jeans and hunting caps, who roared their approval, David Duke—exNazi and former grand wizard of the state Ku Klux Klan—had not only mastered the archetypal outsider candidate’s role. He had also packaged himself in the coded catchphrases of mainstream politics.

At the rally, three days before last weekend’s pivotal, racially charged vote in the Louisiana governor’s race, he was already pitching his message beyond the sea of sun-weathered faces to the volatile discontent of the country’s recession-weary working class. “The little David has overcome the mighty Goliath,” he proclaimed. “Right now, George Bush is looking over his shoulder—he’s afraid I’m going to run for president.” Down in the crowd, Maurice Broussard, a retired contractor whose accent betrayed his Acadian ancestry, tugged at his cowboy hat with a grin of delight. “Yessir, even if he doesn’t get elected, the ball is rolling,” he said. “There’s a lot of people all over the country who agree with what he’s saying. They’re going to start coming out of the woodwork now.”

In fact, despite Duke’s loss to former threeterm Democratic governor Edwin Edwards—a self-confessed rapscallion who only recently won acquittal on two charges of political corruption—that prospect is precisely what has filled many Americans with dread. Denounced by Bush as a “charlatan” and disowned by the shaken national Republican party to which he claims allegiance, Duke managed to capitalize on both rebuffs by claiming that they were yet more signs of his, and his supporters’, victimization. In a no-win campaign summed up by one anti-Duke bumper sticker that pleaded, “Vote for the crook—it’s important,” the recycled white supremacist has succeeded in giving racism not only a reasonable face, but also a global platform.

Contributions have poured into his suburban New Orleans headquarters, which shares space with his National Association for the Advancement of White People, from all states—and from Canadians in every province. Last week, Virginia pollster Richard Wirthlin reported that in one survey, Duke had scored a 56-per-cent name recognition, higher that that of any current Democratic presidential contender. Said Lance Hill, president of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism based in New Orleans, just before the vote: “Even if he loses, he has already won. His ambition is to create a national movement—a radical racial right—and to become president. That’s what this campaign is providing him with: a national forum.”

Analysts have tried to explain away Duke’s populist drawing power as yet another symptom of working-class fear and rage at a time when America’s economic horizons are shrinking. And even Duke’s bitterest foes concede that neither Democrats nor Republicans have dealt with the grievances of those Middle Americans whose

lives have been most directly affected by the court-enforced mandates of affirmative action. But when Duke derides “the liberal social welfare system which encourages the rising illegitimate birthrate,” he knowingly plays on racial stereotypes, not statistics. (In fact, 58 per cent of American women on welfare are white; 37 per cent are black.) And he unabashedly turns liberal orthodoxy inside out by branding affirmative action “true racism.”

His backers have picked up on the licence of his thinly coded racist cues. Said Wilfred (Woody) Tupper, a defiant 40-year-old crop duster among the Evangeline Downs crowd: “I want you to understand when I tell you I’m not against niggers—uh, Negroes—but when they have more rights than whites, that’s not equal opportunity.” As Ronald Walters, a black political science professor at Washington’s Howard University, pointed out, “Duke is giving racism a new vocabulary.” For blacks, Duke’s emergence represents the darkest hours of America’s segregationist past revisited. At a Lafayette roadside steak house, night manager Frank Thibodeaux, a mixed-blood Creole, shivered with fear and the rude awakening of lost innocence. “Suddenly, I look at some people—white people—and it makes me think they’re racist, and maybe they always were,” he said. “This has opened a real can of worms, and it’s going to get ugly.”

Some political experts trace that ugliness back to the veiled racist ground tilled by the inflammatory rhetoric of past Republican campaigns—Reagan’s diatribes against “welfare queens” and Bush’s TV commercials featuring a black convict named Willie Horton who raped a white woman while he was on a weekend prison furlough (page 74). Roger Wilkins, a black Democratic activist who teaches at George Mason University outside Washington, noted with perverse glee that if Duke goes on to run in the 1992 presidential primaries as predicted, the candidate whom he will most seriously hurt is the one now in the White House. “Bush and Reagan made Duke possible,” he said. “It’s their doing, and their embarrassment, and now they have to chew on it.” So worried are some Republicans that last week, Floyd Brown, the 30-year-old head of the Washington-based conservative team that produced Bush’s Willie Horton ads, showed up in New Orleans with a $13,500 TV spot aimed at defeating Duke. Accusing him of hijacking the conservative message, Brown marvelled at how skilfully Duke “understands how these issues can touch a heartbeat—that’s why we fear him so much.”

But as experts predict the emergence of a new brand of populist, radically polarized politics, few Louisianans will view that prospect with as much horror as Shepherd Zitier, a 74year-old Polish-born dry-goods dealer. Like other Jews across the continent who have quietly funnelled thousands of dollars into stop-Duke campaigns, he has recoiled in disbelief as fellow citizens tailored economic excuses for a candidate who only six years ago suggested that Jews should be consigned to the ash bins of history—a viewpoint that allowed Zitler’s entire family to be killed in Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps. Zitier recalls how Hitler, too, mobilized the disgruntled German masses in the 1930s with talk of bread and jobs. “This story is repeating itself almost exactly,” he sighed. “I worry about my children, my grandchildren. It’s already bringing hate out of the closet.” As that old skeleton rattles again, Zitier is not alone in seeing David Duke in his nightmares of the future.

MARCI McDONALD in Lafayette