It's David Duke's Party Now: How the Former Klan Leader Reshaped the Republican Grassroots
Republican Congressman and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) has been in hot water after the news broke recently that he once spoke at an event organized by a white nationalist group associated with former Louisiana Republican politician and Klan leader David Duke.
Scalise has done everything he can to claim he abhors Duke's politics. But that's not exactly what one Louisiana columnist says Scalise has always believed. Stephanie Grace of The New Orleans Advocate says Scalise told her he was “David Duke without the baggage” – in other words, he agreed with his policy worldview but did not have a history of open advocacy for the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
Scalise has not commented on Grace's claim, but it's worth examining it on the facts. Did Duke run for governor in 1991 – as the official nominee of the Republican Party – on ideas that were outside the Republican mainstream today, with rhetoric outside the normal bounds? A look back at his gubernatorial run seems to support Grace's comment.
David Duke's Role in Mainstreaming Hateful Politics
While Duke dropped his openly racist rhetoric while running for governor, he won enough support to be the Republican Party's nominee by laying out a policy agenda aimed at accomplishing a lot of the same goals: punishing perceived ungrateful minorities and non-Christians who threaten the purity of our nation.
Duke ran on his “love for Western civilization. That's what I've always been about,” he said. He invoked Christian persecution in the same tones you see on Fox News today: “Our Christian values are under attack. In some places in this country, we can't even sing Christmas carols anymore. We're losing the values the nation was built upon.”
Years before Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich would end welfare as we know it, Duke made it a centerpiece of his campaign, railing against the “rising welfare underclass.” He blamed the “liberal social welfare system” for encouraging “the rising illegitimate welfare birthrate”; this rhetoric was matched with concrete policy ideas, like paying mothers receiving Aid for Families With Dependent Children to use birth control, based on the theory these poor women were having too many children irresponsibly. In his introductory statement at the 1991 debate, Duke loudly complained about a “welfare system that's encouraged crime,” while also railing against busing and against the educational system. He also railed against welfare recipients buying “drugs” and “lotto tickets” – a precursor to today's GOP passing humiliating legislation forcing aid recipients to undergo drug testing.
A cause he carried in his campaigns for higher office and his time in the state legislature was to eliminate affirmative action programs, comparing them to Nazi programs of racial preference.
All of these policies and rhetoric are driven primarily by white racial animosity, and Duke was groundbreaking in his ability to shift them to the top of grassroots right-wing priorities. "By the time this race is over, regardless of who wins, Duke will become the uncontested leader of the racial right in America," explained Lance Hill, executive director of the Louisian Coalition Against Racism and Nazism to The New York Times in 1991, as the gubernatorial election was ongoing. "Not only that, but there will be a racial right in America. He is both ascending to that position while creating it. Prior to that, there was Reagan and Bush. There was nothing to the right of that. There will be now."
A Party that Continues to Pander to Hate
As Republicans continue to try to distance themselves from Duke, it's important to remember what they're doing. They are not condemning and separating themselves from hate or bigotry – they are trying to create space between themselves and one man who had publicly disgraced himself with his Klan and neo-Nazi advocacy.
The GOP is not, for example, ending its ties to the extremist group the Family Research Council (FRC), who Republican presidential candidates always address. The FRC hosts speakers who tell their constituents that Muslims always lie to non-Muslims and have embedded themselves in the U.S. Government to take it over as part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot. How is this rhetoric any different than David Duke's claims of a Jewish-conspiracy running Washington?
FRC has also been a leader in promoting hate against gay and lesbian Americans, with one of its spokespersons even refusing to condemn calls for putting them to death.
And it's worth pointing out that the GOP's single largest election financier behind the Koch Brothers is Sheldon Adelson, a notorious bigot who regularly defames Muslims and Arabs – and who says Israel doesn't need democracy for its non-Jewish citizens because democracy isn't in the Torah.
There is little, substantively, that separates the rhetoric of the bigots and extremists the modern GOP courts and the bigotry and extremism Duke represents. But Duke's 1991 campaign shows that even when you don't openly espouse hatred, you can still promote it by transitioning your incendiary rhetoric into a policy agenda. Duke's agenda then was banning affirmative action and getting welfare recipients to take birth control; today's GOP talks about stopping “Sharia law” and “defending marriage.” At the end of the day, it's all rooted in the same hate. Whatever Scalise claims, it's David Duke's party now.