After watching him romp through the early weeks of the Republican Party’s primary season – spewing hate, stoking xenophobia and attacking the Washington establishment – this thought keeps coming to mind: Is Donald Trump just David Duke in a better suit?
Twenty-five years after the unrepentant neo-Nazi and former KKK leader made the runoff for Louisiana governor (then a GOP state representative, he lost to Democrat Edwin Edwards), Duke and his ideology are enjoying a renaissance, of sorts.
Last week, Duke shot back into the headlines when he urged listeners of his radio show to volunteer for and support Trump’s candidacy. Duke said his remarks were not an endorsement, but his support was enthusiastic nonetheless.
“Voting for these people [Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio], voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage,” Duke said on February 24. Anyone who knows Duke and his decades of white supremacy knows that by “heritage,” he meant “white heritage.”
“I’m not saying I endorse everything about Trump,” Duke added, “in fact I haven’t formally endorsed him. But I do support his candidacy, and I support voting for him as a strategic action. I hope he does everything we hope he will do.”
After initially rejecting Duke’s endorsement, Trump appeared to backtrack in a CNN interview. Asked about Duke’s quasi-endorsement last weekend, Trump replied, "Just so you understand, I don't know anything about David Duke, OK?"
Trump eventually renounced Duke – he said, simply, “I disavow” – but offered nothing more than those words until after his Super Tuesday primaries victories in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia. Safely on the other side of March 1, but just days before Saturday’s Louisiana primary, Trump finally coughed up a slightly more pointed renunciation on Thursday. “David Duke is a bad person, who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years,” Trump said.
Those were rather mild words from Trump, who is highly skilled in the art of the invective. What does it say about Trump’s supposed disdain for Duke that he has unleashed venomous attacks in recent days against Mitt Romney and Rubio but could muster only that weak insult against the former KKK leader?
Trump, however, was correct about one thing. He had, indeed, denounced Duke in 2000. That, however, was long before he launched his current White House bid and before we knew the real estate magnate as the racist he’s become.
Disavowing Duke while earning the votes of former and current Duke supporters has proved a bit more problematic. That may explain why he waited four long days to “attack” the former KKK leader. Did Trump defer criticizing Duke because he feared alienating the not-insignificant percentage of white voters in the South who have never been repelled by Duke and who are now attracted to Trump? Whatever the reason for Trump’s hesitation, it did not appear to cost him many votes in the South on Super Tuesday.
As Public Policy Polling (PPP) reported in mid-February: “Trump's support in South Carolina is built on a base of voters among whom religious and racial intolerance pervades.”
What does that mean, exactly? PPP found that 70 percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina “think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital.” Even worse, PPP reported, 38 percent of Trump voters “say they wish the South had won the Civil War.”
Is there any doubt left that Trump’s support, at least in the South, is built on a foundation of racism and xenophobia? All of which begs these questions: What is it about Trump that Duke so admires? And what about Trump appeals to former and current Duke disciples and other racists?
Having watched Duke for 25 years, I am certain he would not support Trump unless he firmly believed they held similar views on race. To say that Duke and his supporters care about race is like saying Alabama coach Nick Saban cares about football. Duke is obsessed with race – more specifically, he is rabid about safeguarding his perceived “white heritage.”
Like Duke when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor the following year, Trump is a master at racial dog whistles. His listeners know what he really means, even if others less attuned to his code words do not. For Trump (and much of the GOP) most of the dog whistles now summon listeners (including Duke) to hear unmistakable messages about immigration.
Duke and his supporters clearly like the way Trump talks about undocumented immigrants, particularly Mexicans.
“Anybody in this country illegally needs to be sent home. Simple as that,” the candidate has said. “We’ve had our policies that have been really wrong. We’ve had productive people been kept out. The Irish people are having a difficult time right now in Boston, where we have massive numbers of Mexicans and Haitians in the country right now and other immigrant groups who are not contributing to the country, who are loading up our welfare rolls, increasing our crime problems. They’re bringing in a lot of the dope that comes into the country.”
Actually, that quote was not from Trump, no matter how much it might sound like him. That was Duke in March 1992 at a press conference in Plymouth, Mass., as he campaigned for the 1992 Republican presidential nomination.
While Trump doesn’t pepper his speeches with references to “white heritage,” the tenor and tone of his belligerent rhetoric is remarkably similar to Duke’s – and not just on race. Trump and Duke sound very much alike when striking the pose of economic populist who will deal harshly with our trading partners.
In his March 1992 press conference, Duke insisted it was time to get tough with Japan over its refusal to allow more U.S. auto imports. He presaged the blustery Trump of 2016. “It’s about time the Japanese [open their markets] and if they’re not willing to do it, then we cut ’em off,” Duke declared. “We cut ’em off. Simple and surely as that.”
Announcing for president in June 2015, Trump said, “When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn't exist, folks. They beat us all the time.”
When it came to driving a hard bargain – or, as Trump might put it, “making a deal” – Duke assured his 1992 audience he would do what then-President George H.W. Bush couldn’t. “If they know we mean business and we put that [protectionist] legislation into effect, I think they’ll open up their markets and there’ll be a lot of fairness,” Duke said of dealing with Japan. “I really believe that. I just believe we haven’t shown any will.”
In the quote above, simply substitute “Barack Obama” for “Bush” and you have Donald Trump speaking in 2016.
Duke also blamed weakness and lack of resolve – a constant Trump theme in 2016 – for the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. “It’s kind of the same thing that happened when the hostages were taken in Iran and Jimmy Carter didn’t do anything,” Duke said in 1992. “And the ayatollah didn’t think Jimmy Carter would do anything. And he didn’t do anything. I think the same thing's true right now of President [George H.W.] Bush. And I think we’ve got to have a tough guy in there in the presidency who will go and look the Japanese in the eye and say exactly what I said.”
The candidate added: “When somebody doesn’t treat you properly, you gotta be tough, you gotta be strong. You can’t let them push you around.”
Actually, that final quote was not from Duke, no matter how much it might sound like him. It was Trump in January speaking to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about Fox News.
Clearly, the two men have much in common, which is why Duke is urging his supporters to back Trump. Does that mean Trump is a neo-Nazi white supremacist, just like Duke? Who knows?
What we know, however, is this: When Duke’s admirers listen to Trump talk about immigration, trade and other issues, they hear clear, unmistakable echoes of their racist hero.