Bigots, Billionaires, and Borders: The Duke-Trump Fever Swamp

(Published 8 August 2016, in The Moderate Voice.)

Donald Trump will lose the presidential election this Fall. He will do so because he’s professionally and politically unqualified, because he’s temperamentally (perhaps clinically) unsound and dangerous, and as a result of his patient inability to mask his many prejudices and general ignorance. Trump must be taken seriously by all, but the real test – of both American conservatives and the American public – is yet to come.

Lacking any one of these faults, Trump could present a formidable challenge to Hillary Clinton. It’s generally acknowledged that Secretary Clinton is competent, level-headed, and a committed, if pragmatic, progressive. But she lacks the easy charm and campaign charisma of President Obama or her husband. Her own, much-exaggerated personal flaws are amplified by decades of rote, ritualistic repetition of unsubstantiated innuendo, both by the Right and more recently by the Sanders-Stein Left. Her true faults, besides her gender, are real sins of secrecy and a penchant for lawyerly parsing of language. A skilled negotiator who finds compromise, she can too easily be seen to be compromised.

But Trump is a problem of a far greater order. In reaching this stage of the American presidential elections, he has already seriously damaged public discourse and the political process. Few thought he’d make it this far. The cost will only escalate in the months ahead, not least as he attempts to sow the idea – without a scintilla of proof – of a rigged election. And the candidacies of Libertarian Gary Johnson (a former Republican) and now Independent Evan McMullin (a #NeverTrump Republican) make for interesting times ahead; would it be possible, for example, that a divided Republican vote could leave Clinton as the only candidate eligible for the debates? In any case, Trump has gravely wounded the Republican Party. Between now and the election date, establishment Republicans will have to decide whether they put Party or country first. Many have already failed this test.

But even after Trump’s defeat, indeed immediately after his loss, the Republican Party will have important questions to ask about its own character and values. This will not happen because of the practical failure of primary voters to stop Trump. That could be solved, in theory at least, with institutional change for the future. It will not happen because of the cowardice of Party leadership since. That could also change. Surely, there are more worthy Republicans who could more ably represent the best of the American Right.

Similarly, it will happen despite the modest, though expanding, resistance of #NeverTrump Republicans. While a trickle of conservatives have embraced Clinton, or at least come to terms with the necessity of voting against Trump, this rattle-bag of Republicans isn’t a coherent whole. Some, as ideological conservatives, object to Trump’s political and moral dilettantism; other centrist, moderate Republicans object because they take The Donald at his word. It remains to be seen whether any converts appear to embrace the Democratic Party. But given their movement leftwards, this is understandably unlikely after November.

Instead, this Republican reckoning will – or should – happen because Trump will expose not only the shortcomings of his current party, but the prejudices and ignorance of much of our public. As I recently argued,

‘[u]ltimately, the obstacle to a more rational and plural public discourse isn’t the Republican Party, but large pockets of the American people. Trump and Republicans before him have profited from long-standing public prejudices and paranoia. But they’re mere flotsam and jetsam on a sea of slack-jawed nativists, middle-class racists, pro-gun anti-gubberment types, predatory capitalists, and bellicose Bible-thumpers.’

Even in defeat, this fact will be exposed as never before. While racists and nativists have long been a reliable part of the conservative electorate, it’s been possible for decades to paper over this fact, to obscure its significance. Trump’s candidacy has lifted the mask of this hatred, revealing not only its sickness, but its size.

Curing such a cancer will require profound changes that the Republican Party will not want to embrace, not least as they’d dilute its appeal and dampen its electoral success. Previous experiences, including the candidacies of David Duke for state office in Louisiana in the 1990s, don’t bode well for change. And in fairness, the social changes required may well be too much to expect any political party to accomplish on its own.

The Bigot in the Bayou

David Duke was born in Oklahoma in 1950. He’d arrived in Louisiana by the late 1960s in the midst of the civil rights era and has had a long association with the state. The Southern Poverty Law Center refers to him as

‘the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial who has nevertheless won election to Louisiana’s House of Representatives and once was nearly elected governor.’

That Louisiana gubernatorial election of 1991 is well-known far beyond the state. This is, in part, because Duke ran as a Republican. It is less well-known, however, that Duke had run for the US Senate seat the year before, also as a Republican. While he lost both elections, Duke performed well, at least among white voters. And that fact is as significant as his losses.

Both the senatorial and the gubernatorial elections in Louisiana featured its ‘non-partisan blanket primary’, the so-called ‘jungle primary’. That system ends when someone secures over 50% of the vote in either a first open election or a second run-off ballot. As the former typically involves a messy, crowded field – candidates of any party may compete against one another – a majority is often elusive. The latter requires a choice between the two candidates who’d received the most support in the first ballot. The winner of that vote will have, by definition, a majority and will be elected.

In the Senate election, the state Republican Party withdrew support for Duke. He lost against the incumbent Democrat J Bennett Johnston, Jr. But Duke performed well, receiving 43.5% of the vote, compared to Johnston’s 54%. Duke received some 607,000 votes. In the gubernatorial elections in 1991, he would ultimately secure still more. 671,000 Louisianans attempted to elect as their Governor a man who’d once worn both the Klan’s hood and the Nazi swastika.

In the first phase of the two gubernatorial elections, Duke finished a close second, securing a run-off with Edwin Edwards. Edwards, no relation to current Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, had already served three terms as Governor (1972-1976, 1976-1980, 1984-1988). He was, and is, a legend in the state, a colourful character with traits that reminded many of Huey Long and the dynasty he’d earlier established in Louisiana. But it was also commonly believed that Edwin Edwards was corrupt. He would later, in fact, serve time in federal prison for racketeering (2002-2011). But even after his release, Edwards returned to battle and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014. He was 86 at the time.

So it was hardly surprising that Edwards won the jungle primary in 1991. But only just. He finished with 33.7% of the vote. Duke had received 31.7%. He did so in field of twelve, though eight of those didn’t reach one percent. But he polled more than five percentage points – and 81,000 votes – ahead of the incumbent Governor Buddy Roemer. Roemer’s another interesting figure – there are a great many in the state – who’d switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party only the year before.

Roemer’s shift was part of a wider movement of Democrats to the Republican Party. Republicans had, of course, scarcely existed a few decades earlier. But this exodus accelerated across the 1990s, leaving a state today reliably red in presidential elections and in which Republicans continue to control much of state government. While the subject is complicated, this is less a shift towards conservatism than a move of conservative and Blue Dog Democrats to the Republican Party. And if it often reflected the deeper principles of the politicians, it was not infrequently an attempt to remain electable, whatever their values. A similar pattern can be seen across much of the South since the civil rights era.

With a head-to-head match-up between Edwards and Duke, the choice was clear. The campaign could be distilled succinctly. As a popular bumper-sticker declared: Vote for the Crook; It’s Important. And, as it happened, Duke was defeated handily, 61.2% to 38.8%, a margin of 22% or 386,000 votes.

I was there. After the election, it was easy to feel not only that we’d dodged a bullet, but that Louisianans had even accomplished something. This was much the same feeling we might have had when we’d braced for hurricanes that didn’t damage as much as was predicted or feared. But it was a false, short-sighted sense of security. While nearly forty percent of voters had opted for Duke, a third of the state’s population was – and is – black. Not surprisingly, few black voters opted for the former Klansman. A majority of white voters, some 55%, had voted for the thinly-veiled racism of David Duke. Some victory.

After the election, Duke’s star slowly faded, though he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for President (1992), the US Senate (1996), and the US House of Representatives (1999). He never reached the highs of 1990-1991 again, but remained popular in a variety of hate-circles, especially on the Internet. Like Edwards, he also spent time in federal prison. In Duke’s case, this was for tax evasion. His sentence (2003-2004) even overlapped with that of the now four-term Governor. And Duke continued to engage in bizarre comings-and-going for his bizarre causes, not least the receipt of a dubious, anti-semitic doctorate on Zionism from a dubious Ukrainian University.

But the real legacy of the election is easily missed. Duke’s supporters in 1990 and 1991 didn’t suddenly grasp pluralism and progressivism or even traditional mainstream conservative values. They hadn’t gone away, but returned to more subtle codes of communicating their bigotry and ignorance. They still haven’t gone away. Out of necessity, Duke Republicans returned to supporting conservatives of all stripes. This includes, of course, significant numbers of upstanding and rational moderate Republicans. But it also includes others who’d mastered the rhetoric of dog whistle politics in a manner that Duke never could, with the public past that he had. If the mask, or hood, slipped and occasionally revealed a more vulgar racism, these Republicans could plausibly deny such sins.

The People are Revolting

And this is the real problem with Trump. It’s not so much about what his ascendance tells us about the Republican Party, but about the American electorate. Like sleeper agents suddenly activated by the arrival of their leader, voters very similar to those who supported Duke in Louisiana have risen nationally in support of Trump. The racism, implicit and explicit, and vulgar nativism of Trump and his surrogates can occasionally put the Klansman to shame.

More recently, even Duke himself has arisen from the cryogenic chamber that has preserved, or fermented, his hate for a quarter century. That white knight is again on our screens, his face now waxy and pinched from what appears to be extensive plastic surgery. Asked only a few days ago if Trump voters were his own, Duke told NPR that, ‘of course they are because I represent the ideas of preserving this country and the heritage of this country. And I think Trump represents that as well.’ Many think that this is a fair account of Trump’s principles, the conscience of this relatively recent convert to conservatism.

Indeed, the paths of Trump and Duke briefly intersected sixteen years ago. Born from the debris of Ross Perot’s 1992 third-party campaign – which garnered an impressive 18.9% of the popular vote – the Reform Party was established in 1995. It was meant to be a realistic option, though it was, in fact, an empty vessel over which different factions fought for control. This in-fighting, constitutional requirements for the election of the president (especially the Electoral College), and its exclusion from the debates of the 1996 campaign hamstrung its ability to meaningfully compete with the established parties.

It hadn’t disappeared yet, however, when the 2000 presidential campaign began. The party sought both a political ideology and a viable leader. Trump, along with former wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, then positioned himself as a sort-of socially-progressive conservative. But it didn’t last long. And in quitting he issued a statement that the party included ‘a Klansman, Mr Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr [Pat] Buchanan, and a communist, Ms [Lenora] Fulani.’ He added that that was ‘not company I wish to keep.’ Ironically, the same campaign saw Ralph Nader’s Green Party arguably act as a spoiler, ending in a victory – by way of the US Supreme Court – for Republican George W Bush.

Somewhere between Trump’s 2000 statement and his 2016 campaign, he began keeping company very similar to both Buchanan and Duke. Perhaps the tragedy of September 11th 2001 had an impact. Perhaps it was his subsequent hallucinations about American Muslim reactions to that event. In any case, Trump clearly moved to a nationalist Right long associated with Buchanan and Duke. Both now support his current campaign. And if Trump hasn’t acknowledged Duke, he’s frequently struggled to deny him, presumably out of fear of offending the silent malevolency of Duke Republicans. Indeed, while it’s always possible that Trump never wrote or believed his earlier statement, he claimed a few months ago not to know what Duke stood for.

Now, inspired by Trump’s successes, Duke will be running again for the same US Senate seat he lost years ago. He will do so, he claims, to defend European-American values. But he will also do so against the wishes of the Louisiana Republican Party, who noted that he was

‘a convicted felon and a hate-filled fraud who does not embody the values of the Republican Party. The Party of Lincoln and Reagan is one that recognizes the inherent value of every human life, regardless of age, religion or race. David Duke’s history of hate marks a dark stain on Louisiana’s past and has no place in our current conversation. The Republican Party of Louisiana will play an active role in opposing David Duke’s candidacy.’

This sounds commendable and might well represent a genuine, individual revulsion with Duke. But it’s hardly surprising that Duke sees connections between their causes.

Indeed, as Robert Mann has recently explained, the Louisiana GOP is on swampy ground:

‘In Trump, they have endorsed a national candidate widely admired among the same voters who once helped rocket Duke into international fame.

These Republican leaders condemn Duke, not because they oppose his message. Rather, it’s that Duke is an imperfect, embarrassing representative of their ideology. That the same Louisiana leaders don’t find Trump’s bigotry objectionable speaks volumes about their “principles.”’

Mann has rightly challenged Louisiana’s elected Republicans to defend their support for ‘an unabashed racist.’ Indeed, after watching the carnival of D-list celebrity fear and hate that was this year’s Republican National Convention, Duke himself was delighted. He Tweeted, the Internet is now the place to most effectively and discreetly poison the well, that he ‘Couldn’t have said it better!’ This, too, speaks volumes about their respective principles.

One final note. In the senatorial election, David Duke will be trying to win the seat being vacated by Republican David Vitter. Vitter has his checkered moral past, though it involved prostitutes and payoffs rather than racism; as a result, he lost the last gubernatorial election to conservative Democrat John Bel Edwards. But Duke is now one of twenty-four candidates in the first stage of the jungle primary of the US Senate. Given his name recognition, if nothing else, he could easily make the run-off election. And even if he’s still more likely to lose there, support both for him and for Trump signal the deeper problems of the Republican Party and the American public.Recent polls showing that Trump is viewed less favorably than Duke among black Americans suggests that both have now been successfully outed as carriers of hate.

A Trump-Shaped Stain

So what happens after Trump loses? Much depends, of course, on the nature and scale of the defeat and the number of additional casualties it inflicts on the Republican Party nationally and throughout the states. In the capital, Democrats will obviously be ecstatic, especially if they can somehow secure both chambers in Congress. And if Democrats are less successful, Republicans will breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t worse. Perhaps no more can really be expected, at least from politicians. And, in any event, what is most important will not be decided at the ballot box in a presidential election held every four years. More significant are the thousand unrecorded, seemingly unremarkable, interactions between America’s diverse citizenry. But this is so much more difficult to reform or channel.

Not long ago I suggested that ‘only a crushing loss might wash away the Trump-shaped stain on the Republican Party, on the body politic, and on our international reputation.’ Conservative Rick Wilson has made a similar argument. Trump must, he writes, ‘be put as far into exile as is humanly possible so that the country can heal from the deep wounds he’s inflicted upon it.’ But Trump’s defeat won’t be enough. The problem isn’t, in fact, Trump, who only magnifies the hatred of this silent, but sizeable, minority of Americans. The problem remains with the people. There are too many to ban. And no wall could be built to contain them.

Even a decisive victory over The Donald will result in a significant number of voters choosing a vulgar form of Know-Nothing nationalism that is both bigoted and ignorant at its core. This is not to say that there aren’t real grievances in white America. But if there are meaningful conservative principles – and there are – Trump’s ascendancy reveals that there are far fewer conservatives of principle than even the most pessimistic progressive might have expected. Neither in Louisiana in 1991 nor in the nation now can a single election or national debate heal such wounds or rid us of a hatred rooted in fear, in cultural vertigo and economic uncertainty. These wounds are obviously not new. Their causes are anything but simple. But they are bleeding freely again and it’s unclear, to me at least, how we should attend to them.

The aftermath of Trump’s defeat will inevitably be inappropriately modest. The various Republican factions, including an emboldened #NeverTrump corps of centrists and committed conservatives, will immediately opine about the shape of a reformed party. But this promises to be largely about selling the brand better rather than changing the product. And as a practical matter, it is still likely to be about establishment Republicans, perhaps the very same individuals who tolerated Trump, finding a way to (silently) return his clan to the fold. And not entirely without reason. The Republican position on the political spectrum, in a country dominated by two parties, means that they’ve little choice to do otherwise if they want to win elections to achieve more moderate goals. The mass party of the Right will, by necessity, continue to rely on Duke and Trump conservatives.

What is more worrying is that society, never mind the state, will also attempt to carry on as normal, without any effort to engage with its deeper problems. For to be normal in 2016 is to remain wounded, a fact far too obvious for many Louisianans over the last month or so. And at the center of this sickness remains our original sin of racism, especially but not exclusively towards our black friends and neighbors, to their communities and children. It is a sin just as mortal now, under the leadership of our first black President. It may even be worse in response to that fact, no matter how accomplished and gracious President Obama is.

It is a sin made manifest, too, in the recent deaths of Alton B Sterling and three police officers – Deputy Brad Garfola, Officer Matthew Gerald, and Officer Montrell Jackson – in Louisiana’s capital. The loss was national, but the pain was especially sharp for those of us who love Louisiana. And between these two tragic events, Officer Jackson, a black member of the city’s police department, had written a poignant message online, as he struggled to represent both his race and his state: ‘Please don’t let hate infect your heart.’

If we cannot find a way to cure this infection, to repent our sin and repair our nation, we will do more than offend the memory of those unlawfully killed in Baton Rouge. If we can’t find a way to heal this fresh epidemic of hate in conversations and compromise long after November, a less-flawed messenger than Trump will succeed in future with his fundamentally-flawed message. That will be the real test of conservatism.

The Republican Party is failing now, but the current test is not their’s alone. It is for all of us to find a way to heal ourselves and one another.

A native of Louisiana and long-time resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law. No, really.

And he has nothing to do with the #YoungDonald series.

(Caricature via DonkeyHotey/Flickr: this image appeared in the original publication.)

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