The media got candidate Trump wrong. So did liberal and progressive voters who dismissed him as unelectable. For that matter, Trump himself didn’t really expect to win. If he had, presumably he would have put more care into lining up qualified men and women to serve in his cabinet and vetting them carefully.
Trump’s support ultimately fell short of Hillary Clinton’s by close to 3 million votes; it took an antique part of our democracy, the Electoral College, to rejigger the tally in a way that handed him the election. But the passion of Trump’s supporters should not have come as a surprise, not to anyone who followed the career of one of his early and most enthusiastic endorsers: former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke.
In 1990, as Duke, who briefly represented Metairie in the Louisiana state legislature, launched his tumultuous but ultimately unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, I was 35, with dreams of building a career in documentary film.
With Duke’s campaign catching fire, I rolled out with a cameraman. We were a two-person crew, and on most shoots I dragged around the tripod and lights, making me the grip as well as the producer and director. We dogged Duke’s campaign for the better part of a year to create the one-hour documentary “Backlash: Race and the American Dream.”
Our goal was to tape Duke’s rallies, mostly held in VFW Halls, and talk to his supporters. My main question was: “Why do you support a former Klansman for the United States Senate? What do you think Duke will do that other politicians can’t or won’t?”
Answers were notably consistent, and devotion to Duke was unwaveringly heartfelt. He was, in the minds of the men and women (mostly men) we encountered, The Great White Hope — emphasis on “white.” Duke was the vessel in which they vested their dreams for restoring “white rights” — i.e. white privilege.
He was the magician who would somehow create the misremembered fantasy of an America in which other ethnic and racial groups were swept aside or simply did not exist. Duke, the racist anti-Semite later jailed for mail fraud and tax evasion, was somehow going to make America great again. Sound familiar?
Every Duke supporter we interviewed feared the world was being taken over by “urban predators” — i.e. black criminals — and “welfare queens,” two stereotypes that Ronald Reagan had done so much to install in the public imagination. Folk on welfare — the majority of welfare recipients were white, but that was better left unsaid — were portrayed as breeders of too many children “just to get their check.”
Every demagogue needs a villain to focus the public fear he or she wants to whip up. For Trump, it’s been Mexicans and Muslims. For Duke it was affirmative action — code for black America. Plus the Jews, a group he, like his idol Adolf Hitler, hated even more passionately than blacks.
Duke, like Trump, knew how to work a crowd. I have to admit it; David was a charismatic speaker. When his rhetoric fell short, surrogates at the edge of the stage would fan the audience into a deafening chant — “Duke! Duke! Duke!” — and small American flags would wave frantically.
Trump’s showmanship and stem-winders were nearly as effective. The thudding “Trump! Trump! Trump!” chants had that same monosyllabic power as Duke’s and segued nicely to the “Lock her up!” refrain, often initiated by the candidate himself. Watching the campaign last summer, I got that same queasy feeling I remembered from Duke rallies nearly a quarter century ago.
Trump crowds looked familiar, too — especially the men and women with hard luck etched in their faces and resentment simmering in their souls. Duke convinced his followers that the economy, known in Duke-speak as “the American pie,” was too small and in his speeches, it always would be. He framed America as a land of scarcity. Women — another beneficiary of affirmative action — were in his view undeserving of a place on the job market’s higher rungs.
After characterizing black women as fornicators out for a bigger welfare check and black men as sexual predators who’d rather rob you and rape your wife and daughters than do an honest day’s work, he’d shout to his crowds: “Guess what folks? These are the people the government wants to give your job to. Your job!”
Well, that pretty much did it for the whites who turned out for Duke rallies — a preponderance of them self-declared Christians. Their own government, backed by the “mainstream media” had turned against them in a plot to redistribute their meager wealth among an undeserving “other.”
One Duke fan said to me, without sarcasm, “The government’s not been fair to white people. Why can’t we just have a Miss White America? I don’t understand it.” Another man asked me this: Didn’t I know that if Duke lost, every calendar in America would be reprinted overnight, with Christmas deleted in favor of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah?
The T-shirts at the rallies were silk screened with NAAWP, a riff on Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People, and many followers also wore NAAWP hats. As the campaign wore on I heard more and more strains of Duke’s Nazi leanings begin to echo from his supporters, whether they knew it or not.
After a few months on the campaign trail, Duke added a warm-up act, Jim McPherson, his own Steve Bannon. The New York Times had written a story on the Duke phenomenon and McPherson, like Duke and his followers, was furious. What they called the “Jew-controlled media” were trying to take their freedoms away by “lying” about their beloved candidate, they charged.
A red-faced McPherson took the stage one night in a particularly livid mood. I lost count of how many times he shouted down “Jew-controlled media!” But I do remember the sudden change that came over a crowd usually content to chomp on hotdogs and nachos in between their pro-Duke, anti-black chants and outbursts. Customarily members of the throng had waved and done little happy jigs in front of my camera, eager as they were to get on TV. After McPherson’s tirade, they suddenly turned on me and the crew. In an instant we became the Jews sent to destroy their dreams of white America.
A beefy woman, who outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds pushed her way toward me, threw her jacket on the floor and shook her fists in my face. My cameraman, a Buddhist committed to non-violence, had to swing his camera and tripod between us to spare me a pounding.
I knew the dread that news crews and producers felt last summer when Donald Trump mocked them from the stage and exhorted his crowds to despise them, the sense that a lit fuse was nearing a barrel of kerosene. Whipped into a frenzy, mobs are scary things.
Duke took a majority of the white vote but lost the election, thank God, as he would lose every subsequent race for president, governor and senate. But he had touched a nerve and galvanized a part of the American electorate. Trump knew and respected that accomplishment, which is why he was so slow to distance himself from the Judas kiss of Duke’s endorsement last spring.
I’d like to think my film did something to blunt the forward momentum of Duke’s career, but clearly, the fire it documented rages on.
Bess Carrick is completing a documentary on restaurateur Leah Chase, to be aired next fall. The 1992 film about Duke and the Dixiecrats, “Backlash: Race and the American Dream,” will be screened at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, in the Loyola Law School 526 Pine St., room 308. Tulane historian Larry Powell and community activist Jacques Morial will join Carrick for a panel discussion after the screening.
The Lens opinion column is a forum for debate by responsible voices from across the community. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To discuss an idea for a column, contact Karen Gadbois: firstname.lastname@example.org