How to stop Donald Trump? A lesson from Louisiana
So much for the establishment's efforts to stop Donald Trump. So far, nothing's working — not a thousand earnest think pieces or Jeb Bush's gripes in the latest debate. Not the wrath of news anchors and late-night hosts, who still can't resist booking Trump on their shows, but have started to get ornery during the interviews.
So maybe it's worth looking back to 1991 Louisiana, when establishment Republicans and Democrats banded together to defeat a popular, populist, problematic gubernatorial candidate named David Duke.
I spoke this week to some veterans of the anti-Duke battle, who told me they've been talking up this very idea, while noting that the parallels aren't exact. As hard as it is to divine Donald Trump's motivations — as much as his Bulworth act can sound like bigotry, and possibly is — he's no David Duke, who had a verifiable history with the Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan.
But Duke wasn't wearing his racism on his sleeve in 1991, when he emerged from Louisiana's open primary in a one-on-one duel against Edwin Edwards, a rogue, corrupt former governor.
Instead, Duke was pushing an antiestablishment message, playing on real economic anxiety, recalls Lawrence Powell, a Tulane University professor who co-chaired a group called the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. At the time, Powell said, Louisiana's oil patch had collapsed. National politicians were stirring up angry rhetoric about welfare queens. Many voters felt shut out of prosperity, frustrated with the system.
And their cynicism was so deep, notes Quin Hillyer, a Louisiana journalist and early member of the coalition, that "when their guy is attacked, they rally around him even stronger."
This leads to an important point about Duke's supporters, and Trump's: Most weren't moved by bigotry or ill will. "The majority of Trump supporters, and the majority of Duke supporters, were good Americans expressing reasonable frustrations with decent motivations," Hillyer said.
But Duke was still Duke, speaking in code. And Powell said the coalition's goal was to keep his support from growing — and to convince Louisiana's many Edwards-haters that sitting out the election would lead to a Duke victory. The group worked to dig up evidence of Duke's racist activities, feed information to the media, run ads in print and on TV.
Other people, moved by moral outrage, joined the effort. Kirby Newberger, a financial adviser from the New Orleans suburbs, cooked up the slogan "Vote for the Crook. It's Important," and had it printed on 1,000 bumper stickers. (It became the '90s equivalent of a viral meme: Edwards sent an operative to get one, and put it on his car.)
The message landed as desired on Newberger's Edwards-hating friends. But even many of Duke's supporters had abandoned him by election day, Hillyer said. For them, the argument that worked was economic: If Duke won, businesses would flee from Louisiana, and that financial disaster would trickle down to the little guy. Hillyer recalled an effective ad from an outside conservative group: a guy in cowboy hat and boots and a Texan drawl, crowing about the money that was going to flow to Texas once Duke won.
Hillyer thinks Trump's business past could likewise be his downfall. Trump has brushed off his bankruptcies as a kind of twisted honor. But what of the small-business creditors he left in his wake, or the people he tried to push from their homes so he could take their land for casinos and hotels?
It sounds a little like the arguments used, with success, against Mitt Romney in 2008. And a smidge of scrutiny into her Hewlett-Packard record has made Carly Fiorina a virtual nonstarter.
Would a little more digging into Trump's past, plus a loud dose of Louisiana-style dark humor, accomplish what all of the hand-wringing hasn't?