When David Duke crawled out of his swamp and jumped into a US Senate race this month, he was only responding to tremors in the political landscape.
For the ex-Klansman and neo-Nazi leader, Donald Trump’s campaign — built on birtherism and angry denunciations of Mexicans and Muslims — was an auspicious sign. A quarter century ago, Duke lost high-profile campaigns for statewide office in Louisiana. When I lived there, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Duke’s career seemed in terminal decline.
His calculation now is obvious: If the Louisiana voters of 2016 are embracing one resentment-fueled grifter, surely they can handle another. In a campaign video, Duke said he was “overjoyed” to see Trump “embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years.”
Ordinarily, you shouldn’t judge candidates by their most inflammatory, least reputable fellow travelers. Just because David Duke supports immigration controls doesn’t mean no mainstream politician should ever do the same.
But when Trump’s outlook and style align with Duke’s in so many ways — some of which are quite peculiar — you have to ask: How did a celebrity developer from New York and a professional racist from Louisiana end up with the same set of issues?
It’s not just that both men offer a dark vision of the United States in decline and assign the blame to multiculturalism and international trade. Again and again, Trump has recirculated material from the so-called alt-right, a ragtag movement of Internet-savvy white supremacists and anti-Semites. When called on such incidents, Trump has dismissed their significance, just as he’s brushed off concerns about his use of “America First,” a slogan with a sordid World War II-era history. But come on. These can’t all be oversights and coincidences, can they?
And then there’s Russia. Duke bonded with Russian nationalists in the early 2000s, while living abroad, to avoid a federal indictment, and he defends the Russian government from what he sees as international media conspiracies. Trump, meanwhile, takes pro-Moscow stances that are utterly startling in the context of Republican politics. The last GOP nominee proclaimed that Russia was the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. The current one praises Putin’s toughness, urges Russia to spy on his opponent, talks of abandoning NATO allies, and hints at recognizing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
There’s been speculation, which Trump has denied, that he’s embraced Putin because of business connections to Russian investors or financial institutions. Trump’s critics, including many in his own party, assume that he’s just making everything up as he goes along.
But what if he’s not?
It’s easy to treat figures like Duke — or Putin, for that matter — as cartoon villains, motivated only by various forms of malice. But click around on websites supporting either one, and you’ll find philosophical arguments for what they’re doing. (You’ll also want to wash your hands afterward.)
Never mind the pluralist melting pot you learned about in elementary-school civics; Putinists extol the Kremlin’s expansionism and its iron-fist defense of national sovereignty and traditional social values. Alt-right groups argue explicitly for tribal identity, inter-ethnic conflict, and the premise “we were here first.” Creepy but internally consistent, these alternate belief systems justify walls on the border and valentines to dictators.
When asked about Duke’s enthusiasm for his campaign, Trump has distanced himself, though not always unambiguously. On more than one occasion, he declared, “I disavow.” As white nationalist leader Richard Spencer pointed out to The New York Times, Trump didn’t specify what or whom. “There’s no direct object there,” Spencer said — bringing a whole new meaning to the term “grammar Nazi.”
Lawrence Powell, a history professor emeritus at Tulane University who’s been following Duke’s career for decades, still worries that the Trump campaign is creating an opening. “Duke and the alt-right see this as a slipstream that they can slide into,” he says. In the early ’90s, Powell was a leader of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, an anti-Duke group. The ex-Klansman is past his prime, but the long-dormant coalition is reactivating now, just in case.
For the nation, who’s the bigger threat? Duke, who’s made a lifelong ideological commitment to authoritarianism and white nationalism? Or Trump, who from all outward appearances just blundered into similar positions on the issues? If the GOP nominee has no animating philosophy, that’s bad. But if he does have one, that’s bad, too.