On August 12, David Duke stood on a picnic bench in a Charlottesville park and addressed white supremacists gathered there for the far right’s biggest rally in years. Duke himself is years past the time when he could inspire legions of white voters. But the reappearance of the longtime neo-Nazi from Louisiana offers reminders of how long the day’s hateful rhetoric has been around—and of its deep anti-Semitic foundations.
In 2016, Duke endorsed his first mainstream candidate, Donald Trump, for president—because, he said, of Trump’s nationalist views. “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage,” Duke told his followers in February, just as Trump was sewing up the Republican presidential nomination. “I support voting for him as a strategic action.”
Eighteen months later, Duke saw the Charlottesville rally as an affirmation that white supremacists were on the march. “This is the first step toward taking America back,” he told the crowd, which fervently applauded. “We are headed for a Bolshevik-style takeover,” Duke added. “It’s cultural Marxism. They are shutting down our freedoms, our rights, our heritage, our principles in this country. They are actually trying to eliminate and ethnically cleanse our people from their own land.” Later in the speech, Duke explicitly identified “them”: “a tiny minority, a Jewish, Zionist cause” who control the political system and the Federal Reserve.
The events in Charlottesville and afterward are rightly causing us to ponder some difficult questions. Does what happened represent a rise in white supremacist influence? Are we witnessing growing public acceptance for openly anti-Semitic views?
Duke’s career may shed some light. Over a 40-year period, he has been a Klan grand wizard, a Louisiana state representative, a candidate for governor, a candidate for president and a three-time candidate for the U.S. Senate. Throughout, one thing has remained constant: his deeply held belief that Jews are bent on undermining the white race. As Duke has explained in numerous interviews and writings, he believes Jews control the mainstream media and the political system and use that control to promote immigration, integration and other programs that allow blacks to advance at the expense of whites. Immigration takes away jobs for deserving whites, in his mind; integration leads to miscegenation and a loss in the purity of the European-American gene pool that he believes has created everything good in modern society.
Duke got his start as a public figure in 1969 as a sophomore at Louisiana State University ranting, about what he saw as the unjust and unchecked power of Jews. He continued to express dark feelings about Jews when he became the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But once his career took off, he rarely talked about Jews. In 1989, he was elected to the Louisiana State House with 50.7 percent of the vote in a virtually all-white legislative district. In 1990, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost—but won about 55 percent of the white vote by tapping into white anger on racial issues.
In 1991, after knocking out the incumbent Republican governor in the primary, Duke faced the scandal-ridden, three-term Democratic governor, Edwin Edwards, whose followers implored, “Vote for the crook. It’s important!” Duke campaigned against taxes, minority set-asides, quotas and affirmative action. “Send them a message,” he told his followers. Although he lost decisively, he again won about 55 percent of the white vote. It made him a national figure, one who showed Republicans the potency of campaigning on race-based issues.
His rhetoric in those campaigns focused on those issues and not on his anti-Semitic beliefs. “It’s not the time in the campaign to convince people of a deeper understanding,” he explained to me in 2016 when he was mounting a third race for the Senate. “It’s time to reach the common man. It’s not necessarily about an intellectual progression. It’s about mobilizing people for their own interests and heritage.”
In 1995, Duke endorsed a conservative Republican for Louisiana governor and was widely credited with swinging the race his way. In 1998, he ran for a Republican-held congressional seat and finished third with 19 percent. By then, though, he had returned to openly promoting his anti-Semitic theories, which he laid out at length in his 1999 autobiography, My Awakening. Then, in 2002, he pleaded guilty to swindling his followers and gambling away their money at casinos. He spent 15 months in federal prison, then decamped to Europe to commune with white nationalists in Russia, Italy, Austria and Ukraine, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation laying out his anti-Semitic theories. He lectured in Europe and started an internet radio show but received little attention.
Duke came out of the political shadows in 2016 by accident. He spoke enthusiastically about Trump on his radio show, noting that Trump’s anti-immigrant views mimicked what Duke had been saying back in his Klan days. Trump was asked to disavow Duke and initially equivocated. Critics accused Trump of trying to cozy up to white nationalists, generating a media frenzy that propelled Duke to ever more visibility, even when Trump ultimately denounced him. Hoping to ride the wave, Duke ran for the Senate again in mid-2016. But he no longer drew big crowds and campaigned mostly at weekend gun shows, ending with only 3 percent of the vote.
Duke’s latest burst of notoriety seems mainly fueled by coverage of the events in Charlottesville. Trump’s widely denounced comments about blaming both sides for the violent clashes emboldened neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and other white supremacists, and they, like Duke, have exulted in the attention. But can they truly command the mainstream? It’s highly unlikely that Duke himself, at age 67 and with poll numbers showing him to be one of the most disliked people in America, will be the face of a resurgent neo-Nazism. And his career suggests the political limits of his ideas in the American mainstream—while warning us to stay aware of their dark and toxic foundations.
Tyler Bridges, twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, is author of The Rise of David Duke.