Celebrate the Facts!
One of the most polarizing figures in American political history, David Duke is an integral force and thought leader in white nationalism. Duke has developed his brand through 50 years of activism, rooted in white grievance and antisemitism, and fostered some of the leaders in the alt-right movement, included Neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer and dog-whistler in chief Steve Bannon. Intelligent, urbane, educated, and bolstered by plastic surgery and testosterone, Duke remains a formative figure in the international racist and antisemitic movements.
Far from an artifact of a long-lost racist era, Duke remains active traveling the United States and abroad to spread his views. He sells his books and Duke-branded fan gear on his website and has convened and spoken at white nationalist conferences. He has also visited Russia, Ukraine, and other European countries to promote his work while living in some of those countries.
It is hard to tell if Duke is a true believer or a huckster, but more likely, he is a combination of both. Duke is undeniably charismatic and has the demeanor of an antebellum Southern gentleman. Duke loves to opine on the merits of his favorite things, antisemitism, white supremacy, and David Duke. His fans, albeit by a tiny part of humanity, admire Duke, and the rest of humankind reviles him, likely to similar degrees. Duke’s photo is on the box of racist Cheerios.
Duke was born in Oklahoma in 1950 and attended Louisiana State University (LSU), where he started his leadership in racism. At LSU, Duke founded the White Youth Alliance, a group affiliated with the neo-Nazi National Socialist White People’s Party. At the time, Duke connected his ideologies to Nazi symbolism, wearing a Nazi uniform to protest a speech by attorney William Kunstler at Tulane University. Duke picketed the lecture wearing a Nazi brown shirt and a swastika armband while carrying a sign saying ‘Kunstler is a Communist-Jew’ and ‘Gas the Chicago 7’ (well-known anti-war activists).
Duke was the foremost leader in the Klan resurgence in the 1970s but sported a new tack by influencing followers and colleagues to distance themselves from Nazi and Klan uniforms and insignia and soften their presentation away from genocide and eugenics and toward advocacy for the white and Christian white race.
Duke ran in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries, but his campaign had limited impact. Duke then won the presidential nomination of the Populist Party, where he received about 47,000 votes. In 1989 Duke won a special election to win a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, running in a highly conservative district on an anti-affirmative-action, anti-tax, and pro-law-and-order platform. Duke intentionally softened his racist rhetoric and glammed up by announcing his fervent Christianity.
Duke ran for the United States Senate in 1990 and the Louisiana governorship in 1991. However, Duke’s brand was so toxic that local and national Republicans endorsed his Democratic opponents. Duke’s 1992 campaign for the Republican second presidential nomination campaign fizzled out with zero delegates.
Beginning in the mid-1990s with his career at a political dead end, Duke spent much time in Europe; spending stretches of time in Russia, Ukraine, Italy, and Austria. Duke promoted his ideas among a robust community of bigots of all kinds.
Duke pleaded guilty in 2002 to filing a false tax return and mail fraud. Duke represented to supporters that he was in danger of losing his home and savings and received money from them to remedy his condition. However, federal prosecutors charged that he sold his house for a profit during that period, held numerous investment accounts, and gambled away much of the contributions at casinos in Mississippi, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas. Duke spent 15 months in federal prison in Big Spring, Texas.
In 2002, Duke received an honorary doctorate from the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP) in Ukraine, and three years later completed the doctoral program gaining a Ph.D. in History, titling his doctoral dissertation ‘Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism.’ During his time at MAUP, Duke lectured on history, international relations, and ‘Zionist influence in the United States.’
The dream of the alt-right and white nationalists of all types is a fortress-like alliance between white nations and then cleansing by whatever means necessary undesirable ethnic and racial minorities. White nationalists, militias, Neo-Nazis, Aryan Nation people, and other unsavory populations share beliefs, connections, and strategies. Leaders learn from one another and refine approaches and messaging.
Another formative figure in white nationalism, Steve Bannon, took a few pages from Duke’s playbook to recreate himself late life. Bannon created a fable of success, misrepresented his tangential involvement in other people’s work, and created an erroneous impression of wealth. Bannon, a human lamprey, finally successfully attached himself to a successful host, Donald Trump, and proceeded to monetize his fame.
Like Duke, Bannon allegedly embezzled from his followers. The United States charged Bannon for his role in defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with a xenophobic online crowdfunding campaign known as ‘We Build the Wall’ that raised more than $25 million. While it is a legal crime to defraud under these circumstances, the morality of stealing cash donated by bigots and xenophobes to build a wall to mitigate illegal immigration by people of color is debatable.
Akin to Duke, Bannon also pivoted to Europe, where a hotbed of right-wing nationalist and racist groups seethe in white fragility and perceived persecution. Bannon spoke at the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy national rally and established an alleged white nationalist ‘think tank’ called the Movement. Like Duke, Bannon appears to be part sideshow barker, partly used car salesperson, and part zealot.
Recently William Burke sued Duke and eight others in federal court for their role in fomenting violence at the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Duke paid $5,000 so that Burke would drop him from the lawsuit, although Duke made no admission of liability.
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube banned Duke in 2020 and other white nationalist leaders, but that has not and likely will not stop him. Duke has recently added to his acting range by delving into election fraud and Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy theories with an antisemitic spin. Duke’s clickbait postings undermine his claims of intellectual and philosophic underpinning to his views and point more to the huckster finding.
Regardless, Duke, at age 71, remains a leader in white nationalist and racist movements, and is its most articulate spokesperson. Duke is youthful and savvy to the ins and outs of media and the Internet and will be around another 20 years or longer, perhaps doddering into a senile remnant of himself like Pat Robertson.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, ‘hell is other people.’ and David Duke brings this passage to mind.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.