Dukedumb: How a Lightweight Louisiana Racist Came to Spook a Nation

By Meacham, Jon | The Washington Monthly, July-August 1992 | Go to article overview

Dukedumb: How a Lightweight Louisiana Racist Came to Spook a Nation


Meacham, Jon, The Washington Monthly


No doubt abvout it, David Duke was a hell of a story. For political reporters, the former Klansman's Louisiana campaigns were relics of the segregationist South, bracing proof that hte oler Confederacy's worst instincts are still alive. For highbrow essayists, Duke emerged as a symbol of the struggle between good and evil in the American mind--a foreboding figure who brought to life our worst economic and racial tensions. In the end, though, Duke turned out to be more Mikey Mouse than Manichean.

This book*, the firest comprehensive discussion of Duke's 1989 state legislative victory, 1990 U.S. Senate race, and 1991 gubernatorial campaign, treats him as more than a passing fancy. Most of the nine men and women who contributed essays--academics, journalists, and activists--subscribe to a similar thesis: Duke is not a sensation unique to Louisiana, an eclectic, populist state. They repeatedly insist that Duke and his brand of race-based campaigning are poised to attract white voters caught in uneasy economic and social circumstances across the country.

Editor Douglas Rose even begins the book with Yeats' apocalyptic "The Second Coming": "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" It's a sophomoric touch. Racist politics--or any sort of politics based on appeals to fear, uncertainty, and unease--are ancient. Duke is merely the latest in a long line of politicians who counted on dragging the worst out of voters.

So why is Duke no longer a national political figure? The protest candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan has been used to explain Duke's dismal showing in the 1992 Republican presidential primaries. Buchanan, the conventional wisdom goes, made ethnic resentments the center of his campaign and thus became an acceptable altemative to Duke, the neoNazi and author of a sexual-advice guide for women. Yet even Buchanan faded as Bush steadily slogged his way to the nomination. Anger is hard to sustain in any form, especially in the context of a national political campaign. Duke was a victim of this truth, but foremost he was a victim of his own history.

This book was begun as Duke rode a wave of national publicity and was completed before he withdrew from the 1992 presidential race. Coming now, it's a wet firecracker, but it still raises good questions, intended and otherwise: Where did Duke come from, why did he ultimately fail, and why were so many--including this book's contributors--so sure he wouldn't?

In a way, the contributors have turned out to be victims of their own success. In 1989 several of them gathered to document Duke' s fascist past and eventually formed the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism--a political action committee widely credited with unmasking Duke. If the analysis in these pages seems familiar, it's because the coalition did its job well, dissemmating damaging information and casting Duke as an opportunist who remade himself to win office. Today, Duke holds no public office and stands little chance of future electoral success, even in his home state. As one contributor notes, "It is unclear whether he will even muster enough white support to win statewide office; as the recent governor's election has shown, Louisiana's sizable black electorate (27 percent) is a major stumbling block to his larger political ambitions."

Although the authors' portrait of Duke and his world is convincing, it goes further than the evidence warrants in sounding the alarm about Duke's supposed national appeal. In a passage about Duke's only successful campaign for a seat in the Louisiana legislature, where he represented a depressed New Orleans suburb, contributor Lawrence N. …

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