David Duke: The Messenger and His Message

by Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley

Admitting defeat in Louisiana, David Duke defiantly claimed that voters "may have rejected me, but they did not reject my message." With this statement, Duke separated the message and the messenger, preserving "victory" for his message. Duke in this case was uncharacteristically modest. Most white voters in Louisiana voted for David Duke (fifty-five percent of voting whites or 700,000 people). Virtually all African Americans voted against Duke and his repackaged politics of bigotry. Most white voters embraced the man--a Klansman and Nazi activist for almost thirty years--as well as his message.        

Both Duke and the Republican Party have used racist stereotypes to tap opportunistically into a white middle and working class electorate that is financially stressed, angry, and looking for a scapegoat. This constituency has formed because our society has failed to address successfully issues of prejudice, social justice, and economic fairness.  The challenge facing people of good will today is to reject both the message and the messenger; and to do so in a way that neither trivializes racism nor relies on stereotyping Duke's supporters or mainstream conservatives.        

Vice President Dan Quayle has condemned the man but not his message.  Quayle told ABC, "The message of David Duke is...anti-big government, get out of my pocketbook, cut my taxes, put welfare people back to work. That's a very popular message. The problem is the messenger. David Duke, neo-Nazi, ex-Klansman, basically a bad person." Quayle's position disingenuously misstates the nature of Duke's current and historical message, and positions the Republican Party firmly behind a politics of race that appeals to the worst fears and motives of white Americans.  Quayle's assumption that David Duke's repackaged message is not itself thoroughly racist is dangerous folly.        

The problem with the positions articulated by both Duke and Quayle is that one obscures the danger from Duke, a fascist demagogue, and the other obscures the danger from the right wing of the Republican Party, which has moved increasingly to make respectable a divisive politics of race.
We must be clear that David Duke--neo-Nazi, Klansman, charlatan--is a product of the fascist right in America. He is a dangerous demagogue who believes that Jews are the spawn of Satan and has called for genetic engineering to build a master race. His insistence that he no longer maintains hard-core neo-Nazi beliefs is an opportunistic (and successful) attempt to divert attention from the most unpalatable aspects of his past and focus it instead on issues involving race where there is no national consensus.        

Just this past spring on WBZ Radio, Duke was more candid than usual. "I think the basic culture of this country is European and Christian," said Duke, "and I think if we lose that, we lose America....I don't think we should suppress other races, but I think that if we lose that white--what's the word for it--dominance in America, with it we lose America." While he repudiated a 1989 statement that Judaism was  "vile" and "anti-Christian," he maintained that there were aspects of Judaism that were, including "passages in the Talmud which say that Christians should be strangulated [sic] and that Christ was a bastard and Mary was a whore." This was not the carefully cultivated media image created by Duke and his handlers. Here was the unvarnished Duke: a racist, anti-Jewish bigot. The message of David Duke is not reducible to opposition to affirmative action. While Duke plays on white middle class backlash against affirmative action and welfare, he harbors an even more sinister agenda of racial nationalism.        

At the same time, we must be clear that the policies of George Bush, and his predecessor Ronald Reagan, have frequently spelled disaster for people of color and further, that Reagan and Bush have self-consciously used racial politics to exploit the dissatisfaction and anger within the white electorate. It is fair to claim that their policies have revealed indifference or hostility to the goals pursued by people of color and have, in many cases, been deeply unjust.  Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Bush or Reagan would call, as did Duke, for division of the United States into segregated racial nations, or for the execution, as have other white supremacists, of race traitors. While George Bush does not share David Duke's alliance with the violent white supremacist right wing, his adoption of some of its rhetoric must also be condemned.       

The problem today, then, is two-fold: to reject the posturing of racist martinets like Duke, while pushing to bring legitimacy to our national debates on racial politics by banishing all appeals to racial bigotry.  We must accept that there are issues on which people of good will may differ in a pluralistic democracy and also move without hesitation to condemn racial bigotry and simplistic scapegoating solutions, whether put forth by David Duke or by mainstream politicians.

Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley are analysts with Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., an organization that has monitored the political right wing for the past ten years.


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