Wait. I can already hear it, “That’s a clickbait title. That’s outlandish.” I thought the same thing when I initially listened to the fourth season of Slate’s podcast Slow Burn about David Duke, which covered Duke’s ascent to the Louisiana Statehouse.
It was obvious Slow Burn season four host Josh Levin was trying to draw a throughline between what David Duke did in the 1980s and early 1990s, and what Donald Trump did in 2015 and 2016, and how the former presaged the latter. Levin even grew up in the area. But I was skeptical of that throughline: Why does everything past, present and future have to seemingly be looked at through the lens of Donald Trump? Not everything is about Donald Trump.
But then I listened and the comparisons — the at least 15 I’ve assembled here come from this listen, but there could be more, I’m sure — are rather obvious. They didn’t even need a heavy hand or anything to see. To be 100 percent clear before I continue, I don’t think Donald Trump is a Nazi-sympathizer and booster, or even, for that matter, a white supremacist-sympathizer (booster perhaps), as David Duke was and is, but that’s mostly because Donald Trump doesn’t have an ideology. He doesn’t have principles, even dastardly and dangerous ones like Nazisms and white supremacy.
If Donald Trump has an ideology, its ethos are grounded in, “What’s good for Donald Trump?” That might be a distinction without a difference to people, particularly in terms of the “ends” that come of those means, but I think it’s worth pointing that out.
Also, neither Slow Burn nor I am the first one to try to draw this throughline from the lessons about David Duke and the lessons about Donald Trump. Here are examples, including from a Duke biographer, here and here.
All of that throat clearing aside, season four covers David Duke. David Duke is a name you’re probably familiar with and most associate it with him being a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, an advocate of Nazism (he infamously wore a brown shirt and swastika), and an anti-Semitic Holocaust-denying scumbag.
In that 1970 photo, he’s holding a sign that says, “Gas the Chicago 7,” which is in reference to the seven individuals who were charged with rioting in the aftermath of the anti-Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Within 18 years of that photo, he ran unsuccessfully for president, and then, as the podcast outlines, successfully for the statehouse in Louisiana in 1989 as Republican. He did this despite vociferous opposition from the Republican Party, including former president Ronald Reagan and current (at the time) president George H.W. Bush.
That would propel him to run unsuccessfully, albeit still rather close, for United States Senate the following year and governor of Louisiana the year after that.
So let’s get to it. These aren’t ranked by importance or anything; it’s not a list like that.
1. Authentically awful.
That’s the buy-in with both David Duke and Donald Trump. Aside from the cruelty is the point types, even most Trump supporters will acknowledge that Trump is rough around the edges. That he speaks off the cuff, and says mean things. But, the argument comes, at least he’s authentic. Such was the case with David Duke. He presented himself as, “Well, at least I’m being authentic. I’m telling it like it is.” That’s the buy-in with Trump, too. He tells it like it is. We can quibble with whether that’s true or not, but the strategy from both is the same. You can be as awful as you want, as long as you wrap it up in authenticity.
2. Media has a level of complicity in creating him, and not knowing how to handle him.
David Duke was treated by the media as a curiosity, and because of that, boosted him to platforms where more and more people could hear him while simultaneously being unequipped to counter him. There’s one example from the podcast where Duke totally overwhelms, I believe, a radio host. Not surprisingly, a 12-year-old black girl from Louisiana doing a school project gives Duke his most searing interview. Similarly, Donald Trump is most assuredly a product of the media. His entire brand of coming across like a successful and rich businessman is thanks to Forbes magazine believing stories about his wealth, NBC and The Apprentice, Jeff Zucker (now at CNN), and so on. All of whom helped create this image of Trump for decades. And likewise, during the campaign (and even at times during the presidency), the media at first treated him like a curiosity to not be taken seriously, and then when it came time to take him seriously, they didn’t know how to do it.
3. Economic anxiety as cover.
You know this one: Hey, we’re not racists or Nazis, we support David Duke because by god, he’s going to do something about property taxes! That’s what a lot of Duke supporters told themselves and the media, at least. Duke gave them that cover to say, hey, hold on, it’s about the economy, stupid, not racism. Trump also gave his voters plenty of cover to ignore his misogynist behavior and sexual abuse, racism, and a litany of other issues by framing their voting impulse as driven by economic anxiety. How many times did we hear about economic anxiety before and after the 2016 election? It was nonsense with Duke, and it’s nonsense with Trump.
4. Cult of personality.
If I was going to rank these cm, I suppose this would be the most salient of the comparisons. It’s all about the personality cult. The throngs of fans who came to see Duke at rallies, and the throngs of fans who come to see Trump at rallies (although, not at the moment). The joke is that Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still retain his supporters (it’s a joke he himself made). And it’s pretty much true. The coronavirus is testing the limits of that cult of personality, but not much.
5. Media elites and the GOP establishment.
Duke framed what happened to him in 1989 as the “media elites” and the GOP establishment attempting to control an election, and keep him from seizing power. Out-of-state Republican establishment types interfering in our election, type of stuff. Does that sound familiar? Both Duke and Trump were not Republicans the minute before they decided it was politically advantageous to become Republicans, and then they positioned themselves as the ultimate outsiders fighting not just the usual foes of Democrats, the media, and such, but also the GOP establishment itself. It’s a potent message that works.
6. GOP leaders fear the base.
Once Duke actually won his seat, and once Trump vanquished his opponents in the Republican primary, the resistance to them, respectively, from the once-vocal establishment quieted down because they fear angering the base that helped get Duke and Trump there in the first place.
7. The gaslighting about reality.
There’s this thing Duke and Trump do where they form their own reality in their head about X issue, and if you try to call them on it, they (and their supporters) gaslight the hell out of you about objective reality. Duke did this about his KKK and brown shirt days, and other issues (like selling Holocaust denial books), and Trump does this about, well, everything. I’ll do one gross example. Trump suggested the widely publicized Access Hollywood tape, where he brags he can grab a woman by the “pussy” and they let you do it when you’re a star, is fake.
8. White grievance.
Then, as now, Duke and Trump rely entirely on the concept of white grievance. That the real victims in Louisiana or America, in 1989 and in 2016, are white Americans, who (the arguments go) have to pay for black people on welfare, and deal with inner-city crime, and meanwhile, they get called racist if they bring any of this up. A majority of white Americans think they are the ones who face discrimination. And Duke and Trump are the main two politicians to lean into that impulse. But take solace, the white grievance card doesn’t seem to be playing the same as it did in 2016 now.
9. Both of their political fortunes were born of racism.
We know Duke’s history with the KKK and Nazism. Being put in the national spotlight as a racist bigot curiosity helped propel his turn to politics. Trump was already a well-known entity, but as a celebrity. His first national foray into politics was the racist birtherism movement and boosting it relentlessly with his celebrity platform. It can never be overstated enough that Trump is a birther: someone, who for quite a long time, pushed the idea that America’s first black president wasn’t actually born here, and was probably a secret Kenyan Muslim. In 2011, he told Fox News about Obama, “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate—maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim; I don’t know.” That’s another form of gaslighting, bullshit wiggle room he does, by the way: “I’m just asking questions.” He did the same thing with the Joe Scarborough murder conspiracy theory BS.
10. It’s a grift, not governance.
Neither Duke nor Trump are concerned about governance. They have no interest in that. That’s why Duke almost immediately turned his mind to the United States Senate and then the Louisiana governorship. It’s all about a grift. For Duke, to get his name out there and hopefully propel him to the presidency, to sell some conspiracy books, and to fuel his partying lifestyle. The litany of ways the Trump candidacy and presidency have been a grift would take an entirely separate blog post, but start here. But it’s clear Trump is not interested in what it takes to actually govern. He prefers to watch cable news, Tweet, golf, and hold rallies.
11. Both are cowards when confronted.
The Trump reputation (among his supporters and from himself) is that he’s a fighter, he’s tough, and he punches back. That’s true, he does punch back … on Twitter, and through other people to do his firings for him. Duke, likewise, will fight back with the gaslighting and the attempt to charm. But when confronted in real life face-to-face, they both shrivel up and shrink like the cowards they actually are. For example, a Holocaust survivor confronted Duke at one of his events, as outlined in the podcast, and he shrunk in the face of it. Trump, likewise, hates confrontation. Here’s one rather recent example.
12. Polishing a shit sandwich.
David Duke was treated as curiosity by the media and attracted a following because he seemed normal and came across normal despite having a litany of repugnant views and his history. It’s the sort of Richard Spencer style we see today. While Trump himself is far from polished, his enablers and supporters will spend all day polishing up his mangled speeches, utterances, Tweets, and the rest of it, to fit into a normal framework. Even the media does this in reported stories about him. That’s why Sarah Cooper’s comedy has been so revelatory: his words are right there for everyone to hear, no polishing or normal-making paraphrasing. That’s why there’s a bit of a two-track presidency at play. There’s what Trump himself thinks and says, and there’s what his administration does, separate Trump, as policy.
13. Obsession with IQ and intelligence.
Throughout this Slow Burn season, it’s quite apparent that David Duke think he’s an intelligent human being, and that intelligence matters, and in fact, it’s intelligence that separates white people as the superior race from black people. I’m not sure if Trump would go as far as the latter, but there’s no doubt that Trump thinks he’s the smartest man in any room he’s in (when he’s clearly not), and that he’s obsessed with IQ. One of his most used insults is to say someone is “low IQ.”
14. Both are womanizers.
It’s not touched on too much in this season, but David Duke used his political rise to also be quite the womanizer. At this point, it’s common knowledge that Trump is on his third wife, who he cheated on with a porn star while she was pregnant. All of which is separate from the sexual abuse issues. What’s interesting about it is that both Duke and Trump, in ways, are unabashed about it. Trump often brags about the fact that he’s with a supermodel in Melania, and at a COVID-19 press briefing no less.
Something built into David Duke’s entire racist ideology and playing on white grievance, is this idea that there’s a better America to get back to, if only we can wrangle it from the black people, the gays, the Jews, the rich, the establishment, the media elite, the women, etc., etc., who have taken it over from us since the 1960s with integration, women’s rights, gay rights, etc., etc. Well, that’s obviously an ethos of the Trump presidency that there’s some time when America was great, and we only need to wrestle it back.
Where does this leave us? Well, perhaps the most potent takeaway I had from the podcast was how David Duke winning made black people (and I’m sure other minorities, like Jews and LGBTQ+ individuals) feel. After all, 8,459 in the state voted for him to become a statehouse member. But it’s even bleaker, despite losing, in the United States Senate race. Duke, again in a losing effort, still received 607,091 votes. 607,091 votes! That many people voted for an objectively awful person. In 1990! Only two months after my birth, that many people voted for an undeniably racist bigot. It’s extraordinary. Again, despite losing, that 607,091 votes represents majority white support among white people in Louisiana. The same held true for his bid for the governorship. How does that make all the minorities in that state feel knowing so many people voted for such a man?
Likewise, a palpable current since November 2016 that so many people have wrestled with is, how could so many Americans, 62,984,828 in total, vote for someone like Donald Trump? And how was that supposed to make everyone else feel knowing that their family members, friends, coworkers and so forth could vote for such a man?
I don’t think a vote for David Duke is equivalent to a vote for Donald Trump (I mean, look at that brown shirt photo again), but as I’ve outlined here, there are numerous comparisons that help explain why both Duke and Trump had political success and appealed to a great many people. There are are lessons to be learned going forward.