David Duke is a polarizing, outspoken advocate of white supremacy whose political campaigns in the 1980s and early 1990s put a modern-day face on the image of racism in the United States.
David Duke is a polarizing, outspoken champion of racist ideals whose political campaigns in the 1980s and early 1990s put a contemporary face on the well-worn image of the white supremacist movement in the United States. After years as a Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi adherent with a narrow following on the fringe of American society, Duke toned down his white-power message from cross burnings to anti–affirmative action rants and attracted enough mainstream white voters to narrowly win election to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1987. After representing part of Metairie for a single, unproductive term, his political career peaked in 1991, when he lost a bitter runoff election for governor to Edwin Edwards. Duke had outpolled incumbent Gov. Charles “Buddy” Roemer to finish second in the statewide primary, and the subsequent runoff drew worldwide attention to the spectacle of whether Louisiana voters would elect the notorious neo-Nazi and former Klan leader to statewide office. Edwards—a controversial politician in his own right as a former governor who had repeatedly evaded malfeasance charges—won a decisive victory, and Duke has faded in and out of public view in the years that followed.
Duke was born July 1, 1950, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was an engineer both in the US Army and for Shell Oil. After living a few years in Europe, the family settled in New Orleans in 1955. It was in adolescence that Duke discovered, through reading the scholarship of an earlier era, the once widely accepted theories of racial inequality he espouses through the present day. Duke’s first political experience came as a volunteer for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. He associated with the pro-segregationist White Citizens Council as a teenager and was initiated into the Ku Klux Klan by classmates during his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School in New Orleans.
Duke first tasted public controversy after enrolling at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1968. The Baton Rouge campus was a battleground among protesting student groups at the height of the Vietnam War, but Duke stood out for wearing a Nazi uniform with swastika armband. He affiliated with the White Students Alliance, a Nazi group, and was relentless in the face of hecklers and death threats. During this time he devoured the writings of Gerald L. K. Smith, who blamed Jews for the subversive values he found in the movie industry and the news media, and the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, who championed a “white Christian nation” in opposition to the deep inroads he believed Communism had made in American society. Under pressure from his father, Duke later repudiated Nazism as unpatriotic but never disavowed the core beliefs he espoused as a college student.
Duke married Chloe Hardin, a fellow right-wing student activist, in 1974 and has two daughters, Erika and Kristin. The marriage ended in divorce in 1984.
After graduating from LSU, Duke flirted with several far-right parties and founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the many—and often schismatic—Klan splinter groups. Duke modernized his Klan organization, changing his title from Grand Wizard to National Director, replacing white robes with business suits, admitting women as full members, and eschewing the Klan’s traditional bias against Roman Catholics. Internecine conflict between Klan groups led Duke to withdraw from the organization and reincorporate as the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
With good looks (enhanced by plastic surgery), a polished presentation, and a gift for debate, Duke garnered attention from the media and the grassroots for a series of unsuccessful but profile-raising runs for office in Louisiana. Registered as a Democrat, Duke received one-third of the votes cast in his 1975 bid for the state senate. He ran again in 1979, finishing second in a three-way race. In 1988 Duke ran in the Democratic presidential primary and eventually appeared on the ballots of eleven states in the November general election under the Populist Party banner. He received fewer than 50,000 votes nationwide.
By the end of 1988, Duke changed his affiliation from Democrat to Republican and began campaigning for a vacant seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, representing the Metairie suburb of the staunchly conservative east bank of Jefferson Parish. Duke’s opponent was John Treen, brother of Dave Treen, to that point Louisiana’s only Republican governor since Reconstruction. As the election approached in February 1989, John Treen attracted endorsements from leaders of both parties, up to and including newly inaugurated President George H. W. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan. For his part, Duke focused his campaign message on criticisms of social programs, such as affirmative action and welfare. Two days before the election, he rolled out a half-hour television spot in which he claimed Treen had a criminal past, and he sent campaign volunteers door-to-door through Metairie neighborhoods, accusing Treen of being a child molester. Duke won by 227 votes.
In Baton Rouge fellow legislators cold-shouldered Duke and allowed few of his proposals to come to a vote. Hoping to use his legislative seat as a springboard for higher office, Duke ran in the 1990 primary as a Republican candidate for US Senate against Democratic incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. Many of the state’s GOP leaders denounced him, as did the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, which sought to remind voters of Duke’s past affiliations. The mainstream Republican candidate, state Sen. Ben Bagert, withdrew five days before Election Day and endorsed erstwhile opponent Johnston in a desperate move to combat Duke’s emerging candidacy. Duke lost, but he received an impressive 43.5 percent of the vote.
The high-water mark for Duke as a national figure came during his 1991 campaign for governor of Louisiana. Republican legislators prevailed on incumbent Gov. Charles “Buddy” Roemer to switch parties, from Democrat to Republican, but Roemer’s reelection campaign was troubled from the start. Elected as a moderate Democratic reformer in 1987, Roemer had overseen the launch of a statewide lottery and casino gambling and had little to show for legitimate reforms. The populist Edwards, having been ousted from the Governor’s Mansion by Roemer in 1987, was back in the mix, running for an unprecedented fourth term. Roemer also faced conservative opposition from US Rep. Clyde Holloway, whose congressional district had been eliminated following the results of the 1990 census, and Duke. Although the state’s Republican leaders endorsed Roemer, his reelection campaign never gained traction with voters; he ended up adrift amid the state’s political cross-currents in the open primary, where candidates of all parties compete on a single ballot. The incumbent governor finished third in the primary as Edwards and Duke, appealing to opposite extremes of the state’s political spectrum, qualified for a runoff election. Repudiated by state and national GOP leaders, Duke nonetheless reveled in calling himself “the Republican candidate” in the runoff campaign. Duke generated excitement among some white voters, but he faced organized opposition from African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Louisiana’s business leaders, who feared that a Duke victory would turn the Pelican State into a pariah state. Edwards outpolled Duke (61 percent to 39 percent) to win the runoff and was elected to an unprecedented fourth term in the Governor’s Mansion.
Despite Duke’s success in catching the eye of the media and representing the anxieties of some white voters, the currents of history were moving away from his résumé of overt racism and his ties to such discredited groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis. Although many of his positions continued to resonate into the twenty-first century—especially his opposition to the Federal Reserve, the Internal Revenue Service, welfare, and lax immigration laws and enforcement—Duke’s outspoken racism marginalized him in contemporary politics. Since his loss in the 1991 governor’s race, Duke has run for several public offices in Louisiana as a Republican but never gained more than 20 percent of the vote. In 1995, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Foster purchased Duke’s mail list of supporters and contributors for $152,000, but Foster never used the list.
Advocate of white supremacy
In 2002 Duke was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to fifteen months in a federal prison. Following his release, he actively posted articles on extremist websites and worked with far-right and racist groups around the world, organizing an international conference in 2004 of “European nationalists” that resulted in an alliance called the New Orleans Protocol. Duke took part in a 2006 Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran sponsored by Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Duke was arrested in 2011 as he prepared to speak at a neo-Nazi event near Cologne, Germany, and was ordered to leave the country; he was said to be living in Austria, from where he maintained a website that peddled nature photography, anti-Semitic books, apparel and VHS videos from his failed political campaigns, and “White Pride World Wide” stickers. Duke began identifying himself on the website and elsewhere as “Dr. David Duke,” claiming to have received a doctorate in history from a Ukrainian university, the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, better known by the Russian acronym MUAP. In 2009 the US State Department described MUAP as “the most persistent publisher of anti-Semitic materials” in the Ukraine; in 2005 the university called on the United Nations to dismantle Israel as an independent nation. The State Department cited press reports that the private university gets substantial financial backing from Muslim countries of the Middle East. Duke was awarded his degree for a thesis titled “Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism.”
In 2016 Duke resurfaced as a candidate in the race to fill the Louisiana U.S. Senate seat of David Vitter. He finished seventh in the primary, garnering 3% of the vote.