For a few weeks now I've been promising to try and add what little bit of perspective I can to the recent blow-up over Rep. Steve Scalise's 2002 appearance at white supremacist convention in Metairie. Scalise was briefly in the news again this week after an apparently lukewarm protest in D.C. and the fact that the national press picked up a bit on his refusal to add his name to a symbolic statement that slavery was kind of a bad idea.
The key to understanding the Scalise controversy, though, is understanding that his seemingly extremist views and associations are really quite near to the mainstream of the political establishment.. not just in Louisiana.. not just in the South, even. But Louisiana is the political incubator that birthed Scalise, so we should talk about that first. It so happens that I grew up in Louisiana and therefore have quite a lot to say on the subject. So much, in fact, that it's going to take more than one long-ish post like this to get to it all. Believe me, this worries me as much as it does you. In this post, though, I'd like to focus on just how near to the mainstream of the political establishment David Duke himself was. At least in the early 90s he managed to make himself so.
For those of you who weren't around during the Peak Duke years, it might be difficult to understand that David Duke circa 1989-1991 was a slightly different figure from the more openly fringe Duke he was prior to those years and to which he reverted later.
Duke did not run for Senate or for Governor as a Klansman. He ran as a Christian conservative Republican ostensibly regretful of the "mistakes" of his youth. As such, the fact that he was indistinguishable from the mainstream of his party remains the most remarkable fact about his rise.
In order to help better understand this, I've pulled up these debates from the 1991 Governor's race. One is an LPB broadcast.
The other was presented by WWLTV. This one comes in five parts. I'm just going to embed the first one and trust you can find the others from there.
Here are the issues Duke hammers on throughout.
1) Corruption: Emphasized to some degree because it is a perceived soft spot vs Edwards.. although Duke fails to land anything like a significant blow in those exchanges.
But there's a more subtle set of references to "machine politics"which, in New Orleans, carried a certain racial tinge. And at several points Duke out and out accuses Edwards of "buying black votes" as well as of asking blacks to vote against Duke because of his "past" thus proving that Duke's opponents are, in fact, the "real racists."
In Duke's construction, this is all evidence of his status as an outsider. Duke frequently describes himself as a reforming crusader for more "honest and open" government and a break from the "politics of the past." You can watch this today and place Duke alongside any typical "Tea Party" leaning Republican and he looks like much the same quantity.
2) The Environment: This is a bit of an anachronism. It's hard to conceive of now when we think of this issue in terms of the standard national argument over global warming. But this was far from a dominant issue in 1991. Politically.. especially in Louisiana.. it was more of a fringe concern that could attract "kooks" on either the left or the right. (Coastal erosion was a known factor but only just beginning to gain political traction.)
When it was cited at all by candidates, environmentalism was held up as kind of a vague claim to virtue; not too different from being in favor of "ethics" which.. we just saw was something Duke demagogued on pretty hard. In fact, these two issues treated in just this way were something of a standard play for Louisiana conservatives of the time. (Buddy Roemer, and before him Dave Treen, was also famous for talking about "ethics" and "the environment" in ways that were scarcely any different.)
Like many phony political environmentalists of his day, Duke was not very coherent. While he decries Louisiana's status as, "the nation's largest toxic waste dump," he doesn't say much about how he would go about reversing that. In fact, he rails against big government "intrusion on business" several times.. including where it concerned a controversy over a law requiring fishers to use new turtle-safe nets which one would have thought would be an environmental concern.
3) Education: Here, again, we find Duke harping on a very mainstream reformist topic. He does take advantage of a few opportunities to do some subtle race baiting, though. There's a question at one point about a federal mandate for equitable funding for public schools in poorer neighborhoods. Duke merely says that this sounds like "redistribution" and is therefore probably bad. At other points, he talks about "affirmative action" and "forced busing" which are the sorts of education topics Duke's target voters are typically concerned with. But mostly he just says the word, "education" over and over. He rarely ventures very far outside of the "won't someone think of the children" range.
An interesting difference between then and now is that, in 1991, a "pro-education" candidate supported teacher pay raises. Today, the popular political rhetoric around education involves union busting charter schools and reliance on a high burnout, virtual temporary labor force provided through the Teach For America pipeline.
Also, notice, that in 1991 there was no talk about using state money to fund private religious schools teaching an anti-science curriculum. No one in these debates seems to think evolution is a controversial topic. In other words, education policy in Louisiana is currently to the right of David Duke.
4) Welfare Reform: Here we have the real meat and potatoes of the Duke candidacy. Welfare was the issue that he rode the hardest during his brief period of notoriety. During the debates he returned to it as often as possible. He talks about it when asked about the budget. He talks about it when asked about his legislative agenda. When asked a pointed question about why he received an unusual amount of campaign money from out of state, he says a lot of people around the country care about welfare reform.
But notice that he doesn't say anything particularly outlandish.. or at least.. anything that would be too different from what you'd hear most Republicans say. The general implication is that some people are getting something they haven't earned and it's coming off of the backs of good clean hard working people.
His go-to image is about wagons. "Too many people are riding in the wagon while not enough are pulling it." He tells us people are using welfare to buy drugs and lottery tickets. He repeatedly conjures the specter of welfare mothers having children on purpose in order to increase the size of their check. Edwards counters that this is a ridiculous idea since such a welfare baby bonus would amount to 11 dollars a week. No matter to Duke, who goes on to suggest that welfare recipients be required to take birth control. All of these horrors, of course, come at the expense of veterans, and the elderly, and the disabled according to Duke who says he is merely trying to defend basic fairness.
It's important to understand that Duke's arguments here are no more extreme than what we get from conservatives today. In some ways, they are somewhat less so. Recall that only a few years ago State Rep John Labruzzo (heir to.. roughly Duke's old district, btw) called for forced sterilization of welfare recipients.
Thursday afternoon, Rep. Charles Boustany appeared on the Angela Hill show where the two of them commiserated over what they agree is a dire need for.. yep.. welfare reform. Boustany is pushing a bill in the new congress. On the Angela show, Boustany hit a set of talking points pulled directly from the Duke playbook.
Because let me tell you one of things I did I was successful in the last congress in getting a bill passed and signed into law. So it's actually a law of the land now what that says that if I deadbeat dad is is getting welfare money... from the family.. he cannot use that money in a strip club. The casino or liquor store that became law that's my bill. I'm also the author of legislation that and I tried to get done last year and couldn't .. I'm reintroducing it.. that would deal with the drug testing. You know you go to work for company you get drug tested but taxpayer dollar shouldn't be going to buy drugs. So those kind of things I'm look at that.There was nothing in even the most inflammatory rhetoric from Duke during that election that isn't squarely within the bounds of the mainstream Republican agenda then or today.
Anyway so enjoy watching those videos. There are a few other interesting bits you might pick up on. Duke is asked to name some close advisers he might appoint in his administration. One of those names is Kenny Knight, who we have since learned is a link between Duke and Steve Scalise.
During the LPB debate (a little over 33 minutes in) there is a dramatic exchange between Duke and Norman Robinson who really lays into him over... well... Duke's many statements and publications, as well as his general having been a Nazi and a Klansman for all those years. Duke cites his Christian faith (supposedly arrived at in his older wiser years) and begins, "I regret having been intolerant but that's not how I live today."
As he talks, though Duke becomes more and more strident. First he talks about the long history of racist Louisiana politicians he is better than. Then he very quickly arrives at a, "there is racism on all sides" stance. Finally he's talking about Jesse Jackson and the fact that Norman is out to get him. It's striking but it also would fit very much within the FOX News Ferguson coverage last year.
One interpretation of the Steve Scalise story asks us to believe that Scalise's appearance at a white supremacist event was a "mistake" he made some time in his past. This is almost the exact same sort of excuse David Duke once employed in order to brush off his own past. (And, hey, maybe it's not even that much of a mistake anymore. Presidential candidate Bobby Jindal is apparently going to spend Martin Luther King Day speaking to an anti-Muslim hate group in London.)
Duke sold his new self remarkably well. He limited his racial rhetoric to code-speak while developing a platform that seemed to position him well within the mainline of reformist Louisiana political tradition. (In Louisina "reform" candidates are usually conservatives. That's more than I have time to explain right now. Read a book.) But he was never going to be accepted among the professional power players. During his term in the Legislature he was widely shunned.
Duke succeeded... maybe we can't call one victory in a State Rep race success... Duke reached the pinnacle of his career because he happened to come along at a time when white backlash voters were at their angriest, and the Duke brand offered them the primal scream of a "fuck you" vote. But, in order to reach even that level, he had to re-calibrate that brand a bit. He had to tone down his rhetoric just enough to play the part of a mainstream professional Republican.
The remarkable lesson, though, is just how easy this was to do.
The difference between Duke and Republican insiders wasn't about ideology as much as it was personality. Duke really was a weirdo and an outsider and the insiders hated him for that. During the debates, reporters and Edwards go after him for not having ever had a "real job." Duke calls himself a "small businessman."
Really? What kind of small business?
Computer consulting. And a "mailing list company."
Since then, Duke and his mailing lists have become infamous in state politics. Here he was in 1991 being called out as a hustler. And yet, in future years, that hustle would remain lucrative for him thanks to several Republican and Democratic clients.
A few years afterward, Steve Scalise would brag to Stephanie Grace that he was "David Duke but without the baggage." What Scalise meant specifically was that, unlike the professional Republicans who merely push an agenda that plays upon the prejudices and fears the white supremacist crowd, Duke had actually signed up for the movement.
In politics you can be all sorts of things and make it okay, but the one thing the real pros cannot abide is authenticity. That authenticity was both Duke's strength and his undoing. Maybe Scalise has ended up with more baggage than he bargained for after all. In all likelihood, though, he's probably still just enough of a phony to keep his job.