Election Dread: David Duke, Halloween, and premonitions of our political moment

Nearly thirty years ago in the fall of 1991 two friends and I traveled around the US and Canada on a three-month tour giving presentations at colleges, activist hubs and community centers on radical social and ecological politics. Two days before Halloween, we began the southern leg of our “Liberating the Ecology Movement” tour by driving overnight from Norman, Oklahoma down to New Orleans to speak at Loyola University. This also happened to be two weeks before a run-off election for governor which pitted a famously corrupt Democrat, Edwin Edwards, against former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon-turned-Republican David Duke.

Crossing into the state at about 1am or so, we were shocked to see Duke campaign signs along the roadside. Coming onto a highway ramp, we pulled over quickly and yanked one up. An enormous truck just behind us stayed close on our tail all the way to the city on the otherwise empty highway.

The next day we joined our local host at a meeting of a city-wide group called the Committee Against Black Genocide. Given the circumstances there was nothing remotely hyperbolic in the name. Everyone was nervous, agitated, and grim. Duke had already won a state senate race as a Republican in 1988 and had run for the US senate in 1990. He wasn’t ahead in the polls, but the governor’s office was still within reach. Organizing an effective campaign against Duke was a challenge because of the notorious venality of his opponent. Anti-Duke bumper stickers in urban areas around the state said “Vote the lizard not the wizard.”

Halloween in the French Quarter is both gothic and carnivalesque – elaborate costumes and lots of drinking in the streets. That year it had a macabre, Weimar feel as well, with lots of election-themed dress, including Klan hoods and robes meant, somehow, to mock the Republican candidate. The feelings of heavy anxiety with which we are now all too familiar were thick in the air that night.

David Duke lost that election, but quickly pivoted to challenge George H.W. Bush in the GOP primaries for president. National Republicans were increasingly agitated by Duke’s growing profile even though Bush, of course, had deployed Lee Atwater to run the racist Willie Horton ad that cinched the presidency for the in 1988. Laughably, Atwater, now Republican National Committee chair, said of Duke when he ran for president, “This man has a twenty-year history of participation in Ku Klux Klan and Nazi activities. There’s no place for that in the Republican Party. Not as long as I’m Chairman.”

If the Republican establishment saw Duke as beyond the far edge of its Southern Strategy, Pat Buchanan had a different view. “The way to deal with Duke,” said the veteran Nixon strategist and Reagan administration communications director, was “the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues; and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles.” Soon after, Buchanan took his own advice and jumped into the Republican primary race himself, taking the steam, and many supporters, out of Duke’s campaign.

Buchanan campaign advisor Sam Francis later said of Duke, “There was a subtext to what Mr. Duke explicitly and formally said in his speeches and his campaign literature, and the subtext, communicated by the continuous depiction of Mr. Duke in Nazi uniform and Klan hood by his enemies, is that the historic racial and cultural core of American civilization in under attack. Quotas, affirmative action, race norming, civil rights legislation, multiculturalism in schools and universities, welfare, busing, and unrestricted immigration from Third World countries are all symbols of that attack and of the racial, cultural, and political dispossession they promise to inflict upon the white post-bourgeois middle classes. Conventional conservative ideology has little to say about this kind of onslaught and little to offer as a counter-attack, and no matter how much Mr. Duke swore his allegiance to that ideology, no one – including his own supporters – really believe him.”

This was what Buchanan saw and capitalized on in a racist, nativist, and antisemitic campaign that took him all the way to a keynote address at the GOP convention that year, where he gave his famous “Culture War” speech, saying his party would have to take the country back “block by block” just like the troops on the streets of LA were doing in the wake of the riots there that year.

We were on our way out of town and headed to give our next presentation in Birmingham, Alabama before the election took place. But there was no escaping the pall of Nazism. When we arrived, we were told by the local organizers that the location of our event had changed couldn’t be made public because of the heavy presence of nazi skinheads (Confederate Hammerskins) in town who had been harassing the anarchist punk community there, and there was a southeast regional meeting of racist skinhead groups close by. There is a straight line from Buchanan to Trump, or rather from Duke to Trump, that stretches back to the fall of 1991, and before. The populist politics that originally emerged in the GOP in 1968 was forged in opposition to the black freedom movement and related anti-racist struggles, feminism, gay rights, and the counterculture. This politically conservative identity was steeped in resentment, and indeed drew strength, focus and direction from its determination to maintain whiteness, masculinity, the hetero-patriarchal family, and global might as the governing terms of US political culture.

Today, this formation is still marked by resentment, but it can no longer sustain the dream of white majoritarianism in a demographically changing electorate, the comfort of economic security after decades of growing precarity, nor the perceived masculine virtue of being producers in an increasingly financialized economy. That is what Duke saw coming, and Buchanan too. The Silent Majority may no longer be an electoral majority in US politics, but it is an increasingly unstable and dangerous political identity, of which Trumpism has given ample evidence. Regardless of what happens in this election, dangerous forms of far-right politics will likely develop both inside and outside the party system.

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