The following piece was first published in Salon.com
By Robert Mann
After watching him romp through the early weeks of the Republican Party’s primary season – spewing hate, stoking xenophobia and attacking the Washington establishment – this thought keeps coming to mind: Is Donald Trump just David Duke in a better suit?
Twenty-five years after the unrepentant neo-Nazi and former KKK leader made the runoff for Louisiana governor (then a GOP state representative, he lost to Democrat Edwin Edwards), Duke and his ideology are enjoying a renaissance, of sorts.
Last week, Duke shot back into the headlines when he urged listeners of his radio show to volunteer for and support Trump’s candidacy. Duke said his remarks were not an endorsement, but his support was enthusiastic nonetheless.
“Voting for these people [Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio], voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage,” Duke said on February 24. Anyone who knows Duke and his decades of white supremacy knows that by “heritage,” he meant “white heritage.”
“I’m not saying I endorse everything about Trump,” Duke added, “in fact I haven’t formally endorsed him. But I do support his candidacy, and I support voting for him as a strategic action. I hope he does everything we hope he will do.”
After initially rejecting Duke’s endorsement, Trump appeared to backtrack in a CNN interview. Asked about Duke’s quasi-endorsement last weekend, Trump replied, “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?”
Trump eventually renounced Duke – he said, simply, “I disavow” – but offered nothing more than those words until after his Super Tuesday primaries victories in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia. Safely on the other side of March 1, but just days before Saturday’s Louisiana primary, Trump finally coughed up a slightly more pointed renunciation on Thursday.“ David Duke is a bad person, who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years,” Trump said.
Those were rather mild words from Trump, who is highly skilled in the art of the invective. What does it say about Trump’s supposed disdain for Duke that he has unleashed venomous attacks in recent days against Mitt Romney and Rubio but could muster only that weak insult against the former KKK leader?
Trump, however, was correct about one thing. He had, indeed, denounced Duke in 2000. That, however, was long before he launched his current White House bid and before we knew the real estate magnate as the racist he’s become.
Disavowing Duke while earning the votes of former and current Duke supporters has proved a bit more problematic. That may explain why he waited four long days to “attack” the former KKK leader. Did Trump defer criticizing Duke because he feared alienating the not-insignificant percentage of white voters in the South who have never been repelled by Duke and who are now attracted to Trump? Whatever the reason for Trump’s hesitation, it did not appear to cost him many votes in the South on Super Tuesday.
As Public Policy Polling (PPP) reported in mid-February: “Trump’s support in South Carolina is built on a base of voters among whom religious and racial intolerance pervades.”
What does that mean, exactly? PPP found that 70 percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina “think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital.” Even worse, PPP reported, 38 percent of Trump voters “say they wish the South had won the Civil War.”
Is there any doubt left that Trump’s support, at least in the South, is built on a foundation of racism and xenophobia? All of which begs these questions: What is it about Trump that Duke so admires? And what about Trump appeals to former and current Duke disciples and other racists?
Having watched Duke for 25 years, I am certain he would not support Trump unless he firmly believed they held similar views on race. To say that Duke and his supporters care about race is like saying Alabama coach Nick Saban cares about football. Duke is obsessed with race – more specifically, he is rabid about safeguarding his perceived “white heritage.”
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