Essays - Autumn 2005

The Rise and Fall of David Duke

Print

Breaking the code of right-wing populism in Louisana

By Lawrence N. Powell

September 1, 2005


 

Getting pulled into Louisiana politics was far from Holocaust survivor Anne Levy’s mind that morning in June 1989. She boarded a bus in Uptown New Orleans for the 90-minute trip to Baton Rouge and the opening of a Holocaust exhibit in the Louisiana Capitol. Five months earlier, an affluent New Orleans suburb had sent David Duke, a Nazi enthusiast and former Ku Klux Klan wizard, to the state House of Representatives as a Republican. Jews throughout the state were all too familiar with Duke’s Holocaust-denial antics—his attendance at Holocaust revisionist conferences, his promotion of Nazi race theories, his obsessive harping on Jewish conspiracies. Governor Charles “Buddy” Roemer, a conservative Democrat who wanted to make an emphatic statement about Duke’s extremism, had asked the New York office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to send down its Holocaust posterboard display. During two election cycles, race would stay alive as an issue, end up costing Roemer his job, and throw state politics into a lather unusual even in the Bayou State.

Holocaust imagery seemed out of place in the art deco capitol, a monument to Huey Long, the governor who pushed the building to completion early in the Great Depression. Long, who styled himself the Kingfish after a character on the Amos ’n’ Andy radio program, was perhaps the closest the United States has come to producing a genuine dictator. Briefly, before his assassination in September 1935, he was the hope of Hitler sympathizers (including nascent architect Philip Johnson) looking for someone to lead an American fascist movement. Towering 450 feet near the Mississippi River and smudged with soot from nearby oil refineries, the capitol drips with depictions of Louisiana history and drollery, including a bas-relief of the Kingfish consulting with his architects. The public usually associates Long with the Great Memorial Hall, or rotunda, where he was gunned down by the son-in-law of a judge whom he had gerrymandered into retirement. Scars from the bullets are still visible in a wall. Slathered in wine-colored travertine, the rotunda has the ambience of a Prohibition-era Chicago nightclub.

The Wiesenthal posterboards had been set up on easels around the perimeter of the rotunda. Anne Levy stood in a knot of people at one end with attendees and journalists waiting for Governor Roemer to introduce the exhibit. Many in the crowd, like Levy, were aging Holocaust survivors who had settled in New Orleans. Her family was among the very few to have survived intact the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. She and her younger sister Lila had hidden beneath the floorboards in a slave-labor factory and then crouched for hours on end, day after day, during one of the hottest European summers on record, under the false bottom of a vegetable bin in the family’s cramped apartment. Anne’s mother lived until 1973; her father, an Old World woodworker, was clinging to life in a New Orleans Jewish retirement home. Just as the governor was about to speak, she saw David Duke enter from the House side of the capitol and move slowly through the exhibit, lingering in front of posters at parade rest.

Duke stood more than a foot taller than Levy, his suit filled out after years of weightlifting, his face surgically sculpted. He could have been a television anchorman. She walked over, reached high, and tapped his shoulder. What was he doing here? she asked in her soft, crinkly voice that melds Jewish singsong with the inflections of Uptown New Orleans. After all, she said, he denied the Holocaust ever happened. “I didn’t say it didn’t happen,” he replied. “I said it was exaggerated,” and he walked away. Levy is demure but not diffident, and at that moment she felt compelled to give him a history lesson. Her voice rose, becoming tremulous. The television lights and cameras swiveled toward the disturbance at the other end of the rotunda. Duke kept trying to get away from her, but she pursued him until he finally left the room.

For some people who witnessed the scene or read about it later, it was revelatory. One was Beth Rickey, a member of the Republican State Central Committee who helped found the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, the political action committee that led the fight against Duke. Rickey had become dispirited by her failure to get the Republican committee to censure Duke. “I started dragging my feet,” she told me in 1992, “and I was a little afraid of Duke as well. But then I thought if Anne Levy has got the guts to walk up to that man and ask him why he said the Holocaust never happened, I certainly could summon the courage to expose his Nazi bookselling operation. I wanted to back her up. She wasn’t paranoid, she wasn’t making it up. I thought how I would feel if I had that horrendous experience and no one stood up for me.”

Levy initiated other encounters with Duke, each ending with Duke beating a hasty retreat. But the confrontation in the capitol was the one that crystallized a strategy—highlight his Nazi sympathies—that led to Duke’s political defeat. Indeed, the incident injected the Holocaust as an issue into Louisiana politics. The 1991 gubernatorial runoff between Duke and former three-term governor Edwin Edwards produced one of the highest election turnout percentages in modern American history. Nearly four-fifths of the state’s registered voters cast ballots, and Edwards swamped Duke with 61 percent of the votes. Until the campaign’s final week, however, the outcome was anything but foreordained. What explains the gradual, then sudden energy that drove such a turnout? The conventional analysis credits economic fear, that a Duke victory would be bad for business. But there is another explanation, largely overlooked: the moral power of Holocaust memory.


Running as a born-again Republican conservative, Duke first came to prominence in early 1989 with his election to the state legislature by a margin of merely 227 votes. Winning the 1990 Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, he emerged as a serious challenger to the long-term Democratic incumbent, J. Bennett Johnston, who was reelected. The following year he defeated Governor Roemer, who had become a Republican, in the open primary, earning the right to face Edwards in an off-year gubernatorial election. Along the way, he won favor with the moral-majority wing of the state Republican party. In Republican runoffs for senator and governor, Duke polled a commanding majority of the white vote—nearly 700,000 ballots in the gubernatorial election. Much of the state at the time was dealing with the collapse of oil-patch and agricultural prices. A crack cocaine epidemic in inner-city New Orleans and other urban areas was stoking anxiety and fear. Duke blamed the hard times on the black poor, which set white have-littles, many of them blue-collar Reagan Democrats, against black have-nots. Behind appeals to middle-class racial grievances and the preservation of “European” heritage, Duke was also sounding classic fascist themes of cultural unity, purification, and renewal. National Republicans couldn’t devise a strategy to meet this challenge on their right. Duke had hijacked their fairnessthemed attacks on affirmative action and welfare and was raiding conservative direct-mail lists. Responding to Democrats’ attempts to paint mainstream Republicans as bigots, President George H. W. Bush signed the 1991 Civil Rights Act, a version of which he had vetoed the year before. It was the nation’s last civil rights bill of the 20th century.

Duke borrowed a page from Hitler and Mussolini, who also downplayed their radical pasts to build parties that included moderates. Similarly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, European neofascist parties, from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National party in France to Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, tried to base their xenophobic insurgencies in the moderate center, relying on code words to appease racist supporters. Democrats favored fending off Duke’s attacks on affirmative action, welfare “cheats,” and the “skyrocketing” illegitimate black birthrates with reasoned arguments. Meanwhile, some Republicans favored promoting his kinder, gentler side—a “Duke without the baggage.” A national pollster contracted by good-government business interests recommended attacking him for tax evasion. Others suggested publicizing his sex life. Almost everyone cautioned that dwelling on his past would elicit a sympathy backlash and drive more free-floating protesters into his electoral column. After all, Duke was pretty convincing at dismissing his Nazi and Klan activities as “youthful indiscretions.”

But to a group of activists and academicians who formed the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism—of which I was one of the founders— the case for exposing Duke’s charade to the more affluent voters he needed to attract seemed open and shut. We contended that his Nazi leanings should be kept in the forefront, that doing less would accord him legitimacy as a mainstream candidate. The challenge as we saw it was not to pull alienated voters out of Duke’s camp but instead to keep him from allying with educated conservatives and business groups, as fascists had done in Europe. We believed that the personal history the candidate was trying to suppress and Hitler’s bloodstained legacy should be the centerpiece of the anti-Duke campaign. But was it politically and tactically sound? In truth, all we had to go on was the way Anne Levy’s dramatic confrontations left Duke rattled. Did Duke intuit the ability of Holocaust memory to awaken moral revulsion, an idea that we only dimly perceived at the time?


Rafael Lemkin coined the term genocide to encapsulate Hitler’s crimes and then worked diligently to persuade the United Nations to pass a law— the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—removing state sovereignty as grounds for immunity from prosecution for mass murder. Since then, from Cambodia through Sudan, advocates of intervention have instinctively made analogies with the Holocaust. Its story has become the means for comprehending mind-numbing events. Samantha Power’s 2002 study of American responses to modern genocides, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, traces the growth of Holocaust awareness, and historian Tony Judt has succinctly described the Holocaust’s talismanic qualities. “The argument-from-the-Holocaust has acquired an almost a priori character: it does not need to lay out its premises because these are familiar enough,” he wrote in 1999 in The New Republic. “It is sufficient to name the reference to have made the case.”

It’s easy to understand why former Democratic U.S. Representative Stephen Solarz felt compelled to act during the Khmer Rouge liquidation of two million Cambodians, many for the crime of wearing eyeglasses. His New York City District 13, covering all of Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, contained more Holocaust survivors than any other district in the country. “The Holocaust is the key to the whole thing,” he is quoted as saying in Power’s book. “It is the Rosetta Stone. For me, the Holocaust was the central fact of the 20th century and has had more influence on my view of the world and America’s role in it than anything else.” But lawmakers or their majority constituencies did not have to be Jewish to be moved to protest. For 19 years, every day the Senate was in session, former U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) spoke against genocide until, in 1986, the United States ratified the 1948 Convention against Genocide. He delivered 3,211 speeches on the subject.

An indicator of the Holocaust’s capacity to compel action is the wariness of so-called geopolitical realists to invoke its memory. From Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton, policymakers did verbal somersaults to avoid calling genocidal behavior genocide, lest it force them to intervene in overseas crises where national interests weren’t perceived to be at stake. Bush père maintained that the gassing and systematic destruction of villages in northern Iraq was “not necessarily genocide,” but repression that the Kurds had brought on themselves. Mass murder and expulsions in Bosnia, Bush said, were “ethnic cleansing,” the venting of “ancient hatreds” and not state-directed cultural erasure. To Clintonites the low-tech slaughter in Rwanda was “tantamount to genocide” or “acts of genocide,” never genocide as such. The only times Clinton cited the Holocaust were during his 1992 presidential run, and, then, six years later, after events obliged him to intervene in the former Yugoslavia. In the case of Bosnia, where the memory of the Holocaust still permeated the landscape, the public was ahead of its leaders. Once images of skeletal men behind barbed wire aired in August 1992, polling numbers favoring air strikes spiked from 35 to 53 percent. A short while later they soared to 80 percent, Power observed, “when those surveyed were told that an independent commission had found genocide underway.”

This past summer, by a six-to-one margin, according to a recent Zogby poll, the American public was still ahead of its leaders in support of bolder action in Darfur, where 400,000 black Muslim Africans have been murdered  during the past two years by the Sudanese army and Janjaweed militiamen. Prodded by Colin Powell, in September 2004 George W. Bush bluntly called the tragedy in Darfur “genocide,” and stepped up humanitarian aid to the region. But since brokering a truce in the civil war in Sudan and eliciting the Khartoum government’s support in the war on terror, the Bush administration has downplayed the crisis, even derailing a bipartisan bill in Congress that would have frozen Sudanese assets and imposed an internationally enforced no-fly zone to stop the strafing of Muslim villages.

Tracing the movement of the Holocaust from the margins to the center of American culture, Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life identified milestones. Despite the critical and popular acclaim that greeted the Broadway and Hollywood versions of The Diary of Anne Frank, the topic was mostly neglected in the 1950s as American Jews sought to blend into Christian culture while Holocaust survivors, still called refugees, concentrated on building new American lives. Interest picked up in the 1960s (the period when the term Holocaust came into general use) with the capture and 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann and following the 1967 Six-Day War in Israel. There was a wave of popular treatments, including television broadcasts, during the following two decades, and in 1993 the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened, the symbolism of its placement on the National Mall unmistakable. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was released the same year. In academia, beginning in 1961 with Raul Hilberg’s magisterial Destruction of the European Jews, there was an outpouring of monographs, several focusing on the vexed politics of wartime rescue.

Shaken by the calamitous slaughter that had ruined Europe, Hannah Arendt predicted in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in postwar Europe.” Her timing, however, was off by several decades. Instead of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, with its ashen imagery of atomic devastation and planetary extinction, rose first in symbolic importance. What elevated the Holocaust as the supreme symbol of evil? One reason was a growing sense of obligation from the 1970s onward to honor aging parents and grandparents who fought and survived World War II. The rights revolution, with its heightened sensitivity toward human rights abuses, past and present, was another. Add to this the rise of identity politics and comparative victimhood, cultural tendencies that have resonated with post- assimilationist American Jews worried that exogamy and attacks on Israel were imperiling Jewish continuity. Many have recast ethnic identity around the Holocaust in order to reinforce collective values and gain moral prestige by asserting a primacy of suffering. There are even political motives, overstated, in my opinion, for invoking Hitler’s Judeocide to rally support for Israeli policies.

NBC’s broadcast on four successive evenings in April 1978 of the dramatic miniseries The Holocaust probably did more than any single event to Americanize an event then perceived as a Jewish tragedy. The nine-and-a-half-hour adaptation of a novel about the destruction of a German middle-class fam- ily was watched by almost two-thirds of the adult population, more people than voted in either the 1976 or the 1980 presidential election. Starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, it stirred deep emotions, inspiring numerous Sunday sermons, scores of editorials, and untold numbers of classroom discussions. The drama’s graphic details remained lodged in viewers’ memories; it was, according to social psychologist Robert Wuthnow, “a major public ritual.” Two weeks after the broadcasts, President Carter appointed a commission on Holocaust remembrance and education; its work culminated in the building of the museum on the National Mall.

Several nationwide opinion studies were conducted following the miniseries. Robert Wuthnow wrote in Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis that nearly two-thirds of the public believed the country had “pretty seriously gotten on the wrong track.” Americans felt alienated from politics and government and distrustful of big business and elite institutions. Pessimistic about the future, large numbers were worried about America’s decline in world affairs. And the more they worried, the more profound was their response to the televised drama. “The Holocaust, in short,” Wuthnow concluded, “was a symbol of contemporary chaos, as well as a reminder of historic evil.” It was a warning that it could happen again. But aside from that general outlook, viewers derived no single meaning from the broadcast. Instead of drawing lessons from the Holocaust, they read their values into it. The series, that is, dramatized for viewers the significance of their own moral beliefs. And because of the diversity of those beliefs, the telecast reinforced, as rituals tend to do, the collective values of the community: in this case, the broad principle of cultural pluralism.

One predominant feeling that the series brought to the surface sheds further light on the capacity of Holocaust memory to spur moral action. Many viewers experienced a “heightened sense of personal vulnerability” when confronted with the kind of evil exemplified by Hitler’s crimes. They felt morally defeated in the face of modern man’s propensity to acquiesce in the authoritarianism of bureaucratic society, sort of like the hapless subjects in a famous 1961 experiment conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram. On command, Milgram’s subjects routinely administered ostensibly lethal jolts of electricity to anonymous victims. Three-quarters of those surveyed after the NBC series confessed that they probably would have lacked the courage to stand up to Nazism. Only by taking action—by communicating the horrors of the Final Solution or making some other symbolic gesture—were they able to restore feelings of efficacy and vanquish moral self-doubt.

Best remembered today for her “banality of evil” insights into Adolf Eichmann’s character, Hannah Arendt would doubtless see in these opinion surveys confirmation of her theory about the ordinariness of radical evil. Susan Neiman, in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, revisited Arendt’s concept of the problem of evil. Arendt highlighted and Neiman explicated the commonplaceness of many who were complicit. Up close, the perpetrators in the Final Solution look like ordinary individuals—to echo the title of Christopher Browning’s study of a police battalion of German triggermen in Nazi-occupied Poland. Instead of meeting up with the Boys from Brazil, one encounters gray bureaucrats and unimaginative careerists. Few seem to have been consumed by so-called eliminationist, let alone murderous, anti-Semitism. Eichmann epitomized the breed, but you could find ordinary men running death camps like Treblinka.

“At every level,” Neiman writes, “the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known.” The absence of evil intention seems equally to have characterized the millions of German bystanders who kept their heads down and stoutly defended their right not to know what was being done in their names. Referring to Eichmann, Neiman sums it up: “Bad luck placed him at a desk where signing a form could become an act of murder. Potentially, he would have lived a life as harmless as his inner world, just as others more fortunately situated might have realized the evil for which he was responsible. This is what it means to engage in ordinary complicity— just as refusing to give in to this kind of bad luck is what it means to engage in ordinary heroism.”

Arendt was attacked for painting Eichmann in the dull ocher of banality. People thought she was trying to exculpate him, but her intent was to alert us to the ways we can become complicit in evil without meaning to do so. It is at this juncture of moral indeterminacy that the Holocaust’s unique moral power to provoke action becomes clear: by dramatizing evil as a human potentiality we’d rather not face, the Final Solution causes us to wonder how we ourselves might have behaved at the moment of moral decision. Vicarious participation in the Holocaust is like taking a moral stress test. It fills us with anxiety and makes us feel vulnerable while forcing us to assess our values and to consider our responsibility toward those values. This, I think, is the source of the Holocaust’s ethical energy.


Understanding the high-turnout Louisiana governor’s election of 1991 that repudiated David Duke requires factoring in analogies to the Holocaust. The Louisiana Coalition raised and spent millions of dollars to shape the perception of Duke as a Nazi. It fed stories to the media, prepared resource packets, deconstructed the Nazi racial theories behind his antiwelfare rhetoric, ran newspaper and television ads, did the spin.

During the first week or so following the primary election, tracking polls suggested that Duke might win. His opponent, Edwin Edwards, was persona non grata among the good-government, fiscally conservative, upscale Republicans and conservative Democrats who would decide this election. Early indications, both anecdotal and analytical, suggested that many of them would sit this one out, if not vote for Duke. Waiting in the grocery store checkout line, you wondered if the person in front of you was a closet fascist. Some white liberals pledged to seek political asylum in Mississippi if Duke became governor.

The black electorate took the lead opposing Duke, apparently less moved by images of the Holocaust than by memories of segregation and disfranchisement. “There is an air of urgency—almost like an approaching hurricane,” a black businessman was reported as saying by USA Today. “I just feel I can’t do enough. I haven’t slept an entire night since the primary,” a black tax assessor told a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter. But soon enough the white stop-Duke vote got swept up by the campaign’s fervor. And an untold number of white Louisianans, many of them Roemeristas (as Governor Buddy Roemer’s supporters were called), educated and upscale as a rule, stepped out of type to bear witness against Duke’s election, spreading their concern and partisanship to neighbors in ways that were contagious. The moral intensity was palpable. “It was all creative and spontaneous,” wrote Times-Picayune columnist Iris Kelso. “It was unprecedented.” Political consultant Jim Carvin told me he’d seen intense campaigns but none compared with this one. An Edwards coordinator in suburban Jefferson parish said, “It was BOOM. One week we had 100 volunteers, the next we had 700. The volunteer base grew so rapidly, we were scrambling to figure out how to fit these people into the campaign.” The supply of yard signs and campaign literature was quickly exhausted, and there weren’t enough trucks to handle the mushrooming sign crews. One woman wanted to buy a large Edwards yard sign. People volunteered to serve as human billboards along a highway. On a Sunday afternoon, people stood atop an interstate overpass holding placards spelling out “NO NAZI DUKKKES! HONK,” drawing middle-finger salutes from Duke supporters returning from a New Orleans Saints football game.

Economic self-preservation was certainly a factor. Some business owners and professionals mailed employees and clients personalized warnings of ruination a Duke victory would visit on the state. Jim Bob Moffett, CEO of Freeport-McMoRan, New Orleans’s only Fortune 500 corporation at the time, said in a press conference: “If Duke is elected . . . Louisiana wouldn’t just be redlined by business around the world; we’d be X-rated.” Three days after the primary, New Orleans businessman David Dixon, the driving force behind the construction of the Superdome and the campaign to bring an NFL franchise to the city, began running statewide television spot announcements in which he said, “David Duke says his election won’t hurt the convention industry. He’s right. He won’t hurt it. He’ll eliminate it.” Dixon told me in 1992 he acted quickly because he feared stop-Duke forces would take too long to get moving. The ads cost him nearly $50,000.

A New York Times exit poll during the runoff election buttressed the economic interpretation. When Edwards’ voters were asked to name the most important issue in the election, 69 percent said the “Louisiana economy,” which pundits and reporters quickly made the focus of their postmortems. However, those same voters gave an even higher response—81 percent—to the question concerning the “candidates’ racial views.” Three-fifths of the voters (the proportion of the electorate captured by Edwards) said Duke’s views remained unchanged from his days in the Ku Klux Klan; nine out of ten of that group voted against him. The message got through that Duke was a moral fraud.

Unfortunately, the Times exit poll did not probe why voters believed Duke was still a racist. Was the white stop-Duke electorate responding to old reports about his Klan past (which he made no effort to conceal, since it signaled to white supporters that here was a leader who would actually deliver on his threats), or were they acting on a suddenly sharpened awareness of his Nazi sympathies and the awful images such associations conjured up? Although the evidence for the latter interpretation is largely anecdotal and impressionistic, it is compelling. By the second week of the campaign, most of Duke’s opponents, political and religious, had begun referring to him as “a Nazi sympathizer” and not just an ex-Klansman. The Times-Picayune, citing a 1985 interview in which Duke called the Holocaust “a Jewish lie,” captured the changing mood in one of its award-winning editorials. “Mr. Duke is not what he wants us to see. He apologized for the mistakes of his youth. But the swastika and the hood are not far distant. . . . No, there’s no late conversion to mainstream Republicanism here. Something chill and unsettling lurks deeper.”

Duke’s past certainly unsettled Ansel M. Stroud, the commanding general of the 14,000-member state National Guard. Stroud took everyone by surprise when he appeared in television ads during the runoff campaign wearing his major-general’s uniform and saying, with hangdog seriousness, that he did not believe a former Nazi and Klansman should serve as governor of the state. He also drafted a letter to every member of the Louisiana Guard, personally paying for the postage, copying, and stationery. “I didn’t tell anybody who to vote for. I just said that in my opinion it would be unwise to have a Klansman and a neo-Nazi as the commander-in-chief of the Louisiana National Guard,” he told me in 1992. His office was deluged with letters and abusive phone calls, most of them, he believed, from Duke phone banks. The Duke camp later contacted the Pentagon and the Justice Department trying to have Stroud fired or indicted. “This was my first active involvement in an election, and probably my last,” Stroud said. “But I’d do it again.”

A sense of moral urgency also seized stockbroker Kirby Newberger, who produced the election’s most famous bumper sticker: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” David Brinkley held up the blue-and-white sticker at the conclusion of his Sunday morning show on ABC. To many outsiders the slogan epitomized everything they found wrong with Louisiana politics. But Newberger conceived it to help Roemer voters over the hump of voting for Edwin Edwards. Newberger had supported Roemer, and he was upset to learn most of his Roemer-supporting friends were inclined to stay at home on election day. Others ordered their own supply from the printer.

Edwin Edwards himself called Newberger and sent over an aide to pick up a dozen bumper stickers. Recalled Newberger: “I asked the aide what the governor intended to do with them. He said put them on his car. And Edwards did. I guess it is sickening to have a governor drive around with a bumper sticker that says vote for the crook. But it’s also funny.” Rhoda Faust, owner and cofounder of the local Maple Leaf bookstore chain, ordered several batches. “The utter cynicism and yet the utter truth of what the bumper sticker said is what caused it to catch on,” she told me. “It was Louisiana outrageous, another example of the fix we’ve gotten ourselves into without the possibility of graceful exit.”

The Times-Picayune suspended a long-standing policy of not printing letters for or against a political candidate during the runoff campaign, every few days printing a full-page “Readers Respond” collection of letters on Duke and Edwards. “The response was extraordinary,” said the editorial-page editor. “We received letters by the basketful.” Imagine a Governor Duke presiding over a 1936 Berlin-style Olympics in Louisiana (the 1992 Olympic trials were slated for New Orleans), one writer said. The Third Reich began with small steps, wrote another. One reader stated: “The problem was not one of politics. It is one of evil.” The Times-Picayune received its widest response from a letter, headlined “History Lesson: Tyranny Comes Step by Step,” written by local Holocaust survivors. Editors of papers in Lafayette and Alexandria asked permission to reprint it.

What impelled stop-Duke voters to speak out, form human billboards, buy political spots on television, flood newspapers with letters of outrage and concern? Evidence that voters were viewing the election from the perspective of the Holocaust can be inferred from the ethical energy the runoff had released into the electoral politics of a state better known for hijinks than high principle. Although the leaders of the New Orleans business council and the main Superdome booster acted out of self-interest, their stop-Duke sentiment quickly drew on the power of Holocaust memory. “Frankly, I was outraged by the immorality of Duke’s candidacy,” Dave Dixon told me.

If the Holocaust symbolized contemporary chaos and racial division, so did the divisiveness engendered by Duke’s political insurgency. If the rise of Hitler dramatized the susceptibility of ordinary people to the pandering of racial demagogues, so did the crowds flocking to Duke’s massive rallies. If Nazism rode to power through democratic means only to demolish democracy, so, too, was Duke veering down the same path. Jack Wardlaw, a Times- Picayune political reporter, drew on the state’s own experience with quasi-fascism (“If fascism ever comes to America, we’ll just call it something else,” Huey Long is rumored to have said) to nail down the analogy. “Make no mistake,” he wrote. “The agenda of radical and terrorist groups like the Klan and the neo-Nazis is to sow racial discord and rend this country asunder so that they can step in and pick up the pieces. It happened in Germany. If you think it can’t happen here, read Sinclair Lewis’s chilling 1935 book entitled It Can’t Happen Here.” Wardlaw concluded with the German Protestant minister Martin Niemoller’s classic statement about the suicidal sin of German bystanders: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out . . .”

These Holocaust themes of divisiveness—not to mention evil as something ordinary people can commit or become unwittingly complicit in—emerged as the central metaphor for the runoff election between Duke and Edwards. And as they gained prominence, stop-Duke voters started to reach across barriers of race, religion, and partisanship. They distributed broadsides, as did the Chinese Americans for a Better Louisiana, who urged, “Louisiana, let’s unite and prove that we can work together.” Stung by the national embarrassment of Duke’s candidacy and alarmed by the moral portent of his sudden political ascent to the governor’s mansion, voters were reassessing and reaffirming what it meant to be a Louisianan. Gambit, New Orleans’s alternative newsweekly, captured the mood perfectly:

Let there be no misunderstanding. The groundswell of opposition to David Duke’s candidacy from community leaders in the last few weeks arises not from hatred for Mr. Duke, but from a deep and abiding love of Louisiana and its people. A wonderful part of what makes Louisiana special is its unique blend of cultures. Its people historically have not just tolerated each other’s differences, but at times have embraced the strengths inherent in that diversity. We celebrate it in our music, in our food, in our joie de vivre, and in the craftsmanship of our workers and artists. Cajun and Creole, Caribbean and Hispanic, black and white, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish and dozens of other racial, religious, ethnic and cultural groups—we are all Louisianans.

In the current political climate, it is easy to ridicule “it can’t happen here” arguments about the threat of neofascism on these shores. Skinheads and deniers, with their shaved heads and Nazi regalia, seem slightly ridiculous— threats to public safety instead of political stability. It strains credulity to suggest that a Hitler-like dictatorship, replete with brown-shirted thuggery, concentration camps, and industrialized killing, could arise in the United States. But to come at the issue in this way, as though fascism had only one face and wore a single uniform, overlooks its protean nature. Because of their self-appointed mission to achieve national revival, fascist movements take on the coloration of their host culture, using their symbols and trappings. They emerge in stages, often opportunistically discarding some and moderating other aspects of their ideological radicalism, so as to broaden their appeal to a wider cross section of the voting public. They try to grow into the political space made available to them by the failure of liberalism and parliamentary democracy. They become classic catchall parties.

In America, as Robert O. Paxton has brilliantly argued, fascism would be pious, patriotic, and well groomed. It would demonize internal enemies (the left, liberals, minorities) and external enemies (Muslims), call for national purification and regeneration, and advocate litmus tests of national and religious loyalty (Pledge of Allegiance, crèches on courthouse squares). That, in fact, was how David Duke had reinvented himself and his movement. He was trying to fill the space opened up in state politics by the economic and political crises of the 1980s, which had unmoored from traditional ties large segments of the white working class and lower middle class, turning them into an aggrieved free-floating protest vote. But for the ethical stocktaking triggered in our time by Holocaust memory, he might have institutionalized his movement in the political system by forging an alliance across the highschool- diploma line with those upper-status voters fascists have historically needed in order to arrive in power. Fortunately, they knew their history, and it caused them to look on what came to be called “the race from hell” in moral rather than political terms. That is why the 1991 gubernatorial campaign was less an election than a public ritual for reaffirming the pluralistic values of the American creed, Louisiana-style.


It would be nice to report that the ethical energy released by the election resulted in racial and religious reconciliation in the Bayou State. Things didn’t work out that way. Although Duke’s electoral support withered almost as suddenly as it sprouted, as protest movements of this kind often do, so did the interracial coalition that had defeated it. In 2000, the crook went to federal prison, where he is serving a 10-year sentence for extorting kickbacks from casino operators. But there were two crooks. Duke went to jail as well for bilking supporters and then gambling away their contributions. He served 15 months in a federal penitentiary, after gadding about with anti-Semitic Russian nationalists and Italian neofascists. He is now living in the Florida parishes of Louisiana peddling hate on the Internet. Duke still scored one of those classic victories-in-defeat that punctuate American electoral history. He shifted the agenda. Before his eruption into Louisiana politics, the debate was over fiscal reform; after he arrived it was all about race. He changed the national agenda too. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton made sure that he attacked David Duke at the same time he was pledging to end welfare as we knew it.

Things could have been a lot worse. That they weren’t has a lot to do with Anne Levy’s inability to forget and her unwillingness to let us forget. Her testifying speaks to the place of survivors in our national narrative. Of course, it is a truism that America reinvents itself every time a new immigrant group arrives on our shores, acculturates to current norms, and takes advantage of historical opportunities. Some newcomers change the national diet; others the music. Some alter our self-image by feeding back to us cinematic myths of who we never were. The contributions that Holocaust survivors have made to our national character are of a different order. They are moral, and they have accrued as Holocaust awareness has grown and spread, reminding us of the risks we run whenever some crisis tempts us to sacrifice free institutions.


Lawrence N. Powell is a professor of history at Tulane University and is writing a history of New Orleans.


Comments are closed for this post.