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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Trump and the “Campaign From Hell”

I love political history, so I felt constrained to comment at New York on an effort to draw a lesson from a famous campaign from the past in dealing with Donald Trump:

One of the raging debates among Democrats and progressives going into the 2020 elections is whether the president’s white-nationalist tendencies should be central to the campaign to oust him or whether, instead, (a) the focus should be on his corruption and the broken promises to his voters, or (b) his opponent should largely ignore him and emphasize her or his own policy proposals. The discussion over this question is heavily influenced by fears that white working-class voters are amenable to Donald Trump’s racial appeals and are better persuaded by appeals on other issues.

But when Trump is so blatant in his racism, as he has been since his July 14 hate tweets against four nonwhite members of Congress, it feels morally as well as politically feeble to try to take race off the table for 2020. Now comes a voice speaking from the experience of a fight against a far more notorious racist demagogue — Louisiana’s David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Anti-racism activist Tim Wise, a veteran of two anti-Duke campaigns (a Senate race in 1990 and the famous gubernatorial “Race From Hell” in 1991), argues in a Washington Post op-ed that you have to call out racism vocally and relentlessly:

“To win an election where the issue of race is front-and-center, anti-racists must make it clear to voters that when they cast their ballots, they are making a moral choice about the kind of people they want to be and the kind of nation in which they want to live.”

In opposing Duke’s 1990 challenge to Democratic senator Bennett Johnston, Wise remembers, he and his colleagues in an anti-racist organization were advised not to play Duke’s racial game:

“Our organization, which worked independently of Johnston’s campaign, saw Duke’s racism as the issue. But we had consultants telling us similarly not to focus on it too much: Point out his Klan past and affiliations with white supremacist groups, we were told, but don’t try to underscore or challenge his contemporary racial messaging. That would ‘play into his hands,’ they said. They encouraged us, instead, to talk about reports of his delinquent taxes and avoiding military service.

“So we played that game, and the results weren’t pretty. We ran an expensive TV ad in which we mixed the messages, mentioning Duke’s white supremacist ties alongside his tax history and failure to serve in Vietnam, as if those issues were of equal importance. Highly stylized, the ad seemed crafted more to win awards than to drive voters. The result? Duke got 44 percent of the vote, with about 60 percent of the white vote. He lost, but Duke-ism had proved itself potent.”

A year later, Duke ran for governor, and, to the horror of the nation, he led incumbent Republican governor Buddy Roemer in Louisiana’s nonpartisan “jungle primary” to win a runoff post against the ethically tarnished Democratic warhorse Edwin Edwards. At that point, says Wise, those counseling a nonconfrontational approach to Duke were ignored:

“Unlike 1990, the message in 1991 was all about the fundamental danger posed by hate to Louisiana and America. Even the message that businesses and tourists would boycott the state if Duke won was ultimately rooted in a moral imperative. After all, it was his extremism that would drive companies and tourists away, and rightly so. Our bumper stickers that read, ‘Vote for the crook, it’s important,’ operated on the premise that whatever one might think of Duke’s opponent, then-former Democratic governor Edwin Edwards and his ethically challenged past, Duke’s racism was worse.

“In that election, hope won, not hate, even though Duke still won the white vote in the eventual, decisive runoff. He got more total votes in 1991 than in 1990, but his share fell to 39 percent overall and about 55 percent among whites, in part because racially progressive whites showed up in larger numbers, inspired by the moral message. And black turnout surged.”

And so, argues Wise, the same strategy represents the best and perhaps the only way to take on Donald Trump:

“The lesson now for Democrats is that they must make this election about the threat of Trumpism, which is racist at its core. That doesn’t mean that policy ideas aren’t important, but first and foremost, it’s about making it clear to voters what the stakes are. No issue — climate, jobs, health coverage — overrides the importance of getting a bigot with authoritarian tendencies out of office. Focusing on look-how-much-I’ve-thought-about-this-stuff might make for good primary-debate theater, but it’s not going to move the needle in 2020.”

Personally, it strikes me as probable that this full-frontal attack on Trump’s racism is necessary but not sufficient to the project of ejecting him from the White House. Wise is right that ignoring Trump’s white-nationalist appeals normalizes his behavior and makes it acceptable as conventional politics when it needs to be made shameful in respectable society. David Duke famously made himself and his modern Klan the relatively respectable face of white racism — the “man in the gray flannel hood.” He campaigned on anti-big-government, welfare-reform, and crime-control dog whistles, and opponents who accepted the legitimacy of these appeals played his game.

But a 1991 gubernatorial campaign is hardly a template for a 2020 presidential election. Trump is president of the United States and the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party, not a state legislator who has been repudiated by most of his party’s elected officials (including, as Wise notes, then-President George H.W. Bush). The business community that largely united to repudiate Duke as deadly to Louisiana’s economy has more or less made its peace with Trump, particularly given his business-friendly mix of anti-regulation and anti-tax initiatives laced with goose-the-gas fiscal and monetary policies. And as shocking as Trump’s history of race-baiting is, it hardly holds a candle to Duke’s.

As veteran Louisiana journalist John Maginnis explains in his brilliant account of the “Race From Hell” (in his book Cross to Bear), Duke might have won had the Klan been the only skeleton in his closet. What seems to have turned the contest around was the circulation of images of Duke wearing Nazi garb to protest a Jewish leftist speaker at an event at LSU. In a televised debate near the end of the campaign, Edwards jolted the audience when he responded to a standard Duke rap on welfare reform by saying, “David, I was working on welfare reform back when you were still goose-stepping around Baton Rouge.” At a time when many World War II veterans were still alive and voting, Duke’s identification with this particular brand of racism was disastrous to him.

The moral of the story is that racism must be called out, particularly by the party that depends so heavily on nonwhite voter support and professes a commitment to equality and justice. But Trump isn’t going to make it easy by goose-stepping. It will take other appeals on the economy, on health care, on climate change, on this administration’s corruption, and, yes, on the policy thinking of the Democratic nominee, to make the values and interests of a majority of the electorate converge.

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