In the New Orleans suburb of nearly all-white Metairie, La., which sent Republican David Duke to the state legislature, the walls of the packed, smoke-filled American Legion Hall resonated on election eve with the chant, "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dat Duke? Who dat?" On election night, they found out. Their man Duke had lost again. Unlike his defeat in last year's U.S. Senate race and his second-place finish in the October gubernatorial primary, Duke went down hard this time.
But as he revealed yesterday in launching his entry into the GOP primaries against President Bush, David Duke hasn't been knocked out of the political ring. Granted, Edwin Edwards holds title to Louisiana's governorship -- thanks to a landslide victory made possible by a phenomenal black voter turnout. David Duke, however, can claim title to the voice of Louisiana's white majority, having won that distinction despite being accurately portrayed as an unmitigated racial bigot and antisemite by a powerful multiracial coalition of business, labor, civic groups and leaders of both political parties. Nearly 700,000 Louisianans saw that portrait and voted for him anyway. That helps explain why Duke is convinced his dressed-up white power message may play well elsewhere in America, especially in the GOP primaries where he hopes to avoid what he yesterday called the "very high percentage of black bloc votes," which helped break him at the polls in Louisiana.
It might be tempting to sit back and greet the coming Duke-Bush-Buchanan campaign as a Republican circus being staged for the benefit of Democrats who, Lord knows, need a good laugh. The Bush team, after all, is about to reap a whirlwind partially of its own making. But there is more to be considered about those who have gravitated to David Duke.
Yes, his Louisiana supporters may have been some of the economically discontented and politically alienated white southerners who were wooed by the Republicans during the past 25 years. Yes, they may have accepted the coded GOP messages that have played to their fears and resentments. Dukies -- as some like to call themselves -- may also have bought the economic nostrums of the Reagan and Bush years, trading their votes for economic gain and a much hoped-for harnessing of blacks.
The point is that none of this sets them apart from other working- and middle-class whites who moved in droves to vote for past Republican presidential tickets. Dukies are right in there with a host of other whites -- North and South -- who believe that the quality of their lives -- financial situation, job security, personal safety -- is no better today than when Bush took office, maybe even worse, and who are now frustrated, insecure, angry and ready to blame someone.
The Dukies I saw in Metairie and on election night in Baton Rouge (and who will probably materialize in other states too) hardly resembled the caricature that might be drawn of people who openly sympathize with a demagogic ex-klansman and neo-Nazi. The Metairie rally was full of enthusiastic white women and men in their twenties, thirties and forties, some of whom were decked out in Duke T-shirts and hats, and a few with children in tow pasted front and back with Duke stickers. At the Baton Rouge Hilton election night party, there were coiffured senior citizens and more suits and ties and cocktail dresses in evidence than there were jeans and cowboy boots. They also appeared to occupy most rungs of the economic ladder, though none seemed to come from the ranks of either the highly privileged or the down and out. If black Dukies were present, I never saw them.
His fans knew better than to behave as klansmen without sheets too. Up until the polls closed, the Duke crowds treated a tall note-taking African-American journalist from Washington as if he weren't there. True, when the early returns showed their candidate losing big time, a couple of Elvis look-alikes began to make eye contact and hold his stare. But the crowds, for the most part, studiously ignored the few blacks from the media who were wandering around in their midst. They kept their attention and emotions riveted on their candidate and against the devils he excoriated -- welfare, big government, taxes and affirmative action. Code words, maybe, but suitable surrogates for the people they really had in mind.
And despite their age and class differences, Dukies responded to the same stimulus. To find their spot, all Duke had to do was touch on "the welfare underclass," or criminals who rape, rob and steal, or crooked politicians who only want more government and taxes, or the liberal news media that try to tell them what to think, and the Dukies would go crazy. They also cheered when Duke told them -- with a straight face -- that he believed in equal rights for all, despite an adulthood filled with hatemongering.
Yesterday showed, however, that Duke hasn't strayed far from his moorings. "The Republican Party is the closest party to the American majority, and that's the only game in town," he said. Again, "we cannot let this country go ... to the party of Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown." Try this one on: "Our environment is being threatened by massive immigration and a massive increase in the demographic problems in America." Of American values and on religious freedom said Duke, "I certainly believe this is a Christian country... . I believe that Christianity is the underpinning of this country... . This country is overwhelmingly of European descent. It's overwhelmingly Christian. And if we lose its underpinning, I think we're going to lose the foundations of America." Little room for Judaism or any other religion in that world. Of his trade policy, he said he would say to the Japanese: "If you no buy our rice, we no buy your cars."
Before Duke spoke in Metairie, a local evangelist, the Rev. Jim Rangstad, asked the crowd to join in "giving praise to God for giving us David Duke." They did that enthusiastically too. And don't believe that business about the attraction being found only in his messages of division and protest. One young man repeatedly interrupted the Metairie rally with shouts of "We love you, David" to the crowd's obvious approval. Imagine that happening to Pat Buchanan!
The tragedy is that their lives, in reality, aren't necessarily bedeviled by the demons David Duke denounces. The nation's trade, fiscal and monetary policies aren't conceived in or managed out of the inner cities. The Dukies' resentments, fears and racial hostilities, however, are real. And that makes them no different from not only their southern neighbors but also other whites in this region who stand in bank lines, stroll through shopping malls, dance it up at charity balls and who even work in newsrooms. David Duke clearly thinks he knows what is bugging the rest of white America -- and where he should go to find more Dukies to serve his ends. And what are George Bush and his Republican Party going to do to stop "dat Duke"?
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.