Of all the many slimy things Donald Trump has done, his coddling of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ranks among the most vile and degenerate.
Desperate to win the 2016 Republican primary in South Carolina, where Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) was polling well among white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists, Trump engaged in a game of footsie with Duke. Trump hungered for alt-right voters in the Deep South even if it meant kissing up to the Klan. When pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper three times to refuse Duke’s support, Trump balked. His excuse, issued days later, was that his earpiece wasn’t working properly. Duke told his radio audience that to vote for one of Trump’s rivals was akin to “treason to your heritage.” Given this alliance, it’s understandable why Duke praised Trump on Twitter for championing the alt-right movement in the wake of the Charlottesville protests.
Trump’s tacit alliance with Duke made me yearn for the bravery of Jimmy Carter after he won the governorship in Georgia. At his inaugural address on Jan. 12, 1971, he boldly declared: “The time of racial segregation is over.” Many in the crowd gasped in disbelief. Carter also ordered that a portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. be hung in the Georgia State Capitol. These courageous acts encouraged Time magazine to put Carter’s portrait on the cover under the banner of “Dixie Whistles a Different Tune.” Carter had national ambitions and didn’t want to be contaminated by the bigotry of his predecessor, arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. But what made the “New South” moment of Carter’s inauguration so extraordinary was that Maddox was standing right behind him on the inaugural stand. Maddox had just become lieutenant governor, and the contrast could hardly have been more stark.
A lover of white-supremacist groups, Maddox was nationally infamous for his deeply racist views. On the day after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, he used a gun and a club to intimidate three African American Georgia Tech students who were trying to enter his fried-chicken restaurant. Overnight, Maddox became a folk hero to a smorgasbord of bigots. With the Confederate battle flag as his symbol, Maddox was elected governor in 1966. When King was assassinated two years later, Maddox refused to allow the Georgia state flag to be flown at half-staff.
During the 1990s, I revisited the Carter-Maddox feud when researching a biography of Carter, our 39th president. One lazy afternoon in Plains, I talked with Carter about his historic inaugural. He told me that not long afterward he met with Maddox and dressed him down, warning him not to oppose desegregation initiatives. A few weeks later, I interviewed Maddox at his ranch-style home in Marietta.
According to Maddox, Carter had asked to see him three days after the inaugural. As he entered the governor’s office, Maddox openhandedly vowed to help Carter implement state policies. After all, both men were Democrats and could find common ground on many issues. But Carter glowered at him. An anguished Maddox told me that Carter tore him to pieces. “He stood right in my face, with his finger in it and said, ‘Lieutenant Governor Maddox, I didn’t call you into my office to find out when and how you were going to support me. I called you to tell you one thing. If you ever oppose me on one issue, I am going to meet you head-on and fight you with the full command and resources of this office.”
I asked Maddox whether he was shocked by Carter’s rebuff. “My daddy whipped me and things like that but he never talked to me that mean, that vicious,” Maddox complained. “If I even opposed him on one issue, I went with him 99 times and missed him one, he was going to crush me.” Maddox became instantly afraid of Carter and stayed alienated from him until his death in 2003.
By slapping Maddox down, Carter demonstrated how a true leader deals with hatemongers: crush them and render them powerless. That takes strength, something Trump doesn’t have. Carter didn’t kowtow to racists and he wouldn’t play dog-whistle games for their support. If Trump had an iota of Carter’s moral rectitude and personal strength, America wouldn’t be gasping today, whistling unhappily a very old tune.