A white male president, Donald Trump, telling four members of Congress, all women of color, that they should “go back” where they came from, may be something new, but the sentiment isn’t. Stoking white racial resentment is one of the oldest plays in the American political playbook, and anti-racists have often fallen short in their efforts to counteract it. Democrats face that challenge now, and they risk falling into the trap of sidestepping Trump’s race-baiting out of fear that they’ll play into his hands. But downplaying racism isn’t how you handle someone like him.
Democrats should take on Trump — and his racist rhetoric — the same way anti-racism activists took on David Duke when he ran for Louisiana governor: head-on.
In the early 1990s, I worked for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, an organization founded for the purpose of defeating Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader, in his bids for the U.S. Senate and governor’s mansion. During those two campaigns, we learned that if you want to deflate a movement whose yeast is racism, you can’t do it with a raft of policy proposals, because racist movements don’t rise in the first place based on policy ideas. And if a racist’s political opponent avoids the subject of race and tries instead to appeal to voters with proposals on health coverage and tax reform, that normalizes the racist, whether it’s Duke, Trump or someone else, by treating them like any other candidate, and treating the election at hand as if it’s merely a debate between two legitimate, contrasting public policy visions.
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.
During the 1990 Louisiana Senate election, many thought Duke had no chance to win. Although he agitated explicitly for what he termed white rights and used coded racial language about the “rising welfare class,” late in the race, the national GOP had repudiated Duke’s candidacy. Polls showed Democratic incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston with a comfortable lead in that year’s open primary. Because Duke seemed to be no threat, the conventional wisdom at the time held that challenging Duke too clearly on his racist appeals would merely give him attention and let him control the narrative. Johnston ran a lackluster campaign as a result, focusing on his own record and experience more than Duke’s extremism. Even media outlets were reluctant to speak clearly about the way Duke was deliberately crafting his specific racial appeal. Fear of encouraging white backlash seemed to animate their thinking at the time.
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. As my boss at the Coalition, Lance Hill, put it, it was “a referendum on hate, and hate won,” in part because hate hadn’t been clearly and unambiguously confronted.
When Duke ran for governor in 1991, we focused on his racism and the threat it posed to the state and nation. One radio ad, which made its way into a TV spot later on, featured an interview in which a neo-Nazi said, “You know, Hitler started with seven men,” with Duke replying, “Don’t you think it can happen right now, if we put the right package together?” We took out full-page newspaper ads across the state calling on voters to stand up for tolerance and democracy. We got evangelical Christians to come out and condemn Duke, pointing out that his own claims of religiosity were phony and belied by his racial hatred. Republican President George H.W. Bush chimed in to disavow Duke, saying, “When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society.”
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. In 1990, white turnout had been roughly 70 percent vs. 64 percent for black voters in the primary. In the 1991 runoff, white turnout had risen to approximately 79 percent, and black turnout shot up to 78 percent.
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.
If beating Trump requires progressive base voters, independents-slash-undecideds and reasonable, moral Republicans reaching agreement on a policy platform that will drive them all to the polls for one specific Democrat, that will be quite a challenge. But crafting a message about the existential threat Trump poses to America’s core values can work. That’s what halted Duke-ism as a political force, and it’s the only path forward today.