Donald Trump has elevated the voices and influence of some truly frightening figures. Steve Bannon, the noted anti-Semite from Breitbart, will be the top adviser to the next president. Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the hate group Family Research Council who believes being LGBT is a “lifestyle choice,” was tapped as a senior adviser. And Reagan relic Ed Meese, who backed Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, is aiding in the transition.
But all of them look downright sane and centrist compared to David Duke, who endorsed Trump and described election night as “one of the most exciting nights of my life.” Duke tweeted, “Make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!”
His “people,” of course, are the “deplorables”— racists, xenophobes, homophobes, anti-Semites, misogynists — that Hillary Clinton warned the country about. Trump was slow to distance himself from the KKK when it endorsed him early on. Duke is a former grand wizard of the Klan who nearly won a U.S. Senate seat from Louisiana in 1990. I interviewed Duke for Penn State’s Daily Collegian shortly after that loss, in which he captured 60 percent of the white vote in the state and nearly 45 percent overall.
Watching Trump’s rallies this year, I was reminded of that interview with Duke in the late fall of 1990. He boasted to me of his own rallies, filled with rural white supporters angry over the perceived rise of “black militancy,” as he described it. Most of Duke’s office staff was comprised of college students and Duke told me his message played tremendously well on campuses.
“I’ve got standing-room-only crowds and standing ovations at almost every university,” Duke said. “Overall the campuses have been very supportive of my candidacy both in and outside of Louisiana.”
He ominously added, “I think I’ve begun a new civil rights movement across the country.”
Those words haunted me as Trump’s popularity grew and as videos of his own rallies emerged. Supporters chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans; some demeaned women and hurled homophobic epithets at anti-Trump protesters. There were outbreaks of violence at multiple stops that Trump himself encouraged and seemed to enjoy.
Could Duke have been onto something back in 1990? Has the country really not progressed since then?
The election of Barack Obama gave us hope that Duke’s America was a thing of the past. Now Obama’s eight years feel like a mirage.
To be sure, Trump found support from voters who were turned off by his racist rants but who have legitimate concerns about the future of the country. The alarming rate at which health care premiums are increasing under Obamacare; the failure to engage in Syria that led to a crippling refugee crisis across Europe; the flight of U.S. companies and factories to countries with cheap labor; a new digital economy that has left many rural workers behind.
But it’s hard to talk foreign policy and economics when the other side views you as second class. Thousands are protesting in the streets today not because Trump wants to defeat ISIS or bring back manufacturing jobs. They’re marching because they’ve been personally attacked and demonized. Immigrants, Mexicans, African Americans, LGBT people and so many others are understandably worried about what’s to come. House Speaker Paul Ryan says there won’t be a deportation force targeting immigrants, yet that’s exactly what Trump promised during the campaign. Trump himself now says marriage equality is “settled law,” yet vows to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn it.
In this difficult time, when the country remains divided and friends and family members are turning on each other as disagreements over politics turn into friendship-ending attacks fueled by hyperbolic social media posts, we must try to remember there is much good in America. I witnessed it in Orlando this summer in the immediate aftermath of the Pulse massacre. Thousands turned out to donate blood, raise money for victims’ families, attend vigils and embrace strangers in mourning. We stood together — gay, straight, young, old, Christian, Muslim, white, black, Democrat, Republican — in downtown Orlando, vowing to respond to the hatred with love.
Those memories feel at odds with the results of Election Night, when voters embraced a very different vision for our future.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at email@example.com.