Nearly thirty years ago in the fall of 1991 two friends and I traveled around the US and Canada on a three-month tour giving presentations at colleges, activist hubs and community centers on radical social and ecological politics. Two days before Halloween, we began the southern leg of our "Liberating the Ecology Movement" tour by driving overnight from Norman, Oklahoma down to New Orleans to speak at Loyola University. This also happened to be two weeks before a run-off election for governor which pitted a famously corrupt Democrat, Edwin Edwards, against former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon-turned-Republican David Duke.
Crossing into the state at about 1am or so, we were shocked to see Duke campaign signs along the roadside. Coming onto a highway ramp, we pulled over quickly and yanked one up. An enormous truck just behind us stayed close on our tail all the way to the city on the otherwise empty highway.
The next day we joined our local host at a meeting of a city-wide group called the Committee Against Black Genocide. Given the circumstances there was nothing remotely hyperbolic in the name. Everyone was nervous, agitated, and grim. Duke had already won a state senate race as a Republican in 1988 and had run for the US senate in 1990. He wasn’t ahead in the polls, but the governor’s office was still within reach. Organizing an effective campaign against Duke was a challenge because of the notorious venality of his opponent. Anti-Duke bumper stickers in urban areas around the state said “Vote the lizard not the wizard.”
Halloween in the French Quarter is both gothic and carnivalesque - elaborate costumes and lots of drinking in the streets. That year it had a macabre, Weimar feel as well, with lots of election-themed dress, including Klan hoods and robes meant, somehow, to mock the Republican candidate. The feelings of heavy anxiety with which we are now all too familiar were thick in the air that night.
David Duke lost that election, but quickly pivoted to challenge George H.W. Bush in the GOP primaries for president. National Republicans were increasingly agitated by Duke’s growing profile even though Bush, of course, had deployed Lee Atwater to run the racist Willie Horton ad that cinched the presidency for the in 1988. Laughably, Atwater, now Republican National Committee chair, said of Duke when he ran for president, “This man has a twenty-year history of participation in Ku Klux Klan and Nazi activities. There’s no place for that in the Republican Party. Not as long as I’m Chairman.”
If the Republican establishment saw Duke as beyond the far edge of its Southern Strategy, Pat Buchanan had a different view. “The way to deal with Duke,” said the veteran Nixon strategist and Reagan administration communications director, was “the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues; and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles.” Soon after, Buchanan took his own advice and jumped into the Republican primary race himself, taking the steam, and many supporters, out of Duke’s campaign.