The following is an excerpt from “Wizards: David Duke, America’s Wildest Election, and the Rise of the Far Right” by Brian Fairbanks, published by Vanderbilt University Press.
The book follows the personal and political arcs of four-time Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and former KKK leader and white supremacist David Duke as they collided in the 1991 Louisiana governor’s race.
The book connects the dots between that campaign and the rise of the far right all the way through Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Fairbanks also gives due to Beth Rickey, a lifelong conservative Republican, who saw the threat that Duke’s racism brought to body politic and fought to stop him.
As Fairbanks notes: “The final tête-à-tête involving Duke and Edwards, held on November 17, 1991, would mark the end of ‘the New South’ and the birth of a darker yet more invigorated political era, one that ripples through our politics three decades later in ways both mysterious and deeply disturbing. “
Readers will, no doubt find many echoes and parallels to our current political landscape.
The Far Right didn’t come out of nowhere in the United States; in fact, it came from Louisiana.
The voters, “Yankees” and foreign observers who were surprised by the Proud Boys, Donald Trump, the Oath Keepers, and the “Stop the Steal” rally must have overlooked the Pelican State’s politics over the previous century and a right-wing uprising seeded there and throughout the South. Beginning a century ago, the glitz and glamor of the Roaring Twenties clashed with a widening income inequality, alternately inspiring and enraging middle class and poor folks, although those blocs initially surged toward a left-wing populism to even the score.
Louisiana governor and US senator Huey Long emerged from the crackling, volatile Great Depression a towering figure of unfathomable popularity despite exhibiting unprecedented delusions of grandeur, as befitting of the title of his self-penned theme song, “Every Man a King.” He once told writer James Thurber, “I’ve saved the lives of little children, I’ve sent men through college, I’ve lifted communities from the mud, I’ve cured insane people.”
Long, though, was more accurately the political equivalent of a raging drunk in a bar, held back by both arms, purplish and seething, growling that his target was lucky he couldn’t reach. Though 5′ 10″, his contemporaries described him as a “scrappy, portly little feller.” Long emerged as a litigant against the state’s domineering oil monopolies, kicking and screaming his way into the hearts of underdogs in every parish, including the “coloreds.”
In an era beset by sixteen senators, sixty congressmen, and eleven governors who were known Klansmen, Long broke new ground in the South by refusing to race bait, focusing instead on “the social and economic problems of the present,” as biographer T. Harry Williams suggested, including after the murder of two anti-Klan activists. The “Kingfish” threatened a Klan Imperial Wizard, saying he would go “toes up” if he “dared” visit Louisiana, and when asked about his plans for black people, Long said firmly that he would “treat them just the same as anybody else, give them an opportunity to make a living, and to get an education.”
Buoyed by his election to the US Senate while still in the Governor’s Mansion, Long immediately threatened to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency—a move backed by the nation’s most popular radio broadcaster — if FDR refused to enact socialist economic programs like wealth redistribution. Long likely planned to challenge President Roosevelt from a third-party platform and either split the left-wing vote or slip through the cracks to win in 1936. Instead, before he could run in earnest, he was felled at the state capitol by an assassin’s pistol. Eyewitnesses claimed his last words were, “Oh God, don’t let me die. I have so much left to do.” No Louisiana politician seriously threatened for the presidency again until the rise of David Duke.
The meteoric ascension of a Louisiana Democrat not named Long has similar parallels. From the first months of the 1970s to the early 1990s, when conservatives finally achieved power and squeezed out the last remnants of liberal welfare programs and civil rights initiatives, Edwin Washington Edwards, a sharecropper’s son born shortly before Long’s first victory, served as Kingfish under a similar moniker: “the Cajun Prince.” He had other nicknames, too, like Fast Eddie (he won $15,000 playing craps on a campaign-related trip to Monaco), the Silver Fox (his slicked-back graying hair caused screams when it was sighted emerging from a limo, even at age sixty-four), and the Crook, but the Cajun Prince stuck.
Like Huey Long, he embraced labels, for whether laudatory or derogatory, they were free publicity. A dry-witted, handsome card player but a teetotaler and a nonsmoker, Edwards built his awe-inspiring million-plus-voter following through what LSU professor Wayne Parent called “Made-For-TV Longism,” crushing sleepy opponents like Republican Dave Treen, of whom Edwards famously said, “It takes him an hour and a half to watch ‘60 Minutes.’” Like his contemporary Bill Clinton, Edwards’s magnetism and ability to connect one on one with voters helped him remain undefeated in sixteen consecutive elections, but being seemingly unbeatable didn’t render him impervious to self-inflicted wounds, and those wounds eventually doomed him.
In tandem with the decline of a progressive national Democratic party in the post-Roosevelt era, Louisiana moved further right. Divisive social issues festered to the point that, following a 1980s Supreme Court ruling allowing states to set restrictions on abortions, Louisiana made pregnancy termination illegal even in cases of rape or incest and set an astonishingly high sales tax rate, a consequence of conservative officials fearing any income tax increase would alienate their IRS-obsessed base.
Into Louisiana’s declining economy and social unrest plunged the youngest-ever Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. With his trademark crisp gray suit, megawatt smile, soft-spoken voice, and the political smarts to focus on campus and youth recruiting, David Duke oversaw a stunning revitalization of the KKK. Born after World War II and having embraced the Third Reich as a teenager, Duke headed a growing anti-government, separate-but-equal and anti-racial-tolerance protest movement; that it positioned itself firmly on the country’s pro-business, anti-communist wing gave the capitalist establishment something to work itself into a froth debating: do we accept a candidate who thinks like us but is politically toxic?
Duke made local headlines for blaming the state’s economic ills on welfare “giveaways” and rising crime rates on affirmative action initiatives. He built a personal brand of the Long variety, a demagogical organization through which he could actually sell political propaganda like yard signs, hats, or buttons emblazoned with his last name, contrary to his opponents, who often resorted to begging supporters to take swag gratis. And despite mockery in the press for being a supposed “also-ran yahoo,” Duke eventually tapped into a growing conservative movement that prized “aw shucks” personas and tough-love family values (Ronald Reagan) over substantive debate and progress (Michael Dukakis) or peacenik liberalism (Jimmy Carter). Moreover, Duke had a secret weapon. Unlike Edwin Edwards, a legendary but increasingly unwelcome figure in the political scene in the eighties, Duke’s support base was largely composed of enthusiastic voters. Rabidly enthusiastic voters.
Following the ballot count in his 1991 race, Duke’s message continued to spread to the point that it became clear he had been ahead of his time, not so much a product of it. Terrorist attacks, right-wing rhetoric, and the Klan’s popularity online in the nineties indicated, or led to, a radical realignment of the country’s two political parties. The white nationalist movement, behind the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings, also rose in power. It all pointed back to one campaign, one election, one candidate. While the runoff drew consecutive front-page stories in major newspapers, wizards there is another, even more compelling tale from 1991, one mostly kept out of the panic-stricken op-eds and self-congratulatory postmortems: little-known Republican Beth Rickey, through her relentless pursuit of the truth about Duke, almost single-handedly turned the tide in the 1991 gov- ernor’s race, the most controversial and widely watched local election in American history. Her story, never thoroughly investigated or reported in full, is a prime example of the adage “country over party” and a blueprint for antifascist efforts today.
The final tête-à-tête involving Duke and Edwards, held on November 17, 1991, would mark the end of “the New South” and the birth of a darker yet more invigorated political era, one that ripples through our politics three decades later in ways both mysterious and deeply disturbing. But for a month that autumn, while brilliant fall foliage lit up Kisatchie National Forest, crisp peppers, collards, and turnip greens lined grocery aisles, and football fever swept weekend campuses, two self-proclaimed “wizards” put their radical beliefs on hold and let activists on both sides create the fireworks. And then, having slain the most towering dragon of them all, Louisiana’s left-leaning coalition patted itself on the back, unaware the movement had won a battle, not the war. This was the unnoticed Lexington and Concord, the first firefights in the larger political struggle that led to Trumpism.
As Huey Long once said: “I used to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite ’em out of my path.”
Brian Fairbanks was Gawker’s first investigative reporter. Before that, he worked with historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley at the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Business Insider, and the New York Press, among others. He lives in New Orleans.
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