David Duke Debating in an Empty Room at a Black University Is U.S. Politics in a Funhouse Mirror

Our grotesque election, reflected back at us.

Former leader of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke arrives at the Louisiana Secretary of State's office along with campaign coordinator Mike Lawrence to file to run as a Republican for United States Senate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 22, 2016.
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, left, along with campaign coordinator Mike Lawrence, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 22.

Bryn Stole/Reuters

NEW ORLEANS—On Wednesday, Hitler enthusiast and Donald Trump supporter David Duke, a former grand wizard of Ku Klux Klan, was onstage here for a debate at Dillard University, a historically black college. You will be hard-pressed to find a better encapsulation of America’s surreal politics in 2016 than the previous sentence. Running as a Republican, Duke was one of six candidates who qualified for a final debate in the race to replace David Vitter as Louisiana’s next U.S. senator.

Technically speaking, Duke was invited because he earned 5.1 percent support in a single poll commissioned by Raycom Media, which produced the debate. The poll had a 4 percent margin of error.

But everyone knew the real reason Duke was onstage. He is hate porn, and his mere presence ensures a spectacle. He’s bad for America and good for ratings. This, too, is American politics in 2016. Even C-SPAN aired the debate.

“I’m not opposed to all Jews,” Duke said at one point, after a moderator asked why he’d referred to reporters covering Trump as “CNN Jews.” He said he opposed a secret “cabal” controlling the media and banks. “I’m against Jews, or anybody else, that puts the interest of some other place, another country over our own country,” he continued, referring to Israel, “that is controlling and dominating the media, which is teaching black people and inspiring black people to hate white people.”

Duke accused Black Lives Matter protesters of murdering police officers. He claimed millions of illegal immigrants were getting welfare and Social Security. He called himself Trump’s “most loyal advocate.” When he wasn’t advocating that Hillary Clinton be executed by electric chair, he was trafficking in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and when he was doing neither, he was beefing to the moderator and throwing a tantrum. “Are you going to silence me?” Duke screamed at one point until the moderator allowed him to speak.

Most surreal of all was that he did all this in a mostly empty auditorium. Raycom had banned all students and media from attending, perhaps because Duke had suggested to media outlets beforehand that Dillard’s student body was a danger to him. The narrow entrance to the debate had been barricaded, and when students tried to push through the doors of their own auditorium, university police pepper-sprayed the crowd. People kept trying to enter to no avail.

So the protest unfolded outside—about 150 protesters in all, many of them Dillard students, chanting “No KKK, no fascist USA.” The sun had gone down, and most of the light came from the flashing lights of parked police cars.

Some students were furious at Dillard’s president, Walter Kimbrough, shouting that he was an “Uncle Tom” for allowing the debate to happen at all. The university had agreed to host before Duke was invited, and apparently by then it was too late to pull out. Dillard was bound by contract to host. “We weren’t able to change the location of the event,” Jazmin Clemons, a Dillard sophomore, told Slate. “Most of the student body decided to stand by [the university president] to let it be held.”

Kimbrough told the Baton Rouge Advocate he thought the polling had been rigged. “Former klansman at historically black college. That’s the headline,” he said. “And it’s not fair to Dillard.”

As a political matter, Duke is no threat to win anything. In truth he is a habitual loser. He won a single special election in 1989 for the state House of Representatives. But in 1975 and 1979, he ran for the Louisiana legislature and lost. He ran for president in 1980, 1988, and 1992 and was never even a blip. He ran for Congress in 1990, 1996, and 1999 and lost. In 1991, at the height of his political power, he ran for Louisiana governor and was crushed by a 22 percent margin—but he still received 39 percent of the vote.

This year, he will lose again. He has no real support. During the primary season, Trump pointedly refused to disavow Duke’s endorsement, but on Thursday Trump’s son Eric Trump told a Denver radio host that “a guy like David Duke is disgusting” and that Duke “deserves a bullet.” Duke is too toxic even for America’s most toxic national politician.

During the debate, Duke celebrated the fact that he was being protested outside. “They don’t even know the names of these other guys and lady,” he said of his competitors. Surely this wasn’t true, but he was correct insofar as no protester was there for the other folks onstage. On Thursday night, not only did Duke win the thing he’s always known how to win—attention—but his presence in a formal political debate, rather than diminish him and his ideas, had succeeded in warping the whole scene around him. American politics, 2016: police preventing black students from entering their own building while a white supremacist held court in an empty room to an audience watching at home.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.