This article is adapted from “A Silent Army,” the fourth episode of Slow Burn’s new season.
The Blind River Bar was located in swampland in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, about 40 miles outside Baton Rouge. One morning in the summer of 1990, 300 people headed there to eat and drink and cheer on David Duke during his campaign for the United States Senate.
Duke had staged a different kind of rally in Livingston Parish in 1975. Back then, the Klan leader had burned a 40-foot cross, shouted the N-word, and threatened Black Americans with violence. “Give us liberty,” he said, “and give them death.”
By 1990, Duke had learned to use softer language. But the politician and his followers were still focused on the same enemy. Public radio journalist Plater Robinson asked one attendee, who identified himself as an unemployed boiler repair man, what brought him out that day. “I was a small businessman at one time. And I got run out by minorities,” he said.
The people gathered at the Blind River Bar wanted to believe in David Duke, and they were tired of the media telling them that they should know better than to vote for an ex-Klansman. As the Senate candidate barnstormed across the state, a sort of Duke-mania began to take hold among white voters in Louisiana. When Duke addressed his clamoring fans, he made it clear that this wasn’t just a campaign. It was a cause.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I look around at this country. I love this country deeply. And I believe we’re losing it,” he told them. “And I know what we once were, and I want to make us great again, ladies and gentlemen. We gotta stand up for this country!”
Bess Carrick spent 1990 following Duke around. She was making a documentary about the politician and his movement, and after a while all the rallies she went to started to blend together.
“They had this blond woman with a blue dress who, you know, just absolutely was like the picture-perfect Aryan superwoman. And she sang the national anthem every time I went to a Duke rally,” she remembers. “And then he’d have some rabble-rousers that would come on stage. And this one fella would wind up the audience.”
Duke’s warmup act was a former Democratic congressman named John Rarick. Rarick had represented the Baton Rouge area in the U.S. House in the 1960s and ’70s. One Black legislator called him “the leading racist in Congress.”
Plater Robinson recorded Rarick’s speech at the Blind River Bar. “There’s only one candidate that says he believes the whole civil rights bill should be changed to just say it’s against the law for an American to discriminate against an American,” Rarick said, to a roaring response.
“God, what a miserable son of a bitch that guy was,” Bess Carrick says, recalling Rarick’s speeches. “Everybody was very happy and they would jump in front of the camera and wave and carry on and say, you know, Put me on TV. Put me on TV. Then once Rarick got ’em all wound up, the mood in the room would just absolutely become palpably tense and bitter and horrible.”
David Duke didn’t sound as angry as his followers were. He presented himself as a sorrowful patriot—a man who wanted to restore the United States to its former glories.
“I know why I’m here and I know why you’re here,” he told the crowd at one rally. “We know that America cannot prosper and be safe and sound for all of its citizens and offer hope for all of our young people until we have a system that rewards people who work and produce.”
People who work and produce—that was a not-so-coded reference to Duke’s white base. And then there were the people that allegedly didn’t work, and didn’t produce. Duke talked about them, too.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got to find a way to reduce the massive, illegitimate welfare birth rate, because I tell you people on welfare are having children faster than they can raise our taxes to pay for them all,” he said.
Before I started working on this season of Slow Burn, I wrote a book and made a podcast series about the origins of the “welfare queen” stereotype. When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976, he told an exaggerated story about a woman named Linda Taylor—an anecdote that depicted poor Black women as a drain on society. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veterans husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year,” Reagan said, inaccurately, of Taylor.
During his 1990 Senate campaign, Duke put his own spin on the “welfare queen” myth. The story he told was cruder than Reagan’s, and even more ludicrous. But the crowd reacted just the way Duke wanted it to.
The doctor said, he said, “Representative, I’ve got a bit of information for you that you might find interesting.” He said, “Right now I have a lady in my outer office who is on welfare. She’s in her 30s, she has three teenage daughters that were all born illegitimate. And this lady is pregnant now with an illegitimate child. And all three of her daughters are now also pregnant with an illegitimate child.” And he said, “You know what else?” And I said, “I can’t imagine what else.” He said, “The woman and all three of the daughters are all pregnant—by the same man.” [Crowd: “Oooooooh.”] I tell you. That guy’s jealous over there. [Laughs.]
Aid to Families With Dependent Children—the program commonly known as “welfare”—made up just 2 percent of Louisiana’s annual budget. The state’s monthly stipend for a family of three was one of the stingiest in the country—$190.
But for David Duke, the reality of welfare wasn’t important. What mattered was the message he sent by demonizing it.
The people at Duke’s rallies were primed to receive that message. At one campaign event, a woman screamed out: “We’re tired of those lazy bastards collecting checks.”
“I’ve been around, you know, racists and whack jobs,” Bess Carrick says. “But the problem with David Duke’s rallies was that he would create that virulent crowd mentality. And he had a real cultlike following. And they were transfixed with what he had to say. They would do whatever he told them to do.”
One time, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in New Orleans, Carrick’s cameraman started shooting B-roll of the crowd. She followed him down the center aisle.
And we see the faces of the Duke supporters. And I looked in their eyes. … It felt like they had been broken a long time ago.
And it hit me like a wave. And I felt extremely nauseous and sad at the same time. That broken people do search for these leaders that imbue them with a sense of rage and power that’s all a complete illusion. Like, if we did not have our own barriers up and our own awareness, we could feel the fishhooks of his propaganda, like hooking into part of our brains and just reeling us off to the side.
He is just very convincing, and everything he says, if you don’t examine it carefully, if you just eat it, eat it, eat it in. Swallow it. You’re going to buy it.
Listen to this full episode of Slow Burn below, or subscribe to Slow Burn on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus for your ad-free feed and bonus episodes, including this week’s: Topher Grace talks about what it was like to play David Duke in BlackKklansman.