Politics

What Donald Trump Learned From David Duke’s Political Rise

Split image of David Duke on the left and Donald Trump on the right.
David Duke, Donald Trump, the 1990s. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images and Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images.

On Nov. 16, 1991, David Duke got trounced in his bid for the Louisiana governorship, losing to Edwin Edwards by 22 percentage points. And yet, the neo-Nazi and former Klan leader could frame his defeat as a kind of triumph. In losing the gubernatorial runoff, Duke won 55 percent of the white vote in Louisiana. That support proved that Duke’s white supremacist message had gained purchase with his target audience. It also helped fuel Duke’s belief that he would one day become the president of the United States.

Twenty-five years before his own successful run for the presidency, Donald Trump took notice of David Duke’s rise in Louisiana and his national aspirations. In an interview that aired three days after the Duke–Edwards runoff, Trump expressed less interest in the moral issues raised by Duke’s candidacy than in matters of electoral strategy: why a substantial number of voters were drawn to Duke, and how a politician would be smart to avoid alienating those voters.

That interview, which aired on CNN’s Larry King Live on Nov. 19, 1991, was surfaced last week by CNN’s Jake Tapper, who posted a 73-second clip on Instagram.

The excerpt begins with King asking Trump a simple question: “Did the David Duke thing bother you?”

Trump’s response: “I hate seeing what it represents, but I guess it just shows there’s a lot of hostility in this country.”

Trump’s tone here is hardly emphatic, and he pivots quickly to analysis, describing the rise of an “anger vote.” “People are angry about the jobs,” he says, referring to Louisiana’s economic woes. But Trump makes clear that this wasn’t simply a local issue—that “the East Coast, the middle coast, the West Coast” were also in “deep trouble.”

Duke got support, Trump implies, as a consequence of high unemployment and financial deprivation. He never mentions racism or anti-Semitism, either in describing Duke’s beliefs or the nature of his appeal.

King then brings up the 1992 presidential race, which Duke would soon enter in an attempt to unseat incumbent George H.W. Bush. Bush had forcefully opposed Duke, a fellow Republican, during the Louisiana governor’s race. “When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign,” the president said at a news conference on Nov. 6, 1991. Bush called Duke “an insincere charlatan,” and argued that “he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”

According to Donald Trump, Bush’s condemnation of Duke was a tactical error. “I think if he had it to do again, he might not have gotten involved in that campaign,” Trump told King, “because I think David Duke now, if he runs, takes away almost exclusively Bush votes.”

At this point, King pushes back: “But Bush morally had to come out against him.”

“I think Bush had to come out against him,” Trump agrees.

And then, seconds later, Trump gets back on the electoral track. “I think Bush—if David Duke runs, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes. Whether that be good or bad, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes.”

Trump’s comments, in aggregate, aren’t totally coherent, but there is one clear through line. When guided by King, Trump is willing to nod along and give the answers the host expects.

“I hate seeing what it represents.”

“I think Bush had to come out against him.”

But when left to his own devices, Trump’s mind always swerves back to the political game, one in which the right moves are totally divorced from principles.

“I think if [Bush] had it to do again, he might not have gotten involved in that campaign.”

“Whether that be good or bad, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes.”

Trump was wrong on that score: Duke didn’t get a lot of votes when he ran for president in 1992, or in any political race thereafter. But Duke’s political career, which I explored in Season 4 of the Slate podcast Slow Burn, has served as a template and an inspiration for the modern white nationalist movement. In February 2016, Duke told his followers that he hoped Trump was the candidate they’d been waiting for. “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage,” Duke said.

A few days after Duke offered Trump his support, the reality star–turned–candidate refused to denounce the Klansman. In an interview with CNN’s Tapper, Trump declared, “I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”

(Trump had given a different answer about Duke in a press conference two days before the Tapper interview, saying, in an annoyed tone, “I disavow, OK?”)

Although video of Trump’s 1991 remarks hadn’t made its way online before last week, a transcript of the King–Trump interview did emerge four years ago. Back then, the transcript was deployed as a gotcha by internet fact-checkers, a moment that revealed that Trump did in fact know who David Duke was.

But as the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted in 2017, the key takeaway from that Larry King interview isn’t that Trump was lying about his familiarity with Duke. It’s that, as far back as 1991, Trump “reveal[ed] his own understanding of the effectiveness of white-nationalist appeals to the GOP base.”

Toward the end of his exchange with King, Trump noted the presence of Pat Buchanan in the 1992 Republican nomination fight. Trump said that Buchanan “really has many of the same theories [as Duke], except it’s in a better package.” Buchanan didn’t win the 1992 nomination, but he peeled off a significant chunk of GOP voters, and won a speaking slot at the Republican Convention. Donald Trump was paying close attention. A quarter-century later, that attention paid off.

Here are Donald Trump’s full remarks about David Duke, from Larry King Live on Nov. 19, 1991:

Larry King: Did the David Duke thing bother you? Fifty-five percent of the whites in Louisiana voted for him.

Donald Trump: I hate—

King: Four hundred New Yorkers contributed.

Trump: I hate seeing what it represents, but I guess it just shows there’s a lot of hostility in this country. There’s a tremendous amount of hostility in the United States.

King: Anger?

Trump: It’s anger. I mean, that’s an anger vote. People are angry about what’s happened. People are angry about the jobs. If you look at Louisiana, they’re really in deep trouble. When you talk about the East Coast—it’s not the East Coast. It’s the East Coast, the middle coast, the West Coast …

King: If he runs and Pat Buchanan runs [for president in 1992], might you see a really divided vote?

Trump: Well, I think if they run, or even if David Duke—I mean, George Bush was very, very strong against David Duke. I think if he had it to do again, he might not have gotten involved in that campaign because I think David Duke now, if he runs, takes away almost exclusively Bush votes. And then a guy like Cuomo runs—I think Cuomo can win the election.

King: But Duke—but Bush morally had to come out against him.

Trump: I think Bush had to come out against him. I think Bush—if David Duke runs, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes. Whether that be good or bad, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes. Pat Buchanan—who really has many of the same theories, except it’s in a better package—Pat Buchanan is going to take a lot of votes away from George Bush. So if you have these two guys running, or even one of them running, I think George Bush could be in big trouble.

Listen to all of Slow Burn Season 4 by subscribing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can listen to Episode 1 below.