Commentary

Saddling Steve Scalise with David Duke’s baggage

October 11, 2023 5:50 am

In December 2022, a month after Republicans won the U.S. House, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, right, spoke to the media alongside recently ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy, at the time minority leader. Now Scalise and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio are competing to succeed McCarthy as speaker (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images).

Almost as soon as Kevin McCarthy lost his position as speaker of the U.S. House, attackers pivoted their artillery toward Majority Leader Steve Scalise, an obvious candidate to replace him. Scalise’s detractors loaded their cannon with the same ammunition fired at him nine years ago, when Scalise sought to become GOP whip, and it exploded like scattershot over social media once McCarthy gave up on retaking his post.

The attack trending on X/Twitter went something like this:

“Scalise describes himself as ‘David Duke without the baggage.’ He’s associated with Duke & attended a white-supremacist conference.”

And here’s my fact check on that narrative: It’s partly false, broadly misleading, and insofar as it’s supposed to make Scalise sound distinct from his Republican competition, entirely unfair.

Before justifying those conclusions, though, I offer a warning. Normally when I analyze politics, I do so objectively as a nonpartisan scientist with a moderate outlook. This time, my perspective is firsthand.

I covered student government at Louisiana State University when Scalise cut his teeth as a novice politician. I worked in the Louisiana statehouse during the rise of David Duke, a former Klan grand wizard once pictured protesting in a Nazi uniform. Duke registered Republican so he could win a suburban state House seat, then ran for U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor of Louisiana in 1991, both times winning among white voters but losing the election.

I covered Duke’s campaigns as a reporter, watched his legislative career as a Democratic aide, and analyzed his voting support as an academic.

So what’s wrong with the Twitter mob’s accusations?

Let’s start with Scalise’s “association” with Duke. Here’s the tangible connection: Duke campaign manager Kenneth Knight lived in Scalise’s neighborhood, and they were on friendly terms. That’s it. No record of Scalise and Duke meeting, sharing a stage, or being in the same organization. No record of Scalise praising Duke. When asked, Scalise condemned Duke’s bigotry.

By that standard of guilt, I may have more personal association with Duke than Scalise. At least one close friend and one distant family member held posts in Duke’s campaigns, and I once rode in a car with just Duke and his driver. (I had ambushed Duke in a parking lot to make sure he didn’t dodge a scheduled Q&A with USA Today, and he offered me a ride back to my car.)  Those indirect ties didn’t stop me from infuriating Duke’s inner circle, though. Struggling to capture the fascist overtones of Duke’s campaign launch, with the full-throated chant of “Duke, Duke, Duke” coming from a massive arena crowd, I fixed on the music playing when the candidate emerged on stage — pointing out that the composer, Richard Strauss, held a position under the Third Reich. It was, perhaps, an unfair dig: Americans know the tune as the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme.

What about Scalise’s alleged “appearance” at a racist conference organized by Knight, Duke’s campaign manager? The same guy treated as credible when describing their friendship suddenly becomes untrustworthy when denying this allegation. Knight, corroborated by his ex-girlfriend, says Scalise appeared at an unconnected neighborhood-association meeting earlier in the day.

Who’s considered more believable than the conference organizer on this question? An author for the Klan-affiliated Stormfront, writing under a pseudonym, whose piece called Scalise’s presentation part of the conference. Not even this disreputable character, though, managed to dredge much racialist content from the legislator’s policy talk.

Making the accusations “mostly true” gets weirdly convoluted:

“Scalise accepted a shady acquaintance’s invitation to speak briefly about domestic policy before a civic association in a hotel that he should have known would host a white-supremacist conference later that day.”

Lacks zing. But it’s the story reputable news outlets have reported.

Finally, what about the claim Scalise “describes” himself as like Duke? Using present tense is deceptive, because even if true, the story dates back to the mid-1990s.

The charge is that young Scalise described his platform as similar to Duke’s during a personal conversation with fellow LSU alum Stephanie Grace. Grace, a reporter, apparently neither recorded nor published the statement. Instead, she trotted it out many years later, “going from memory,” when Scalise rose in Congress.

I knew Stephanie, and don’t question her truthfulness. But the phrase is a distant recollection from a novice reporter, one horrified by Duke; it cannot validly be considered a Scalise quotation. We have no way to evaluate the words Scalise used, let alone what else he might have said to clarify them. It’s an accusation without evidence.

Of the attacks against Scalise, this one strikes me as most unfair. Having studied Duke and his supporters, I can tell you that what Duke was promising in the early 1990s differed little from what Republicans say today — and if Scalise stands out, it’s only because he’s from Duke’s turf and aware of the similarities.

David Duke was astonishingly good at parroting Reagan/Bush conservatives. (He did occasionally lift the hood, such as at a press conference when he shot back at a hostile reporter, “Are you Jewish?”) Duke drove both journalists and the establishment GOP bonkers because his campaign rhetoric sounded so normal. They struggled to make the case he should be repudiated, much as reporters flail today when trying to advertise Donald Trump’s flaws or Republicans stumble when facing oddball primary candidates.

The one thing Duke’s critics could throw at him was “the baggage,” his awful past. But it wasn’t working. One reason is, we didn’t have much to offer at first: a few lines on his proverbial resume. To document Duke’s outlandish racial ideology, I spent hours in a dusty library basement photocopying broadsheets from his National Association for the Advancement of White People. Eventually, the baggage caught up and Duke’s star fell. His entry in the 1992 Republican presidential nominating contest flopped, even in the Deep South.

The other reason attacks on Duke’s past failed, though, is voters wanted to hear about the present. Duke spoke for lower-status whites who lacked a voice. Until mainstream politicians figured out a way to represent that constituency, it would be open to demagogues with Nazi sympathies, Klan affiliations.

Eventually, the political system delivered by transforming the GOP. It started with Ross Perot’s Reform Party constituency, which Newt Gingrich helped Republicans capture. The Tea Party Movement accelerated the process, followed by Trump — who may embody Duke stripped of the racist claptrap. The post-Trump GOP now dominates among those alienated middle-class workers, while bleeding educated suburbanites.

The latest incarnation of Trump Era Republicanism is the congressional Freedom Caucus, some of whom helped pull down McCarthy. Ironically, the founding chair of that group was not Scalise, but his Trump-endorsed rival for speaker, Jim Jordan.

Given the current state of the GOP, exactly what sin did Scalise commit? It was having the wisdom to sense, and the foolishness to articulate in an unguarded interview, where his party was headed.

This commentary originally appeared in the Kentucky Lantern, a States Newsroom affiliate. 

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D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.

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