David Duke was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to David Duke Sr. and Alice Maxine Crick. As the son of an engineer for Shell Oil Company, Duke frequently moved with his family around the world. They lived a short time in the Netherlands before settling in Louisiana. In the late 1960s, Duke met William Luther Pierce, the leader of the white nationalist and antisemitic National Alliance, who would remain a lifelong influence on him. Duke joined the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1967.
In 1968, Duke enrolled at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, and in 1970, he formed a white student group called the White Youth Alliance that was affiliated with the National Socialist White People's Party. The same year, to protest William Kunstler's appearance at Tulane University in New Orleans, Duke appeared at a demonstration in Nazi uniform. Picketing and holding parties on the anniversary of Hitler's birth, he became notorious on the LSU campus for wearing a Nazi uniform.
Duke says that he spent nine months in Laos, calling it a "normal tour of duty." He actually went to Laos in order to join his father, who was working there and had asked him to visit during the summer of 1971. His father helped him gain a job teaching English to Laotian military officers, from which he was dismissed after six weeks when he drew a Molotov cocktail on the blackboard. He also claimed to have gone behind enemy lines 20 times at night to drop rice to anti-communist insurgents in planes flying 10 feet (3.0 m) off the ground, narrowly avoiding receiving a shrapnel wound. Two Air America pilots who were in Laos at that time said that the planes only flew during the day and that they also flew no less than 500 feet (150 m) feet from the ground. One pilot suggested that it might have been possible for Duke to have gone on a safe "milk run" once or twice but no more than that. Duke was also unable to recall the name of the airfield that he had used.
Duke graduated from LSU in 1974. Shortly after graduation, Duke founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK).
1972 arrest in New Orleans
In January 1972, Duke was arrested in New Orleans for "inciting a riot." Several racial confrontations broke out that month in the Crescent City, including one at the Robert E. Lee Monument involving Duke, Addison Roswell Thompson—a perennial segregationist candidate for governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans—and his 89-year-old friend and mentor, Rene LaCoste (not to be confused with the French tennis player René Lacoste). Thompson and LaCoste dressed in Klan robes for the occasion and placed a Confederate flag at the monument. The Black Panthers began throwing bricks at the pair, but police arrived in time to prevent serious injury.
Duke first ran for the Louisiana Senate as a Democrat from a Baton Rouge district in 1975. During his campaign, he was allowed to speak on the college campuses of Vanderbilt University, Indiana University, the University of Southern California, Stanford University, and Tulane University. He received 11,079 votes, one-third of those cast.
In October 1979, he ran as a Democrat for the 10th District Senate seat and finished second in a three-candidate race with 9,897 votes (26 percent).
In the late 1970s, Duke was accused by several Klan officials of stealing the organization's money. "Duke is nothing but a con artist," Jack Gregory, Duke's Florida state leader, told the Clearwater Sun after Duke allegedly refused to turn over proceeds from a series of 1979 Klan rallies to the Knights. Another Klan official under Duke, Jerry Dutton, told reporters that Duke had used Klan funds to purchase and refurbish his home in Metairie. Duke later justified the repairs by saying most of his home was used by the Klan.
In 1979, after his first, abortive run for president (as a Democrat) and a series of highly publicized violent Klan incidents, Duke quietly incorporated the nonprofit National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) in an attempt to leave the baggage of the Klan behind.
Duke allegedly conducted a direct-mail appeal in 1987, using the identity and mailing-list of the Georgia Forsyth County Defense League without permission. League officials described it as a fundraising scam.
1988 presidential campaign
Main article: Democratic Party presidential primaries, 1988
In 1988, Duke ran initially in the Democratic presidential primaries. His campaign failed to make much of an impact, with the one notable exception—winning the little-known New Hampshire Vice-Presidential primary. Duke, having failed to gain much traction as a Democrat, then successfully sought the Presidential nomination of the Populist Party. He appeared on the ballot for president in 11 states and was a write-in candidate in some other states, some with Trenton Stokes of Arkansas for vice president, and on other state ballots with Floyd Parker for vice president. He received just 47,047 votes, for 0.04 percent of the combined, national popular vote.
1989: Successful run in special election for Louisiana House seat
In December 1988, Duke changed his political affiliation from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
In 1988, Republican State Representative Charles Cusimano of Metairie resigned his District 81 seat to become a 24th Judicial District Court judge, and a special election was called early in 1989 to select a successor. Duke entered the race to succeed Cusimano and faced several opponents, including fellow Republicans John Spier Treen, a brother of former Governor David C. Treen; Delton Charles, a school board member; and Roger F. Villere, Jr., who operates Villere's Florist in Metairie. Duke finished first in the primary with 3,995 votes (33.1%). As no one received a majority of the vote in the first round, a runoff election was required between Duke and Treen, who polled 2,277 votes (18.9%) in the first round of balloting. John Treen's candidacy was endorsed by U.S. President George H. W. Bush, former President Ronald Reagan, and other notable Republicans, as well as Democrats Victor Bussie (president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO) and Edward J. Steimel (president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and former director of the "good government" think tank, the Public Affairs Research Council). Duke, however, hammered Treen on a statement the latter had made indicating a willingness to entertain higher property taxes, anathema in that suburban district. Duke, with 8,459 votes (50.7%) defeated Treen, who polled 8,232 votes (49.3%). He served in the House from 1989 until 1992.
Freshman legislator Odon Bacqué of Lafayette, a No Party member of the House, stood alone in 1989 when he attempted to deny seating to Duke on the grounds that the incoming representative had resided outside his district at the time of his election. When John Treen failed in a court challenge in regard to Duke's residency, Duke was seated. Lawmakers who opposed Duke said that they had to defer to his constituents, who narrowly chose Duke as representative.
Duke took his seat on the same day as Jerry Luke LeBlanc of Lafayette Parish, who won another special election held on the same day as the Duke-Treen runoff to choose a successor to Kathleen Blanco, the future governor who was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission. Duke and LeBlanc were sworn in separately.
Colleague Ron Gomez of Lafayette stated that Duke, as a short-term legislator, was "so single minded, he never really became involved in the nuts and bolts of House rules and parliamentary procedure. It was just that shortcoming that led to the demise of most of his attempts at lawmaking."
One legislative issue pushed by Duke was the requirement that welfare recipients be tested for the use of narcotics. The recipients had to show themselves to be drug-free to receive state and federal benefits under his proposal.
Gomez, a longtime journalist, recalls having met and interviewed Duke in the mid 1970s when Duke was a state senate candidate: "He was still in his mid-20s and very non-descript. Tall and slimly built, he had a very prominent nose, flat cheek bones, a slightly receding chin and straight dark brown hair. The interview turned out to be quite innocuous, and I hadn't thought about it again until Duke came to my legislative desk, and we shook hands. Who was this guy? Tall and well-built with a perfect nose, a model's cheek bones, prominent chin, blue eyes and freshly coiffed blond hair, he looked like a movie star. He obviously didn't remember from the radio encounter, and I was content to leave it at that."
Consistent with Gomez's observation, Duke in the latter 1980s reportedly had his nose thinned and chin augmented. Following his election to the Louisiana House of Representatives, he shaved his mustache.
Gomez, in his 2000 autobiography, wrote about Duke: "He once presented a bill on the floor, one of the few which he had managed to get out of committee. He finished his opening presentation and strolled with great self-satisfaction back up the aisle to his seat. In his mind, he had spoken, made his presentation and that was that. Before he had even reached his desk and re-focused on the proceedings, another first-term member had been recognized for the floor and immediately moved to table the bill. The House voted for the motions effectively killing the bill. That and similar procedures were used against him many times." Gomez said that he recalls Duke obtaining the passage of only a single bill, legislation which prohibited movie producers or book publishers from compensating jurors for accounts of their court experiences.
Gomez added that Duke's "tenure in the House was short and uninspired. Never has anyone parlayed an election by such a narrow margin to such a minor position to such international prominence. He has run for numerous other positions without success but has always had some effect, usually negative, on the outcome."
Gomez continued: Duke's "new message was that he had left the Klan, shed the Nazi uniform he had proudly worn in many previous appearances, and only wanted to serve the people. He eliminated his high-octane anti-Semitic rhetoric. He was particularly concerned with the plight of 'European-Americans.' He never blatantly spoke of race as a factor but referred to the 'growing underclass.' He used the tried and true demagoguery of class envy to sell his message: excessive taxpayers' money spent on welfare, school busing practices, affirmative action... and set-aside programs. He also embraced a subject near and dear to every Jefferson Parish voter, protection of the homestead exemption."
Duke launched unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991. Villere did not again seek office but instead concentrated his political activity within the Republican organization.
1990 campaign for U.S. Senate
Main article: United States Senate election in Louisiana, 1990
Duke has often criticized federal policies that he believes discriminate against white people in favor of racial minorities. To that end he formed the controversial group the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a play on the African American civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Though Duke had first hesitated about entering the Senate race, he made his announcement of candidacy for the nonpartisan blanket primary held on October 6, 1990. Duke was the only Republican in competition against three Democrats, including incumbent U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., of Shreveport, whom Duke derided as "J. Benedict Johnston".
Former Governor David Treen, whose brother, John Treen, Duke had defeated for state representative in 1989, called Duke's senatorial platform "garbage. ... I think he is bad for our party because of his espousal of Nazism and racial superiority."
The Republican Party officially endorsed state Senator Ben Bagert of New Orleans in a state convention on January 13, 1990, but national GOP officials in October, just days before the primary election, concluded that Bagert could not win. To avoid a runoff between Duke and Bagert, the GOP decided to surrender the primary to Johnston. Funding for Bagert's campaign was halted, and after initial protest, Bagert dropped out two days before the election. With such a late withdrawal, Bagert's name remained on the ballot, but his votes, most of which were presumably cast as absentee ballots, were not counted. Duke received 43.51 percent (607,391 votes) of the primary vote to Johnston's 53.93 percent (752,902 votes).
Duke's views prompted some of his critics, including Republicans such as journalist Quin Hillyer, to form the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, which directed media attention to Duke's statements of hostility to blacks and Jews.
In a 2006 Financial Times editorial, Gideon Rachman recalled interviewing Duke's 1990 campaign manager, who said, "The Jews just aren't a big issue in Louisiana. We keep telling David, stick to attacking the blacks. There's no point in going after the Jews, you just piss them off and nobody here cares about them anyway."
1991 campaign for Governor of Louisiana
Main article: Louisiana gubernatorial election, 1991
Despite repudiation by the Republican Party, Duke ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991. In the primary, Duke finished second to former governor Edwin W. Edwards in votes; thus, he faced Edwards in a runoff. In the initial round, Duke received 32 percent of the vote. Incumbent Governor Buddy Roemer, who had switched from the Democratic to Republican parties during his term, came in third with 27 percent of the vote. Duke effectively killed Roemer's bid for re-election. While Duke had a sizable core constituency of devoted supporters, many voted for him as a "protest vote" to register dissatisfaction with Louisiana's establishment politicians. During the campaign, Duke said he was the spokesman for the "white majority" and, according to The New York Times, "equated the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany with affirmative action programs in the United States."
The Christian Coalition of America, which exerted considerable impact on the Republican State Central Committee, was led in Louisiana by its national director and vice president, Billy McCormack, then the pastor of University Worship Center in Shreveport. The coalition was accused of having failed to investigate Duke in the early part of his political resurgence. By the time of the 1991 gubernatorial election, however, its leadership had withdrawn support from Duke. Despite Duke's status as the only Republican in the runoff, sitting Republican President George H.W. Bush opposed his candidacy and denounced him as charlatan and a racist. White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu stated that "The President is absolutely opposed to the kind of racist statements that have come out of David Duke now and in the past."
The Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism rallied against the election of Duke as governor. Beth Rickey, a moderate member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee and a PhD student at Tulane University, began to follow Duke to record his speeches and expose what she saw as instances of racist and neo-Nazi remarks. For a time, Duke took Rickey to lunch, introduced her to his daughters, telephoned her late at night, and tried to convince her of his worldview: the Holocaust was a myth, notorious Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele was a medical genius, and that blacks and Jews were responsible for various social ills. Rickey released transcripts of their conversations to the press and also provided evidence establishing that Duke sold Nazi literature (including Mein Kampf) from his legislative office and attended neo-Nazi political gatherings while he held elective office.
Between the primary and the runoff, called the "general election" under Louisiana election rules (in which all candidates run on one ballot, regardless of party), white supremacist organizations from around the country contributed to Duke's campaign fund.
Duke's rise garnered national media attention. While he gained the backing of the quixotic former Alexandria Mayor John K. Snyder, Duke won few serious endorsements in Louisiana. Celebrities and organizations donated thousands of dollars to former Governor Edwin Edwards' campaign. Referencing Edwards' long-standing problem with accusations of corruption, popular bumper stickers read: "Vote for the Crook. It's Important", and "Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard." When a reporter asked Edwards what he needed to do to triumph over Duke, Edwards replied with a smile: "Stay alive."
The runoff debate, held on November 6, 1991, received significant attention when journalist Norman Robinson questioned Duke. Robinson, who is African-American, told Duke that he was "scared" at the prospect of Duke winning the election because of his history of "diabolical, evil, vile" racist and antisemitic comments, some of which he read to Duke. He then pressed Duke for an apology and when Duke protested that Robinson was not being fair to him, Robinson replied that he didn't think Duke was being honest. Jason Berry of the Los Angeles Times called it "startling TV" and the "catalyst" for the "overwhelming" turnout of black voters who helped Edwards defeat Duke.
Edwards received 1,057,031 votes (61.2%), while Duke's 671,009 votes represented 38.8% of the total. Duke nevertheless claimed victory, saying, "I won my constituency. I won 55% of the white vote," a statistic confirmed by exit polls.
1992 Republican Party presidential candidate
Main article: Republican Party presidential primaries, 1992
Duke ran as a Republican in the 1992 presidential primaries, although Republican Party officials tried to block his participation. He received 119,115 (0.94%) votes in the primaries, but no delegates to the national convention. His presidential campaign inspired a song, "David Duke Is Running For President," by ska punk band Skankin' Pickle.
A 1992 film, Backlash: Race and the American Dream, investigated Duke's appeal among some white voters. Backlash explored the demagogic issues of Duke's platform, examining his use of black crime, welfare, affirmative action and white supremacy and tied Duke to a legacy of other white backlash politicians, such as Lester G. Maddox and George C. Wallace, Jr., and the use in the successful 1988 presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush of these same racially themed hot buttons.
1996 campaign for U.S. Senate
Main article: United States Senate election in Louisiana, 1996
When Johnston announced his retirement in 1996, Duke ran again for the U.S. Senate. He polled 141,489 votes (11.5%). Former Republican state representative Woody Jenkins of Baton Rouge and Democrat Mary Landrieu of New Orleans, the former state treasurer, went into the general election contest. Duke was fourth in the nine-person, jungle primary race.
1999 campaign for U.S. House
A special election was held in Louisiana's First Congressional District following the sudden resignation of powerful Republican incumbent Bob Livingston in 1999. Duke sought the seat as a Republican and received 19% of the vote. He finished a close third, thus failing to make the runoff. His candidacy was repudiated by the Republicans. Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson remarked: "There is no room in the party of Lincoln for a Klansman like David Duke." Republican state representative David Vitter (now a U.S. Senator) went on to defeat former governor Treen. Also in the race was the New Orleans Republican leader Rob Couhig.
Later political activity
Duke joined the Reform Party in 1999 while working for Pat Buchanan's 2000 presidential campaign. Duke and Buchanan would both leave the party after the election.
In 2004, Duke's bodyguard, roommate, and longtime associate Roy Armstrong made a bid for the United States House of Representatives, running as a Democrat, to serve Louisiana's First Congressional District. In the open primary, Armstrong finished second in the six candidate field with 6.69% of the vote, but Republican Bobby Jindal received 78.40%, thus winning the seat. Duke was the head advisor of Armstrong's campaign.
Duke claimed that thousands of Tea Party movement activists had urged him to run for president in the 2012, and that he was seriously considering entering the Republican Party primaries. However, Duke ultimately did not contest the primaries won by Mitt Romney, who lost in the presidential election to incumbent Barack Obama.
In 2015, it was reported in the media that Duke endorsed 2016 presidential nominee Donald Trump for president. Duke responded on his personal website, saying he had not actually endorsed Trump. He later clarified that while he viewed Trump as "the best of the lot", due to his stance on immigration, Trump's support for Israel was a dealbreaker for him. Duke claimed that "Trump has made it very clear that he's 1,000 percent dedicated to Israel, so how much is left over for America?" In December 2015, Duke said Donald Trump speaks more radically than he does, advising that Trump's radical speech is both a positive and a negative. In February 2016, Duke urged his listeners to vote Trump saying that voting for anyone besides Donald Trump “is really treason to your heritage.” In 2016, someone claiming to be David Duke filed a lawsuit in a federal court attempting to bar Trump from the Florida presidential primary. The real Duke referred to the hoax as "the biggest, dirtiest trick I've seen recently".
2016 campaign for U.S. Senate
Main article: United States Senate election in Louisiana, 2016
On July 22, 2016, Duke announced that he was planning to run for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate seat in Louisiana being vacated by Republican David Vitter. He stated that he was running "to defend the rights of European Americans." He claimed that his platform has become the Republican mainstream and added, "I'm overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I've championed for years." However, Trump's campaign reaffirmed that Trump disavows Duke's support, and Republican organizations said they will not support him "under any circumstances." On August 5, 2016, National Public Radio aired a controversial interview between Duke and Steve Innskeep in which Duke claimed that there was widespread racism against European Americans and that they have been subject to vicious attacks in the media and that Trump's voters were also his voters.
A Mason-Dixon poll released on October 20, 2016, showed Duke receiving support from 5.1% of voters in the state, barely clearing the 5% requirement for a candidate to be allowed to participate in a November 2 debate.