Midway through Slate’s new six-part podcast series about David Duke – the former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, once Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and “the most notorious bigot in American politics” – two small anecdotes blaze.
The first is when Duke, after exiting a sour interview in the 1980s, sidles back into the room to beg the journalist for the cash for his parking metre. The other is when Duke is observed in his office, sifting through a mountain of envelopes fat with cheques and dollar bills from supporters, waving around a paper knife. Here is someone careering about, rickety and chaotic. Famine to feast.
Duke was raised in an all-white area of New Orleans, in the Fifties and Sixties, and became involved in the radical right as a teenager. While at university he formed a white supremacist student group; his youth is littered with Nazi uniforms and flags. As a supremacist campaigner in the Eighties (he’s now 70), he talked as much about property tax as race, framing his phrases to appeal to “non-racists”, and to the over-rewarded upper middle-classes, who want more than anything to hold on to their financial advantage. Then there’s a chin implant and multiple chemical peels. And his dating book in which he advised wannabe American wives to (specifically) agree to anal sex.
Each intense episode here is so perfectly calibrated. Mostly, the show is a monologue (constructed from over 40 sources, according to the website footnotes) delivered by writer Josh Levin, whose New Orleans vowels have a lovely, rhetorical rhythm: neither fast nor slow; unsentimental and philosophical. But it is interspersed with flashes of archive recordings, and most fascinating of all are the clips of Duke himself.
The surprisingly unobtrusive, reedy note of his voice makes him sound like someone whose life’s work has been to deliver arguments that absolutely derive wholly from objective criteria – rather than the subjective experience of his own, thwarted self. It’s particularly effective hearing that voice on the radio, of course – disembodied. He might have been behind a white sheet.
Slow Burn: David Duke
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis