Twenty-five years before Donald Trump’s hostile-takeover bid for the Republican Party, an outlandish figure in Louisiana exploited racial tensions, hard economic times, and the estrangement of blue-collar whites to throw a huge scare into the political and civic leadership of his state and his country. In the first round of Louisiana’s 1991 all-parties “jungle primary,” former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke trounced the chosen gubernatorial candidate of his Republican Party and an incumbent governor who had recently joined the GOP. At one point he seemed about to win a runoff against the ethically tarnished three-term former governor Ed Edwards. It was being called “the Race From Hell.”
Louisiana’s business community, fearful of an economic boycott and global opprobrium, decided to say “no” to Duke. At the same time, opposition researchers figured out that while white Louisianans were willing to overlook the white sheets in the candidate’s closet, they weren’t so forgiving when confronted with photos showing him in full Nazi regalia while he was a grad student at LSU (an image Edwards shrewdly brought up during a debate, saying he had been working on welfare reform “back when you were still goose-stepping around Baton Rouge”). And finally, the national Republican Party, led by President George H. W. Bush, decided to disavow Duke, who lost decisively in the runoff thanks to heavy minority voting, a massive Edwards financial advantage, and a broad coalition that found its emblem in that greatest of all bumper-sticker slogans: VOTE FOR THE CROOK. IT’S IMPORTANT.
So when Duke came out of the woodwork this week (after doing some federal prison time — around the same time Ed Edwards did, in fact) to encourage what’s left of his fanbase to support Trump, he was just another white supremacist excited by Trump’s willingness to “tell it like it is” when it comes to the dusky threat of immigration. At his very worst, Trump is not much like Duke at his very best. But Duke’s example should serve as a reminder to Trump that there are limits to what the people running and financing his party will endure. Maybe they’ll finally find Trump’s Achilles heel, just as their predecessors finally found Duke’s. And maybe they’d prefer four years in the wilderness to four years lashed to someone they fear and despise. It’s likely that Republicans already regard 2016 as another Race From Hell.