David Duke worked the Louisiana gun show like a preacher pursuing souls, cornering potential voters as they picked over firearms and ammo.
The robes are gone and the rhetoric is softer than during his grand wizard days. But Duke has not shed his relentless proselytizing for the white race, even though voters have repeatedly rejected the former Ku Klux Klan leader’s attempts to regain public office.
Duke is undeterred. As he sees it, this is the moment. After last running for election in 1999, he’s back with a long-shot bid for Louisiana’s open U.S. Senate seat.
And his reason for optimism is clear: Donald Trump.
“I love it,” said Duke, 66, tearing into a chicken garlic pizza at a nearby restaurant later. “The fact that Donald Trump’s doing so well, it proves that I’m winning. I am winning.”
Trump’s surprise rise to become the GOP presidential nominee, built largely on a willingness to openly criticize minority groups and tap into long-simmering racial divisions, has reenergized white supremacist groups and drawn them into mainstream American politics like nothing seen in decades.
White nationalist leaders who once shunned presidential races have endorsed Trump, marking the first time some have openly supported a candidate from one of the two main parties.
Members are showing up at his rallies, knocking on doors to get out the vote and organizing debate-watching parties.
White supremacists are active on social media and their websites report a sharp rise in traffic and visitors, particularly when posting stories and chat forums about the New York businessman.
Stormfront, already one of the oldest and largest white nationalist websites, reported a 600% increase in readership since President Obama’s election, and now has more than one in five threads devoted to Trump. It reportedly had to upgrade its servers recently due to the increased traffic.
“Before Trump, our identity ideas, national ideas, they had no place to go,” said Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank based in Arlington, Va.
Not since Southern segregationist George Wallace’s failed presidential bids in 1968 and 1972 have white nationalists been so motivated to participate in a presidential election.
Andrew Anglin, editor of the Daily Stormer website and an emerging leader of a new generation of millennial extremists, said he had “zero interest” in the 2012 general election and viewed presidential politics as “pointless.” That is, until he heard Trump.
“Trump had me at ‘build a wall,’” Anglin said. “Virtually every alt-right Nazi I know is volunteering for the Trump campaign.”
One California white nationalist leader dug into his own pockets to give $12,000 to launch a pro-Trump super PAC that made robocalls in seven primary states — with more promised before the Nov. 8 election.
“The idea that [Trump] is taking a wrecking ball to ‘political correctness’ excites them,” said Peter Montgomery, who has tracked far right groups as a senior fellow at People for the American Way, the Norman Lear-founded advocacy group. “They’ve been marginalized in our discourse, but he’s really made space for them…. He has energized these folks politically in a way that’s going to have damaging long-term consequences.”
Trump has publicly rejected Duke and other white supremacists. “We disavow any groups associated with a message of hate,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
But Trump’s positions, which reflect intense nationalism, suspicion of Muslims and a call for sharp reductions of legal immigration and expulsion of illegal immigrants, have provided greater legitimacy to ideas once viewed as too divisive for the mainstream. Many of Trump’s statements have been interpreted as a kind of dog whistle to white nationalist groups.
“We had no idea he would be engaging in this kind of footsie with them,” said Heidi Beirich, who tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center and now monitors Trump’s statements as part of its campaign watch. “These are some of the worst ideas in the history of our society. I don’t know how you undo this.”
Duke takes partial credit for paving the way for the Republican nominee’s rise, and says Trump’s popularity proves that Americans are ready for a more overt and direct message about protecting the white race in America.
“He’s talking about it in a visceral way,” said Duke, who publicly broke with the Klan, but continues to rant against Jews and other minorities, and founded the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People. “Donald Trump is talking implicitly. I’m talking explicitly.”
For decades white supremacist groups have largely boycotted the two major political parties, which likewise wanted nothing to do with them. But as Duke’s candidacy shows, Trump’s campaign — whether it intended to or not — has opened the door for white nationalist groups to come out of the shadows.
These are not just the doddering remnants of the Klan, though there are elements of that. It’s also a younger generation of tech-savvy millennials who have rebranded themselves as the “alt-right” —or alternative right— movement, a loose collection of white nationalist, anti-establishment groups.
They see little reason to hide behind white hoods, violence or clandestine meetings, and prefer to defend their views openly and intellectually.
Breitbart News, a hard-right website, has tried to position itself as a forum for the alt-right crowd. Earlier this year Trump hired its chief executive, Stephen Bannon, as his campaign head.
What happens to these reignited groups after the election remains a subject of debate. Some expect an emboldened and unapologetic white nationalist movement will fight for a seat at the table in a Trump White House.
Even if Trump loses, they could remain fired up as an opposition force fighting for influence inside the deeply divided Republican Party, as the tea party has, or mobilizing against Democrats.
Studies show that racial resentment is deepening among the electorate, and that could give rise to the kind of nationalist movement seen in Europe, especially as America’s white population loses its majority status.
“Trump comes in and just lights a match” under that trend, said Michael Tesler, a political science professor at UC Irvine.
Others predict a Trump loss, particularly a decisive one, will drive white nationalists back to the periphery.
Nor surprisingly, Clinton has seized on the issue, unleashing a TV ad linking Trump to the KKK, accusing him of “taking hate groups mainstream” and most famously dubbing a large portion of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
“Of course there’s always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, a lot of it rising from racial resentment. But it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone,” Clinton said in an August speech. “Until now.”
Trump turned Clinton’s “deplorables” remark into an ad portraying her as slamming ordinary Americans; many white nationalists embraced it as a badge of honor.
“I’ve been called deplorable for 35 years,” said William Johnson, a Los Angeles attorney who was a Trump delegate in California until his role as head of the white nationalist American Freedom Party was publicized.
“When Donald Trump comes out and says deplorables, it gives some vindication,” said Johnson, who now runs the pro-Trump American National Super PAC, which is funding the robocalls.
Though Trump’s campaign insists it does not want support from white supremacists, it stands to benefit from the restlessness among those white voters who feel uneasy about the country’s economic and demographic changes. And in backing Trump, the nationalists can enhance their profile by riding the Trump wave, even if they remain unsure whether he is fully aligned with their views.
“There’s a connection -- it isn’t always policy -- but a deep visceral, you could say emotional connection between the alt-right and his campaign,” said Spencer of the white nationalist think tank.
“I think he does recognize that he has this alt-right army behind him…. I think he also realizes if he backs down, if he stops being combative, he is in danger of losing that.”
In Louisiana, many campaign operatives shrug at Duke’s return, dismissing him as a failed politician hitching himself to Trump. Polling shows Duke, who briefly served in the state Legislature before several failed runs for higher office, trailing in a wide field for the open Senate seat in a race that will most likely push to a December runoff.
“Duke and Trump? There’s no correlation between those two guys at all,” said Robert Molea, a retired Teamster, climbing into his truck after the gun show. He plans to vote for Trump, but not Duke.
Republican Party leaders have steered clear of Duke, leaving him to operate his campaign largely on his own, from his house in Mandeville, a New Orleans suburb.
Inside the older tract home, his living room and dining room are crammed with desks and bookshelves spilling over with his life’s work. An ink jet printer spits out thousands of campaign fliers Duke will be mailing to voters, seeking $50 contributions for a blue hat with the logo, “I’m for Duke & Trump!”
But he bristles at the suggestion that he’s jumping on the Trump train.
“Trump happened because of us,” Duke said, “not the other way around.”