Donald Trump can’t disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for the same reason the Republican party can’t disavow his candidacy — and it could splinter the GOP vote in 2016.
A new Democracy Corp likely voter survey of Republican base voters reveals the foundational values holding together the Republican base, as well as the fissures that threaten to splinter the GOP’s voting coalition in this election cycle. The survey finds that Moderates — who are solidly pro-choice, and done with the “culture wars” — make up about 31 percent of the GOP base. A significant percentage of them could break with the GOP, and possibly even vote Democratic, if Donald Trump is the nominee.
The survey paints a picture of a party united by fears about Democratic governance, immigration, and racial diversity. That’s not hard to believe. The GOP spent decades masterfully playing on the racial fears and anxieties of white working-class voters, and paving the way for a candidate just like Donald Trump.
This weekend, white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke announced his support for Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump. Without formally endorsing “the Donald,” Duke said on his radio program that he supports Trump. Duke asked his listeners to , “get off your duff … call Donald Trump’s headquarters, volunteer. They’re screaming for volunteers.” He warned that a vote against trump would be a “treason to your heritage.”
Three times Trump had a chance to disavow Duke’s support. Three times he failed to do so. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump claimed that he didn’t know enough about Duke to condemn him. When Tapper followed up, Trump said, ’I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about.“ When Tapper spelled out that he was talking about Duke , Trump answered, ”Honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him."
Afterward, Trump claimed on NBC’s “Today” show that he couldn’t understand Tapper’s question because of a faulty earpiece. Walking back his denouncement of Duke drew incredulous responses from conservatives. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called it “disqualifying.” Rival GOP candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Trump is “unelectable now,” and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called the KKK “abhorrent” in a Sunday Tweet.
The incredulity of Trump’s conservative critics was both justified and hypocritical.
It beggars belief that Trump hadn’t heard of Duke before this endorsement. Back in August, Duke called Trump “the best of the lot” running for president. Duke said Trump “understands the real sentiment of America.” In 2000, Trump knew Duke well enough to name him when he announced that he would not seek the Reform Party nomination. “I leave the Reform Party to David Duke, Pat Buchanan and Lenora Fulani. That is not company I wish to keep,” Trump wrote in the New York Times.
Beginning with a speech smearing Latino immigrants as rapists and murderers, Trump has worn his contempt for non-white immigrants as a badge of honor. By refusing to denounce his supporters who attack black, Latino, and Muslim protestors at his campaign rallies, he’s given tacit approval to violence against minorities. In his attacks against the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump has all but abandoned the GOP’s tried-and-true tradition of dogwhistle politics, in favor of overt xenophobia and racism.
White supremacists who support Trump are merely returning the favor. Trump’s candidacy has helped fuel recruitment for white supremacist organizations. A “Trump Bump,” boosted interest in white supremacist groups like Stormfront, which upgraded its servers to deal with extra traffic generated by Trump’s candidacy. Knowing a good thing when they see one. White nationalist leaders have helped Trump’s campaign by robocalling voters in Iowa. A White Supremacist PAC called the American National Super PAC has begun robocalling for Trump in Minnesota and Vermont.
Trump isn’t the first Republican linked with David Duke. Last year, House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) announced that he would run for Majority Leader. The announcement dredged up controversy about a 2002 speech Scalise delivered at the European-American Unity and Rights Organization — a white supremacist organization founded by Duke, and classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Conference. Scalise also claimed to know nothing of Duke or the nature of his organization. Yet in 1999, Scalise described himself to Roll Call as more electable than Duke, because he was “David Duke without the baggage.”
The problem goes much deeper than Duke and Trump. Many Republicans have longstanding links to white supremacist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), including Sen. Ted Cruz (R, Texas), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rick Santorum, Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) and Texas governor Gregg Abbot. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes the CCC as “the modern reincarnation of the old White Citizens Councils.” The CCC was a major influence on Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who shot and killed nine people during a bible study at Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Appealing to racial fear and anxiety has long been an effective tool for the GOP. Historically, it was crucial in implementing the “Southern Strategy” that made the South a GOP stronghold, as it was to keeping Jim Crow in place for generations. Both now and then, conservatives have relied on racial anxiety to keep poor and working-class whites from finding solidarity with poor and working-class people of color, against an economic system that disadvantages both.
Donald Trump can’t denounce the support of the KKK, or turn down his rhetoric, because he knows that doing so could cost him the support of the very GOP base voters he needs. Republicans can’t denounce Trump’s candidacy for the same reason. It depends upon basest of the GOP base and the ugliest voices at the farthest fringe of the political spectrum, but it’s all they’ve got.