By Lisa Keen
The Republican presidential race took a particularly nasty turn this week when frontrunner Donald Trump inexplicably balked at disavowing the support of the Ku Klux Klan and a former KKK leader David Duke.
The issue arose in response to a call from the Anti-Defamation League on Feb. 25, asking that Trump “distance himself from white nationalist and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, as well as other white supremacists, and publicly condemn their racism.” ADL noted that, while Duke “did not explicitly endorse” Trump, he encouraged listeners to his radio program to volunteer for the Trump campaign. And ADL said a white supremacist political action committee was using robocalls in some states to urge, “Don’t vote for a Cuban. Vote for Donald Trump.”
At a press conference on Friday, Feb. 26, a reporter asked Trump about the “endorsement” of Duke, and Trump quickly “disavowed” it.
That same day, Trump was confronted with the KKK issue again. At a large campaign rally in Oklahoma City, Trump supporters drew the candidate’s attention to a man wearing a T-shirt that said “KKK endorses Trump.”
According to KOCO-News in Oklahoma City, the man was originally seated onstage behind Trump, and the crowd erupted when he hoisted a sign that said, “Islamaphobia is not the answer.” The man then removed his jacket, revealing a T-shirt with a yellow star taped to it and a hand-written message, “KKK endorses Trump.” The crowd appeared to be startled and unhappy about the man’s presence, then seemed to laugh, and eventually began chanting, “U.S.A.” Trump turned to see what was happening and waited, looking occasionally at the man who smiled, waved to Trump and appeared to say something. Trump watched as someone squatting in front of the man spoke to him. Then Trump walked back to the microphone.
“You see,” he said, “in the good ol’ days, law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this. A lot quicker. In the good ol’ days, they’d rip him out of that seat so fast. But today, everybody’s politically correct. Our country’s going to hell with being politically correct.” According to various reports, the man was eventually escorted out of the arena by police.
The KKK issue escalated dramatically on a CNN program Sunday, when State of the Union host Jake Tapper asked Trump for his response to the ADL’s call for him to disavow the “endorsement” of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and other white supremacy groups. Trump said he didn’t want to “condemn a group that I know nothing about.”
“Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?” Trump told Tapper. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I don’t know — did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.”
“I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong.”
The KKK’s history of hostility to African-Americans is well-documented. Less well known is its hostility toward gays. According to several news and educational sources, the KKK is a fragmented collection of groups with more than 100 KKK separate organizations across 26 states, north and south, including Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Michigan.
“Klan literature and propaganda is rabidly homophobic and encourages violence against gays and lesbians,” says a 2006 paper from the Law Enforcement Executive Forum, published by the University of Houston.
Individual KKK groups have their own websites, some of which express their hatred for gays. For instance, the current website of the “White Knights” in North Carolina states, “We hate drugs, homosexuality, abortion and race-mixing…”
Earlier this month, David Duke’s website claimed Rubio attended “homosexual meet-up affairs” — or “foam parties” — in Florida. In a March 1 posting, Duke reiterated that “the KKK did not endorse Donald Trump.” Duke said he personally offered two reasons to vote for Trump: One, because the policies of other candidates would lead to war with Russia. And two, because Trump’s commitment “to secure our border.”
Duke was a Republican member of the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989-1992, but in 1988 he ran as a minor candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes him as “the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial.” His involvement in white supremacist activities began at 14 and he founded the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” in 1974.
It wasn’t just Duke and the KKK’s widespread notoriety that spelled trouble for Trump. It was also a number of instances in which Trump was already on record as criticizing Duke. For instance, in August of last year, Trump told NBC News that he “certainly wouldn’t want” Duke’s endorsement and that he would repudiate it “if it would make you feel better.”
Trump’s opponents for the nomination immediately lashed out at Trump’s failure to immediately and unequivocally disavow any acceptance of support from Duke or the KKK. Rubio said Republicans “cannot be the party that nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.” Cruz’s criticism was more narrowly couched, saying, “Racism is wrong.” The most strongly critical candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said, “Hate groups have no place in America.”
By Monday, Trump suggested that he didn’t disavow Duke or the KKK because he didn’t fully hear Tapper’s question. He said CNN had given him a “bad earpiece” for the interview and he could “hardly hear” what Tapper was asking.
But even before the KKK signals of support for Trump, the threat of a Trump nomination loomed large for the GOP. The New York Times reported Saturday that colleagues of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said McConnell vowed the party would “drop him like a hot rock” if Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination. By Tuesday, McConnell made a public statement that Trump’s position on the KKK controversy “is not the view of Republicans.”
“I think it’s very important that the American people understand that the Republican Party condemns in the strongest possible language David Duke, the KKK and everything they stand for,” said McConnell. And Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan publicly read a statement, too, saying, “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on prejudices.”
On Tuesday, ABC journalist George Stephanopoulos asked Trump if he was ready to make a “clear and unequivocal statement renouncing support of all white supremacists?”
“Of course I am. Of course I am,” said Trump. “There’s nobody who’s done so much for equality as I have.”