Since Monday, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R–LA) has fended off criticism for appearing at the 2002 National/International EURO Workshop on Civil Rights, a white nationalist organization founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. You know Duke is a pro, because he put “civil rights” in the name of his white supremacist convention. John Boehner is a pro, too. He and other Republican leaders have issued coordinated statements defending Scalise and expressing their confidence that he can wield the power of the whip.1
During the first 24-hour cycle of this story, Scalise blamed his 2002 appearance on aide Cameron Henry, who now holds Scalise’s former seat in the Louisiana State House. Henry’s brother Charles is currently Scalise’s chief of staff. Neither sibling has been psyched about speaking to the press, probably to preserve the plausibility of Scalise’s denials.
The congressman’s bad-staffer explanation implied that he didn’t know what kind of group the EURO Workshop was. It appears certain, however, that Scalise knew plenty about Duke, since he once seemed set to face him in a special election. Here’s the future Majority Whip speaking about Duke in 1999:
“The novelty of David Duke has worn off. The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”
At the risk of putting words in Scalise’s pert white mouth, it sounds like he’s saying the problem with the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is that he’s unelectable. The “first and most important thing” might actually be having no concrete plans for an ethnic cleansing of the United States. Second is charisma, and third is never having held the title of Grand Wizard.
Before we get too sanctimonious, though, let us consider that Scalise did this ridiculously stupid thing 12 years ago, in the throes of what was probably a desperate push for votes. “I did it to get elected” is not a very good excuse for speaking at a white power rally, but the more damnable problem here is that the interests of a bunch of dumb crackers coincide so neatly with a Republican in the Louisiana legislature.
Or, for that matter, with the national GOP—it is perhaps most alarming that House Republicans and conservative commentators have leapt to Scalise’s defense. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called him an old friend who “does not share the beliefs of that organization.” Deep Space 9 security chief Charles Krauthammer said that Scalise speaking to white supremacists was nothing compared to Obama listening to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.2 Scalise himself compared EURO to the League of Women Voters, because fuck it, everything is equivalent to everything else.
Probably, this one is up to the press. It’s hard to see the national GOP sticking to Scalise if his name becomes synonymous with addressing Klansmen. Even Krauthammer suggested he might step down for the good of the party. But maybe Republicans care less than we think they do that their views explicitly coincide with those of insane Nazis. White supremacists vote, too, and David Duke’s ballot cancels out yours. It’s probably less of a reach than trying to get Mexicans.