On November 25, the New York Times ran ‘A voice of hate in America’s heartland.’ This was about a Nazi, specifically a Tony Hovater. This guy was one of the founders of a white nationalist group who call themselves the Traditionalist Worker Party. I would point out that they seem to be working by an idiosyncratic meaning of ‘tradition.’
Coded language aside, those are the basic facts that people can agree on. But, for a news cycle or so, the blogosphere disagreed as to what it really was. The writer Richard Fausset expressed in a later article that his intention was to try to explore what turns a normal person into an agent of destruction. To his critics, it’s nothing more than a puff piece.
Fausset’s writing here does have some value. For one thing, it uses the word ‘normie,’ which Microsoft Word just underlined with a red squiggle as I typed it. Hovater talks about normies and his presence on 4chan; he seems fluent in that recognisable language, deadpanning “that’s where the scary memes come from.”
For those who don’t know, the primary association of ‘normie’ is the context of jokes and memes. It’s used by people to sarcastically deride Facebook users who aren’t on the cutting edge of running gags. That people can be so condescending about silly jokes has always been exhausting. That the same language and subculture has pretty much merged with white nationalism is as bizarre as it is alarming. Fausset writes that Hovater’s white nationalist movement seems to be “one big laugh – an enormous trolling event put on by self-mocking, politically incorrect kids playing around on the ash heap of history.”
As a note, that does not mean that anyone who says ‘normie’ is a Nazi. I’m not saying that.
In the interview, Hovater perceptibly bends over backwards to explain why so many Nazis are non-normie, or ‘abnormie’ if you will (please don’t). “It takes people with, like, sort of an odd view of life, at first, to come to this way,” he says, which is a neat way of skirting around the issue. I would go out on a limb and say that the reason people dislike Nazis is that they’re fucking Nazis, not because they’re the sort of charming oddball outsider who would make a good DreamWorks protagonist.
Excuse me as I get meta; you will observe that what I did was give a quote from the Nazi then follow it with an explanation as to why what he said was bullshit.
You might accuse me of bias. And, my first response would probably be something like, “fuck you for trying to defend a Nazi.” But also, even if a journalist is writing about a liberal centrist politician, or your average Fine Gael type, or a hard-left activist, I think they should take what the person is saying and place it in the context of the truth and their critics. Fausset doesn’t do that. Instead, he writes that Hovater’s “Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother.”
There is one instance where Fausset points out that Hovater’s use of “Hail victory” is based on the German “Sieg Heil.” There’s also a point where he mercifully does not believe Hovater’s claim that his party has a thousand members and instead runs the Anti-Defamation League’s estimate of a few hundred. It just would have been nice to have that sort of thing all the way through. Plus, he seems to only give context where it makes the delivery a little more shocking rather than where it helps the facts make more sense.
Perhaps more jarring than even that is the point where the online version of the article links directly to Hovater’s own blog. In the blog post linked, Hovater complains about what he perceives as a leftward drift in libertarianism, saying that “the presidential candidate they’ll put up in a few cycles will be an overweight, black, cr***led d*** with dyslexia.” Again, Fausset offers no contextualisation or counterpoint. You might think that no reader could be expected to even partly agree with Hovater here but you’d be missing Fausset’s point. Normal people are becoming this bigoted. What’s more, by linking to Hovater’s blog directly, the New York Times are indisputably giving him a platform. The interview overall could arguably be deemed a character investigation which is impartial to a fault but this link must have driven more views on his website and possibly more revenue.
It also calls attention to another point: Hovater is a charismatic guy. He’s a white nationalist leader. He knows how to spin, how to do PR, at least to some extent. If a journalist really wanted to get inside the extreme racist movement, wouldn’t they be better off interviewing one of the regular members, someone who hadn’t learned off all the answers, someone who didn’t know how to slickly deflect the common accusations of racism? By just printing the words of an extreme racist leader with no narratorial follow-up, Fausset is just giving racists free advertising.
What Fausset does succeed in is drawing attention to how, in the United States, more and more normal people are becoming Nazis. The profile’s tone lets Hovater off the hook but in doing so, it captures what Fausset suggests is the banal normalcy of the 2017 Nazi. So, the question becomes: how normal are Nazis in the United States?
For one George Godwyn, they’re fully normalised now. Godwyn isn’t a Trump supporter but he has spent the last two years in Facebook groups that support Trump. Initially, he did it to amuse himself but he says it’s given him a familiarity with the extreme right culture that most people outside of it don’t have.
“If you were surprised that the Times would print something so bland about a Nazi, you just haven’t caught up to where we are,” he wrote in a public Facebook post which has about 6,800 reactions at the time of writing.
I don’t completely agree with Godwyn. He seems to think that Fausset’s critics require that he paint a simplistic picture of Hovater as a weird extremist. Probably, that’s what some people want. It’s quite different from wanting Hovater’s bigoted beliefs to be contextualised with some statement of “and the counterargument to this sort of thing is XYZ.”
If Nazis are normal, then Hovater himself doesn’t seem to have noticed. He does refer to his ‘normie’ characteristics like being a family man but he’s all too eager to stress that he’s not an “edgy Republican.” The whole notion of being ‘edgy’ is something that Hovater has disdain for because he thinks the Overton window and where society places the edges is largely nonsensical. Godwyn writes that “the Overton window has shifted so far and so fast, the Nazis are in it now.” If this is true, Hovater doesn’t seem aware, no matter how much he dawdles around the house boiling corn-on-the-cob or whatever.
It seems that some of the disagreement with Fausset comes from people who aren’t taking him in good faith. They’re reading the piece as ‘normal people are becoming Nazis now’ rather than ‘normal people are becoming Nazis now and that’s bad.’
This is mostly Fausset’s fault, though. As discussed, he doesn’t really contextualise what Hovater says, at least not in the sense of holding him accountable, even when he comes out with extraordinarily odd things about Pacific Rim: “[They] don’t ask the monsters to stop. They build a giant robot to try to stop them. And that’s essentially what fascism is.”
This is not a water-tight metaphor. ‘The good guys try to stop the bad guys’ is a story that could surely be adopted by literally any political movement.
Slate writer Jamelle Bouie, who I have a great deal of respect for, isn’t convinced that Nazis are normal. I don’t mean that Bouie merely doesn’t want Nazis to be normal, although that is also true. I mean that Bouie doesn’t think the Overton window has moved quite that much. He says that Nazis and other kinds of extreme racists like Hovater “remain fringe figures who can make a splash in the media – and provoke violence – but do little else.”
Instead, Bouie focuses on how racism has always been ordinary in the United States. Nazis may not be but racism is. Indeed, if racism exists in a society then it is kind of definitionally normal; it’s part of the core. So, for Bouie, racism doesn’t just happen to exist in normal US spaces. Racism is central to those spaces and shapes them.
So, it’s unclear whether Nazis are normal now. What is clear is that racism is. There’s nothing exactly wrong with writing about how ordinary that racism is; in fact, it’s important and necessary. But, for the love of God, don’t forget to explain why they’re wrong.