What is this now about normalizing Nazis?
If anything, it wasn’t a tendency to normalize nazis that got us into this mess but a failure to grapple with the appeal of fascism. The past few years have seen “a collapse of moral and political imagination,” as my co-author Angela Nagle and I recently wrote. Witness how otherwise intelligent adults routinely blamed signs of incipient fascism on “trolls,” a kind of phantasm from children’s stories.
True, the New York Times ran an article about a Nazi full of basic errors and strange omissions but that’s not what caused the public outcry of recent days. The controversy arose over a moral question—whether, in the interest of opposing Nazism, individual Nazis should be normalized. It’s the moral question, I think, that transformed the article into the kind of metastory that pops up every few months and gives people a chance to argue, others a license to jump on their platforms, opinionate, spit and howl.
And it was really this, the moral question, that Times’ reporter Richard Fausset was addressing in his hastily published followup, which begins by admitting, “there is a hole at the heart of my story,” and ends by asking “what makes a man start fires?” An apology of sorts for failing to find, in the depths of the seemingly normal Ohio Nazi William Anthony Hovater—Tony Hovattaver to the Times’, though they inexplicably fail to mention that it’s a nickname—the secret to what made him so horrifically abnormal. At the same time, Fausset suggests that this is the fundamental question and that it may be unanswerable.
A strong temptation always exists to see large social events through the lens of individual psychology because the view is like gazing in a mirror, even when it’s appalling it flatters our vanity and sense of scale. But this is a mistake.
There was a tendency to overweigh individual psychology in the normalization debate—both the psychology of the article’s subject and its impact on potential readers—but a few exceptions appeared. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie offered a new wrinkle by inverting the standard charge.
The real problem with the Times piece, Bouie argued, is not in seeing a Nazi as normal but failing to see him as an insignificant offshoot of the ruling political normalcy .
The sensational nature of Hovater’s identification with Nazi Germany obscures the ordinariness of his racism. White supremacy is a hegemonic ideology in the United States. It exists everywhere, in varying forms, ranging from passive beliefs in black racial inferiority to the extremist ideology we see in groups like the League of the South.
Here the systemic is everything. Yet Bouie’s view is not only totalizing, it is also parochial. There is not only no individual to be concerned with but no network. And as he appears to view Hovater’s extremism as a merely lurid variation on the ruling ideology there is no effort to analyze its content or to differentiate between forms of far-right politics. Perhaps this explains why Bouie hardly mentions Hovater’s anti-Semitism, which comes up several times in the original article, because he considers it, like the possible European influences on Hovater’s thought or the particularities of his social status and group affiliation, inconsequential in the totalizing context of American white supremacism.
That Hovater’s racism belongs to a political lineage of American racial terrorism is not in doubt, but is that really all one needs to know about him?
If White supremacism is a hegemonic ideology, what does Bouie make of fascism? It never comes up in his article. This too is a mistake.
“Fascism,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1975, “also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community, the repudiation of the intellect, the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).”
Was Hovater, once the drummer in a touring heavy metal band, attracted to neo-Nazism by something as abstract and un-American as “the ideal of life as art?” Was he seeking a community, and if he was, would it normalize him to acknowledge this and try to tease out the implications?
Here we approach both what is most valuable in Fausset’s article and its fundamental flaws.
There is a process of radicalization among young American men who are drawn into the orbit of the far right. Some of them, particularly the most disturbed, become violent white nationalists and neo Nazis; others merely poison their communities and whatever remains of the democratic social spaces around them. But they do not spring fully formed from their own brows. They arrive at their extremism step by step.
On this point, the Times’ article tells us something valuable, albeit in passing. In describing the steps in Hovater’s radicalization it provides evidence for one of the central premises in an essay I wrote a few years ago: that the killing of Trayvon Martin was an inflection point in American politics and a key driver of ongoing radicalization. Fausset writes:
In 2012, Mr. Hovater was incensed by the media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, believing the story had been distorted to make a villain of George Zimmerman, the white man who shot the black teenager.
Hovater’s wife recounts a similar experience:
Ms. Hovater found herself on social media “questioning the official story,” taking Mr. Zimmerman’s side and finding herself blocked by some of her friends. Today, she says, she and Mr. Hovater are “pretty lined up” politically.
Reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing and the media’s perceived bias against the man who killed him, George Zimmerman, comes up repeatedly when members of the alt right describe their radicalization. An early, influential alt-right Twitter account, the pseudonymous ‘Ricky Vaughn,’ gave an interview in January 2016 to Richard Spencer for his website Radix. In it, Vaughn describes his drift from first supporting Ron Paul to developing an interest in anti-feminist politics, “and from there…”:
It really went to — after the Trayvon Martin thing, when I figured out how they were lying about this guy, George Zimmerman, the whole time. You ask yourself why were they lying about him, why were they trying to make this racial narrative? And you start to get into the criticisms of anti-racism, equalism, all those sorts of things.
And then there is Dylann Roof, who is serving life without parole for killing nine black parishioners while they prayed inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“To understand Dylann Roof’s thinking, he tells us, we have to go back to 2012. To Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. That was the moment, Roof writes in his manifesto, when he was reborn as a white nationalist.” Those are the opening lines of the essay I mentioned earlier, written in June 2015 about Roof’s path to murder and his immersion in “a reactionary, defiantly anti-social politics [that] has been emerging for the last decade,” which I described, before the term alt right had come into common usage, as “juvenile fascism and virulent racism.”
My contention at the time was that the killing of Trayvon Martin provided the “single event that sparked the current period of social unrest…” as it “reverberated in the Internet’s ideological echo chambers, the former inspiring the nascent protest movement that reemerged in Ferguson, the latter inspiring a right-wing counter-movement online.”
In another feature common to alt-right biographies, Fausset finds that Hovater started off in Libertarian politics—as did “Ricky Vaughn,” and a number of other high-profile members of the alt right. And of course, Hovater mentions that old standby 4Chan.
He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he deadpanned).
It’s enough to make you think there may be patterns here worth closer study.
As you’d expect, what’s most valuable in Fausset’s article is its reporting. But the common criticism that it failed to provide context is justified. (I thought so after reading it, but the journalists who compiled a list of basic facts that the story either omitted or got wrong drive that point home.) It was not necessary to list all the crimes for which Hovater’s ideology is responsible in order to write about him, but the over-reliance on Hovater’s own testimony is a serious shortcoming. It leads directly into what Fausset himself describes as the hole at the heart of his story—the existential imponderables of Hovater’s psyche.
So, why does a man start fires? It depends. A castaway has his reasons and an arsonist has his. You learn something by looking at where he starts them, whether he lights them alone or as part of a group, in an act of frenzy or ritual sacrifice. And so on.
In isolation, the self is a fathomless echo. But that was for Proust to explore. A man is not a literary text. He is not only who he says he is; the narrator is necessary but unreliable, reliable but insufficient.
Fascism is not a question of the self in isolation. It is a form of mass politics, as is white supremacism for that matter. The focus on individual intent as a means to understand the political is intensely vulnerable to deception and self-deception, tricks of language and the basic fluidity of belief. We have followed this path into a cul de sac—behold the ironic nazi—it is time to move on.
A final word on writing and language. Clichés corrupt. They have corrupted my writing when I’ve relied on them and they share some of the blame for what went wrong here, as these lines illustrate:
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux.
This substitutes the appearance of description for the work of describing something to the reader. Hardly a ripple is different than no ripple. How much of a ripple? We don’t know, only that in Ohio, with its topography and chain restaurants, Hovater’s presence can make hardly one—it might make none at all, but it can.
Much of the scorn directed at Fausset’s article—including from journalists who’ve published their own bad writing about the alt right but took the first chance to club a peer—was not criticism but vain shouting and insipid prattle. This is because it occurred on Twitter and that is what Twitter produces. In a similar way the Times article was doomed by the way its format closely followed the conventions of the general interest profile. This is what made it so ripe for parody. This genre is useful for creating news filler and maintaining celebrity access through inoffensive coverage. It is not well suited to grappling with the appeal of fascism or capturing the place and impact of American Nazis in a Midwest American towns.