The New York Times published a regrettable piece profiling a “polite” midwestern Nazi sympathizer. They received more or less the backlash one would have expected. But how did this even happen?
Note that the article in question, which is now titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” was originally published as “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door.” The title change alone suggests an attempt at damage control–an acknowledgment that soft-pedaling the rhetoric of someone who believes that racism and genocide constitute valid and appropriate political positions is maybe not such a good idea in a country where such ideas are no longer marginalized but facing a disturbing resurgence, as embodied by President Trump.
New York Times writer Richard Fausset went to Ohio and interviewed Tony Hovater, the subject of the original article. Hovater emitted a bunch of typically dull Nazi talking points–that the death toll of the Holocaust was overstated, that Hitler wasn’t all that committed to genocide, and generally minimizing the crimes of the Nazi regime in general. Fausset let these claims go largely unchallenged, perhaps in an attempt to let Hovater hang himself by his own words. But in an era of post-truth and fake news, it is more important than ever for such falsehoods to be confronted head-on, rather than relying on faulty assumptions that everyone knows them to be untrue. The very fact that the NYT felt the need to run such a profile undermines the notion that “everybody knows” how bad the Holocaust was and how vicious and dangerous the Nazis were.
Fausset released his own explanation for the piece that resulted from his work, though even he seems to be at a loss.
> > After I had filed an early version of the article, an editor at The Times told me he felt like the question had not been sufficiently addressed. So I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them. I could feel the failure even as Mr. Hovater and I spoke on the phone, adding to what had already been hours of face-to-face conversation in and around his hometown New Carlisle, Ohio. > > > > On the phone, Mr. Hovater responded to my question by rattling off names of libertarian academics, making references to sci-fi movies and describing, yet again, his frustration with what he described as the plodding and unjust nature of American democracy. As he did so, I was thinking about an album I grew up with by the Minutemen, the Southern California punk group, and its brilliantly koanic title: “What Makes a Man Start Fires?” > > > > To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods. > > > > Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader. > >
Fausset blames his failure to find a point in his puff piece on some great mystery of the universe–sometimes you just don’t know what makes somebody become a Nazi, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But this is, to put it bluntly, horseshit.
Guys like Hovater are a dime a dozen. Take this grab from the original NYT piece:
> > His political evolution — from vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist — was largely fueled by the kinds of frustrations that would not seem exotic to most American conservatives. He believes the federal government is too big, the news media is biased, and that affirmative action programs for minorities are fundamentally unfair. > > > > Ask him how he moved so far right, and he declares that public discourse has become “so toxic that there’s no way to effectively lobby for interests that involve white people.” He name-drops Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, architects of “anarcho-capitalism,” with its idea that free markets serve as better societal regulators than the state. And he refers to the 2013 science-fiction movie “Pacific Rim,” in which society is attacked by massive monsters that emerge from beneath the Pacific Ocean. > > > > “So the people, they don’t ask the monsters to stop,” he says. “They build a giant robot to try to stop them. And that’s essentially what fascism is. It’s like our version of centrally coming together to try to stop another already centralized force.” > >
This is not, in fact, a terrible unusual trajectory. “Vaguely leftist” to “libertarian” to “fascist” is such a common evolution it could be mistaken for a Pokemon. This might take a little explaining, but I will try to keep it brief.
Leftism is, above all else, about seeing injustice in the world and wanting to correct it–about sticking up for the vulnerable and standing up to the powerful. Most people have this impulse by nature and there is nothing wrong it.
Leftist leanings can morph into libertarian fantasism easily enough, once you decide the government is the source of all oppression and injustice. In some ways, this is not entirely incorrect. The systemic prejudices and biases that develop in a society are reinforced, even amplified, by the government. This is how anti-black racism–aggravating enough when it is manifest by KKK cross-burners–becomes dramatically more dangerous when it is replicated into police forces who shoot young black men with impunity. And that is but one example.
Libertarians, then, see the government as the main problem–that it is so big it simply makes all our problems worse, and that it has too much power over our lives.
With this worldview in hand, becoming a fascist is all too easy. It becomes the case that government is not the problem, but who is running it. “The establishment” becomes the enemy. The Alex Joneses of the world spin wild conspiracy theories in which the government is routinely killing anti-government activists, poisoning children and animals with chemicals, and there are shadowy forces controlling all media and government activities. There are a lot of bad things happening in the world, of course, but there is no vast conspiracy of disguised Reptilians controlling our thoughts with supposed weather satellites.
This is not to say that someone like Hovater believes in such far-fetched nonsense, though people who think like him often do. The anti-establishment attitude inherent to the current wave of fascism and Nazism is not about dismantling government institutions, as such, but taking them over. Some certainly will be curtailed or outright destroyed–Trump has illustrated that perfectly, with his mismanagement of various executive agencies. But the arms of government that can be turned to easily serve a fascist agenda are so employed, as well. The Justice Department under Jeff Sessions is bringing back all the racist baggage of the Drug War, and people who protest against Trump are being targeted with criminal charges for exercising their First Amendment rights. These aren’t fantasies or accidents or worst case speculation–this is exactly what a fascist platform is about. It is what Nazis do with power, and it is why they want it.
What happens to someone like Hovater is that the original germ of opposition to injustice gets warped, twisted, and turned inward. Injustice becomes something that only he and his compatriots suffer, and the only cure is to secure power for themselves, to support people who think like they do, and flip the injustices around. Never mind that this attitude is concentrated among straight, young white men who have numerous advantages over women, people of color, and those under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. It doesn’t matter if they have actually been wronged, it is only necessary that they feel that they have been. And that they can make the leap so quickly from “I’m sick of injustice and will fight to correct it” to “I’m sick of feeling like a victim so I want my enemies dead” shows that it was never about correcting injustice, but rectifying their own sense of worthlessness.
That is what white nationalists like Tony Hovater, Richard Spencer, and their ilk all have in common. There is nothing about themselves that is remarkable, interesting, or unique, which is why they must latch onto white nationalism. Why white nationalism instead of, say, stamp collecting or some other hobby that builds a sense of community? The answer there is simple enough: white privilege and toxic masculinity. White men who lean toward such racist nationalism feel entitled to be powerful, to have their self-worth reinforced and validated at every turn, to have their supremacy over everyone else not just acknowledged but written into the fabric of society, now and forever. In truth, it is the only way they can feel important. It is why clinging to white nationalism is always an advertisement for weakness and personal failure, because guys who were good at anything–absolutely anything else–would feel too good about themselves to find it necessary to hold to such an embarrassing, outmoded excuse for an ideology.
Richard Fausset: your mystery has been solved.
Photo by GorillaSushi