These Nazis just want to be your neighbors

Nicole Colson reports on the controversy over a New York Times profile of a neo-Nazi--and explains why the article gave the racists exactly what they want.

Fascists on the streets of Charlottesville (Rodney Dunning | flickr)Fascists on the streets of Charlottesville (Rodney Dunning | flickr)

TONY HOVATER could be a case study for "The Banality of Evil: 2017 Hipster Edition."

At least, that's how reporter Richard Fausset seemed bound and determined to portray him in a recent New York Times profile of the neo-Nazi.

After it was published, Fausset's piece caused a huge outcry. It's pretty easy to see why.

Fausset spends much of the profile "humanizing" Hovater and his wife, presenting them as a perfectly normal couple...except, oh yeah, for the fact that Hovater's a Hitler-loving neo-Nazi who in 2015 co-founded the Traditionalist Worker Party.

Members of this fascist organization have repeatedly engaged in violence and provocative actions, including during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where numerous anti-racist activists were injured and Heather Heyer was killed earlier this year.

Lines from the Times piece--like "Weddings are hard enough to plan for when your fianc├ę is not an avowed white nationalist"--along with references to Hovater's cats, his wedding registry and his "polite and low-key" demeanor angered many readers.

Fausset wrote that Hovater is a big Seinfeld fan who supposedly "prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire." The article compares his embrace of fascism to a "hipster's" love of heavy metal and remarks on Hovater's "Midwestern manners" that would "please anyone's mother" (as long as your mother isn't Jewish or Black or any other group targeted by Hovater and his neo-Nazi buddies).

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AFTER THE outcry that greeted the story, the New York Times took the unusual step of having its National Editor Marc Lacey as well as the reporter Fausset respond in print. The Times also removed a link in the original story to swastika armbands for sale on the Traditionalist Worker Party website.

Lacey and Fausset "regretted" that the story offended so many people--but said that, especially after the violence in Charlottesville, the issue of the growth of the far right in America is a complex one, with no simple answers.

"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," Fausset noted in poetic prose--while misusing a reference to a song by the punk band the Minutemen. "Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader."

Except there's not a lot that's "obscure" about the Traditionalist Worker Party--whose stock-in-trade is scapegoating Jews, minorities, liberals and anti-racists.

Its members are open admirers of Hitler. In Hovater's case, he claims the Holocaust was "overblown." Proof? None--Hovater simply claims in the Times profile that "Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, [while] Hitler 'was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects.'" The murder of 6 million Jews doesn't come up.

Hovater never comes out and says he's for gassing Jews or lynching Blacks. He just claims that it's common sense that white people are suffering because Blacks and other minorities receive special treatment and Jews control the media and financial system.

Fausset writes that Hovater is "adamant that the races are probably better off separated, but he insists he is not racist." Neither he nor his editor bother to ask how both things can be true. In fact, the Times profile is striking for how derelict it is in compelling Hovater to answer any serious follow-up questions or even noting where he ducks them.

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FAUSSET NOTES that Hovater was on the scene during the far right's rampage in Charlottesville in August, but he never talks to anyone who witnessed the deadly violence of the Traditionalist Worker Party and their neo-Nazi brethren.

Members of the group have not been shy about their role. After the killing of Heather Heyer, Matt Parrot, a member of the affiliated Traditionalist Youth Network, proudly talked about how the group helped escalate the violence at the city's Emancipation Park: "With a full-throated rebel yell, the League [of the South] broke through the wall of degenerates [anti-racist protesters] and TradWorker managed to enter the Lee Park venue itself while they were largely still reeling."

Matthew Heimbach, another co-founder of the party, is also quoted in the profile of Hovater about the need for the group to recruit "more families. We need to be able to just be normal."

Heimbach was also in Charlottesville, where, dressed in a black shirt and German-style military helmet, he repeatedly urged the group's supporters to push through the ranks of the anti-racists.

After Heyer's death, Heimbach told the New York Times that the day was a rousing success: "We achieved all of our objectives...We asserted ourselves as the voice of white America." Fausset noted that, on social media, Hovater's takaway from Charlottesville was similar: "We made history. Hail victory."

"Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article," Times editor Marc Lacey wrote in his defense of the piece. But they didn't agonize the way Heather Heyer's mother has.

On the same day that Heyer was killed, an African American protester named DeAndre Harris was brutally beaten in a parking garage by a mob of white supremacists, leaving him with a spinal injury and a head laceration that required 10 stitches. Video of the attack showed at least one man, Jacob Scott Goodwin, was wearing a Traditionalist Worker Party pin.

It's a safe bet that DeAndre Harris has a different view of the Hovater's "Midwestern manners."

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IN ONE especially thorough takedown of the profile of Hovater that circulated online, one commenter pointed out how the Times gave "a racist an unchallenged platform," while failing to talk to civil rights organizations or even ask follow-up questions, like about the ideology of the Traditionalist Worker Party.

Even a cursory Internet search would have turned up reams of information about the party, its Holocaust denial and connections to other neo-fascist groups and the violence and bigotry of its leading figures.

Thus, the Times didn't see fit to mention that Heimbach advocates an America in which homosexuality and interracial marriage are illegal. Those who are gay or in favor of interracial marriage should be sent to re-education camps, he has said. "In any healthy society [gays] would be dragged off to therapy to help you cope with your mental illness, not given glitter and assless chaps to parade down the street."

The group uses language calculated to appeal to the political polarization in the U.S. and economically struggling white workers in particular. This includes ostensibly anti-capitalist and pro-environment rhetoric.

While the Times noted that the party is attempting to recruit on campuses, it didn't say what that means. How do the students at Murray State University feel, for example, after the Traditionalist Worker Party reserved a table in September and posted flyers that talked about "fighting to take back our communities"?

And what about the multiracial residents of Sacramento, where last year some 30 members of the Traditionalist Worker Party engaged in a violent confrontation with anti-fascist counterprotesters that left 10 people injured, some seriously? After the violence, one neo-Nazi bragged that anti-fascists "got one of our[s] but we got six of theirs."

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DESPITE CLAIMING to seek an understanding of Hovater's motives, the Times article doesn't attempt to show the impact of a fascist group on the people who suffer real abuse and injury as a result of its organizing.

Not DeAndre Harris, injured in Charlottesville; not the members of Congregation Beth Israel, the city's sole synagogue, who were forced to flee when the neo-Nazis marched in front, chanting "Sieg heil" ("Hail victory"); not the many more people beyond Charlottsville who today feel unsafe on their campuses and in their communities because of the Traditionalist Worker Party.

Presenting a Nazi as the mild-mannered "boy next door" who cares deeply about his community is nothing new. Racism is American as apple pie in a country built on the enslavement of Blacks, and the attempt by white supremacists to normalize their hate is a longstanding tradition of America's far right.

Particularly in its modern incarnation, the Klan has mixed racist terrorism with more benign activities in an attempt to gain a larger foothold in political and social life. David Duke, a former Grand Dragon of the KKK in Louisiana, built a political career on trying to get the Klan "out of the cow pasture and into the hotel meeting rooms."

After Charlottesville, a series of anti-racist mobilizations against planned far-right rallies from Boston to Berkeley, California, helped drain some of the wind from the sails of the fascists. Even so, they have been given a boost by the current occupant of the White House who, as Matthew Heimbach noted back in 2015, "is blowing the dog whistle for white racial interests harder than any other candidate."

Just last week, Trump re-tweeted false and virulently racist and Islamophobic videos from a far-right group, Britain First--an action that various administration officials then defended.

With this kind of racist "fake news" being circulated by the current occupant of the White House, it puts a premium on journalists doing a better job of exposing the far right--and on all of us building opposition in our workplaces, campuses and communities.