Where the New York Times article on an American Nazi went wrong

Why is it a surprise that Nazis love muffins?

The New York Times is taking some deserved criticism for publishing a gentle profile of an Ohio Nazi. The point of the piece, quite literally, is that Nazis are people too. The article goes to great lengths to show that the subject, Tony Hovater, is just like you and me. He owns cats, shops at the supermarket, cooks dinner, plays music, enjoys Seinfeld. He was married this fall, and the Times notes that he and his then-fiancée registered at Target and asked for “a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer.”

The problem with the Times story isn’t that it’s about a modern-day Nazi. It’s that it doesn’t offer any insight into modern-day Nazis. Readers are, presumably, supposed to respond with shock upon learning that Nazis also bake muffins, own pets, watch sitcoms. But this is an old point, and it can be made with starker examples. Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian, a painter, a lover of musicals, a talented mimic. It is childish, this late in human history, to be surprised that evil people are also people.

Richard Fausset, the reporter on the story, published an accompanying reflection that is, in many ways, more interesting than the article itself. In it, he admits that there was “a hole at the heart” of his piece, an absence where there should have been an answer. Fausset wanted to explain how Hovater became a Nazi, to find the origin of his divergence from the American mainstream, but all he found was a normal-seeming Ohioan who happened to be a virulent racist and anti-Semite. “I beat myself up about all of this for a while,” he writes, “until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect.”

Fausset is an excellent journalist, and here, you can squint and see where he was going, even if he didn’t quite get there. But perhaps the fact that he couldn’t find an answer suggests he was asking the wrong question. Maybe the real mystery is not the ugly ideas that lurk in the hearts of our countrymen, but our desperate efforts to explain them away.

Sanitizing Trumpism

To understand Fausset’s article, it’s useful to see it within its broader genre. Since Donald Trump’s startling victory in the Republican primaries, there’s been a lot of journalism trying to understand his supporters — of which very few are Nazis, but considerably more are resentful or fearful of minorities, immigrants, and Muslims.

This presents a challenge. In American life, it is considered a slur to call someone a racist, or a bigot, or a xenophobe, even though it is clear that racist, bigoted, and xenophobic ideas carry broad appeal and hold many adherents. Trump gained stature in the Republican Party as the foremost proponent of a racist conspiracy theory suggesting the first African-American president wasn’t an American at all, he launched his campaign by saying Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals, and he won Iowa after calling for a ban on Muslim travel. He thus created a collision in our political culture: To state the drivers of his appeal plainly was to slander his supporters.

And so emerged a powerful effort to recast straightforward support for a straightforward message as something both more complex and more sympathetic — “economic anxiety,” perhaps, which has the advantage of being particularly appealing to liberals looking for common cause with Trump supporters; or a backlash to “political correctness,” which set a delightful trap for critics of Trumpism, as it holds that efforts to name the sources of Trump’s support are themselves the cause of Trump’s support.

Last week, in the Atlantic, Adam Serwer published an important essay titled “The Nationalist’s Delusion.” Serwer shows, carefully and thoroughly, that this two-step is nothing new in American politics. Thirty years ago, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, captured the Republican nomination for governor in Louisiana and nearly won the race. As Serwer writes, the media coverage of that race mirrored today’s media coverage almost precisely.

The real cause of Duke’s support was “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession,” wrote the Washington Post. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them,” recorded the LA Times. “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more,” wrote United Press International. Many of Duke’s voters “just wanted to send a message to Washington,” argued a Loyola University pollster.

It is strange, in a country that fought a civil war over slavery, that witnessed (and protected) a domestic terror campaign that lynched thousands of African Americans, that enforced legal segregation, that there is so much resistance to simply admitting what that our history shows as obvious fact: There is racism in America, and it’s a potent political force.

But we will resist stating that fact plainly even when it requires absurd contortions. We will resist it even when the candidate running for office is a former leader of the KKK. And so of course we will resist it when the candidate is Donald Trump, who, whatever his faults, was not a member of the KKK, who says he is “the least racist person you have ever met.” And we will definitely resist it if that candidate wins, because to admit that a campaign powered by racist sentiment can actually win the presidency is to admit that we are a racist country, or at least a country comfortable with racism. Thus, Serwer writes:

The plain meaning of Trumpism exists in tandem with denials of its implications; supporters and opponents alike understand that the president’s policies and rhetoric target religious and ethnic minorities, and behave accordingly. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist. It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.

Sometimes, however, the pothole cannot be avoided.

There is nothing unusual or rare about bigotry

When racism is undeniably present, when there is no method left for recasting racism as something that isn’t racism, we call it aberrant and commence investigations of its cause. This brings its own comfort: If virulent racism exists only in damaged souls, then that shows its rarity; it suggests the rest of us are clean.

This is the project Fausset and the Times were engaged in. The racism of a Nazi cannot be denied. There is no recasting the opinions of a man who imagines the aftermath of Germany winning World War II, and asks, “Which part is supposed to look unappealing?” And so the search begins for the explanation, for the moment he went wrong, the trauma that made him so different from the rest of us. But Fausset couldn’t find that moment. That moment didn’t exist.

What he doesn’t do is then face up to the absence of mystery. Racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, xenophobia — none of it is aberrant, none of it is ahistorical, none of it is rare. Even Nazism isn’t unknown in America — I grew up in Orange County, California, and I remember seeing swastika armbands at concerts and hearing about neo-Nazi gatherings. They didn’t receive feature profiles, but they were there.

What is new is the sense many Nazis and racists have that the wind is at their back. Fausset mentions, but does not dwell on, Hovater’s feeling that “the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him.” Fausset even goes on to say that “the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normie life — their fondness for National Public Radio, their four cats, their bridal registry.”

The trouble is, Fausset is right. The movement will make use of the Hovaters — through profiles just like this one. What is abnormal in this era is not that there are some otherwise normal Americans who hold ugly ideas, but the attention we are giving them.