When Nazis Are Normal

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 9:47am

The day after Thanksgiving, the New York Times published an article called “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door,” by Richard Fausset. It profiles Tony Hovater, a 29-year-old far-right extremist and Nazi sympathizer who lives in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio.

The piece attempts to shed light on the concept of “normies”: members of the alt-right movement in America who did not wield torches or plow their car into crowds of people in Charlottesville. These are the people who on the outside appear to be just like everyone else – married with families, hardworking, law-abiding – yet they harbor antisemitic, white nationalist or white supremacist ideologies and consider themselves foot soldiers in the far-right’s mission to “fight for the interests of White Americans.”

Immediately after the article’s publication, the New York Times found itself on the receiving end of nearly universal backlash for the article’s neutral tone toward Hovater and its “normalization” of modern-day American Nazis. Critics argued that the story made Hovater seem like a regular guy, that it failed to explicitly condemn his abhorrent admiration of Adolf Hitler and fascism, and that it gave a platform to a perpetrator instead of a victim, whose story would be more deserving of being told.

These are all valid criticisms. USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive contains 55,000 testimonies of survivors of genocidal violence because listening to a survivor’s memories of her parents being murdered in front of her eyes, or his friends turning their backs on him because he was a Jew or a Tutsi, tells us all we need to know about the consequences of hatred. Survivors’ testimonies inspire empathy in those who listen to them, and they give voice to those who were silenced.

Fausset and his editors could have also denounced Hovater in stronger language, with less focus on the things that make him approachable, like his upcoming wedding or love of “Seinfeld,” in favor of more criticism of his dangerous vision for a fascist, racially segregated America.

Yet it is Hovater’s seemingly normal life that makes the article, at its core, truly terrifying – and effective. In their response to the backlash, the editors said that they wanted the story to illustrate how hate and extremism have become increasingly more normal, even acceptable, in American society, and they succeeded. We get to know Hovater not as a stereotypical “Nazi,” like a cartoon character in an old film, but as someone not much different from the people we interact with every day. If someone like Hovater, with no particular axe to grind against Jews, LGBTQ or other minority groups, can be a Nazi sympathizer, anyone could.

In fact, “normies” like Hovater are just as dangerous, if not more so, than the neo-Nazi skinheads and criminals who have up until now been the face of the far-right extremist movement. Thugs carrying guns and beating people up in alleys may evoke more fear, but historically they are outliers. Incidents of mass violence like the Holocaust, Rwandan Tutsi Genocide and the Cambodian Genocide begin when average citizens buy into racist ideology and do the work of turning a society against a group of people. And those average citizens do have regular jobs and careers. They may even have friends of different racial backgrounds, and they may be loving parents.

Testimonies of genocide survivors tell us, time and time again, of the once friendly neighbors who turned in their Jewish acquaintances to the Gestapo. The classmates and teachers who taunted students with racist chants. The manifestos shouted on the radio and printed in newspapers. All the people responsible for these acts were “normies.” Genocide prevention depends on recognizing that future perpetrators are not a special breed of evil: they are normal people who, without proper intervention, can be easily persuaded to become more and more open about their hate until eventually they resort to violence.

If the story of Tony Hovater reads like a story about a normal guy, it’s because he is a normal guy. Now it’s our job to make sure his way of thinking never becomes normal, too.

Robin Migdol