Normalizing the Nazi next door

Just how a big comeback Nazis have made in 2017 was never more obvious than the New York Times’ decision to put a human face on them.

He’s Tony Hovate and he’s just a regular guy, the Times tells us. He’s the Nazi sympathizer next door.

Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.

Most Americans would be disgusted, but his bigotry has become normal, the person-next-door material.

The Nazi strategy, as documented by the Times, is to make Hovate and what he stands for “normal.” It seems to be working just fine.

If the Charlottesville rally came as a shock, with hundreds of white Americans marching in support of ideologies many have long considered too vile, dangerous or stupid to enter the political mainstream, it obscured the fact that some in the small, loosely defined alt-right movement are hoping to make those ideas seem less than shocking for the “normies,” or normal people, that its sympathizers have tended to mock online.

And to go from mocking to wooing, 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 pushback on Sunday, however, wasn’t against Hovate. It was against the Times.

“Nazis are just like you and me,” James Hamblin of The Atlantic wrote in a response essay, “except they’re Nazis.”

In a perfect world, perhaps, the editors of the New York Times might reconsider a flattering profile of a Nazi. But this isn’t a perfect world — I mean, geez, there are Nazis shopping with you at the supermarket — and the Times doubled down.

“The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think,” national editor Marc Lacey wrote in a response.

Others urged us to focus our journalism less on those pushing hate and more on those on the receiving end of that hate. “Instead of long, glowing profiles of Nazis/White nationalists, why don’t we profile the victims of their ideologies?” asked Karen Attiah, an editor at The Washington Post. “Why not a piece about the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville? Follow-ups on those who were injured? Or how PoC are coping?”

We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.

“But every time the piece wants to explain how seemingly normal the Nazi in question is, it uses show-not-tell language, and whenever it (rarely) mentions the extremely repugnant things this Nazi believes, it tells-not-shows,” one reader responded. “And as a result, the narrative you create is far more focused on normalizing Nazism than questioning it.”

  • I hope Naziism is *never* normalized – and we can all work against this cancer by making sure every attempt to make it seem like just another choice is met by an exposure of its rotten core.

  • Rob

    Nice job going off the rails, NYT.
    I recommend checking out the Salon article, “How you shouldn’t write about Nazis” by Jeremy Binckes.

  • Robert Moffitt

    (sigh) My two Uncle Joes took a more direct approach when dealing with Nazis. RIP, guys. I’ll do what I can to defeat them, just as you did.

  • Reminds me of this:

    /FWIW: Nazis should never be “normalized”

  • Angry Jonny

    I dunno. I don’t think the term “Nazi” can ever be normalized.

  • Mike Worcester

    My sis-in-law’s grandfather died in an extermination camp. I don’t care what kind of Olive Oil they prefer or which show they binge watch. Just because they engage in activities like I do means nothing. It’s their mindset, their belief, and their hatred for others which sets them apart. If anything, the Times article shows that people who look and act like me can be so repugnant. (Not that this is a new phenomenon but still worth noting.)

    And no I’m not defending the Times, they whifffed on this one. Why? Damned if I know but as I read the article it gave me a bit of a familiar chill — that those who are capable of such behavior can and do live right next door and their rationalalizaions for those beliefs are head-scratching. I’m surprised someone did not mention The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

  • The NYTimes has become a joke. I was a faithful subscriber for many years, but after this onslaught of sloppy and dangerous reporting in 2017, I had to unsubscribe. Online media outlets are doing a much better job, along with the Washington Post.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    It’s a question of propaganda vs. reality. The history of the rise of Fascism in post WWI Europe is the story of propaganda over reality. One thing “American Exceptionalism” doesn’t protect us from is becoming duped by propaganda. When the propagandists wear nice close and talk like the rest of us, people decide what they are pushing is “mainstream” enough for them to go with it. If you remove the term Nazi and use White Nationalist it means the same thing but without the baggage. While a person like Hovater might convince himself that its not the same as the Nazis of the Third Reich, to those looking from the outside it is. The value of a story like this is to shake people up and make them realize that some people who are “followers” are now joining movements we find repulsive. The reaction here is what we need from the majority of Americans so that we don’t fall into the trap that Germany and Italy fell into in the 1920s and 1930s.

  • Brett Michael Rader

    There is some value to accurately reflecting someones life and experiences (if in fact the NYT did so), as it can be a warning that these ideologies are often embraced by people that might otherwise be considered normal. I do think the NYT article trivialized his views with the way they wrote the article.

    From what I have seen, most Nazi’s come to their beliefs via propoganda and various echo chambers rather than some sort of organic experience. That’s the point of the human face, people can embrace evil simply by wrong thinking, especially if their values include nothing humanistic.

    He deserved to lose his job, writing Nazi propaganda is way over the line, but we do need to have a discussion of where that line is and who decides.