January 7, 2018
The New York Times has received criticism for publishing, on November 25, an article, "A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland," profiling a neo-Nazi named Tony Hovater, showing that he and his wife are, up to a point, typical small-town Americans. As one letter to the paper put the complaint, "The New York Times just normalized Nazi sympathizers." Another added: "Nazi sympathizers are supposed to be reviled and ostracized, not humanized and normalized." There were many other negative reactions. More importantly, two columnists in The Nation, Gary Younge  and Eric Alterman, offered extended versions of those complaints.
In Younge’s view, due to the article’s "obsession with the trivial details of the Hovaters’ daily lives, its effect was not to expose the obscenity of their views, but rather to underscore the normality of their existence." However. the latter seemed to be the point, that right-wingers with extreme views are not necessarily raving maniacs, that they live quietly among us. The article emphasized that aspect of the situation but, although it did not closely examine or emphasize Mr. Hovater’s extreme views, it did not ignore them. He is described as an "avowed white nationalist" and a bigot. "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." Note the title of the article.
As to normality, the article, according to Younge, "offered this as a revelation, as though Hannah Arendt had never covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial." His reference presumably is to Arendt’s 1963 book on the war-crimes trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil . Readers of The Nation are sophisticated, but I doubt that all of them have read the book or otherwise absorbed her theory of the banality of evil, and have, from it, concluded that, of course, neo-Nazis live among us unnoticed. In any case, it is unlikely that all the readers of The Times have done so; pointing that out was not superfluous.
Alterman took the critique a step further: "the already infamous New York Times profile of one Tony Hovater," which "seeks to illustrate the point that Nazis are people, too," results in " coddling Nazis." He summed up as follows: "Most of the weaknesses of the piece—and there were many—can be subsumed under the heading of ‘category error’. . . . [I]t is clear that what is important about Nazis is not their personalities; it is their ideology and their ability to put it to work killing people."
With due respect to two excellent commentators, all of this seems to me to be an exercise in missing the point: there are extreme right-wingers among us who resemble the rest of us, who are part of the current culture. In response to the claim of category error, one could argue that the evil of neo-Nazism is better known than the ordinariness of people who adhere to it. If so, the Times did a service.
The Times article made another point ignored by Younge and Alterman: "the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normie life . . . ."
A recent book describes the Ku Klux Klan of the Nineteen Twenties. In discussing the origins of the Second Klan, the author notes that two of its ideological components were racism and nativism, which included, as with neo-Nazis, white supremacy and hatred of Jews. A review in The Atlantic described the movement as follows: "the Klan of the 1920s encouraged native-born white Americans to believe that bigotry, intimidation, harassment, and extralegal violence were all perfectly compatible with, if not central to, patriotic respectability." The Klan was a more complicated, self-contradictory phenomenon than present-day white nationalism, but its appeal to otherwise ordinary people is instructive. That experience reenforces the message of the Times’ article: we must realize that extreme views are part of American culture, may be held by our seemingly "normal" neighbors, and will erupt at times in movements such as neo-Nazism.
Alterman argues that "the Times — for all its crucial investigative reporting — is simply not up to the job of explaining what the hell is going on in our country." Perhaps, but remember that the elevation of Donald Trump to the Presidency is the result as well as the cause of what is going on. The approach of the article is relevant to the former; we need to realize that otherwise normal people, in this case Trump voters, support or at least tolerate extreme views. Trump’s approval rate among Republicans, after a year in office (82%, according to Gallup), demonstrates that fact; though he is bigoted, laughably incompetent and frighteningly dangerous, they still support him.
3. Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK
4. Id., at 25-28