In 1990, The Nation ran a dispatch from Portland, Oregon, by editorial board member Elinor Langer titled “The American Neo-Nazi Movement Today.” The piece, which took up almost an entire issue of the magazine, was provoked by an event that had taken place two years earlier: Three skinheads in Portland had beaten an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat during a street brawl. Langer had originally planned to write about their trials for the magazine. But when the defendants pleaded guilty, she switched tack and embarked on an ambitious effort to examine a burgeoning faction bent on igniting a race war. She took an incident that rocked a community and turned her comprehensive report into a sociological study, one of the first of its kind on the subject.
Thirteen years later, Langer has expanded on her research and published A Hundred Little Hitlers. Unlike her original article, which focused on the murder to draw out the history and sociology of the skinhead movement, Langer’s narrative here is centered on the civil trial that aimed to hold a California-based white power group–the White Aryan Resistance (WAR)–and its leader responsible for the death of the Portland man. The suit was brought by the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center, famously led by Morris Dees–a man whose effective fundraising tactics increased annual contributions to the SPLC from $2.5 million to $11.4 million between 1982 and 1992. Tom Metzger–WAR’s infamous leader–was the defendant, along with his son, WAR itself and two of the skinheads who had pleaded guilty to the killing (Dees excluded one skinhead from the lawsuit, hoping to win his cooperation). Although Metzger is undeniably an ambitious racist–he ran a talk show, recorded regular racist bulletins on an answering machine known as the “Aryan Update,” worked with David Duke, ran for the Senate, participated in most of the major outgrowths and offshoots of the skinhead movement and was considered by many to be a leader of the next generation–Langer puzzles over why he was tried for the crime, and a considerable portion of the book is a complicated and not always critical portrait of the man.
In her Nation piece, Langer predicted of Metzger: “As long as he is alive and talking, he is likely to have a forum. He will not be easy to stop.” And she was right: Although Metzger lost the trial and, with it, most of his assets, in the end a Faustian bargain was struck to settle the messy matter of Metzger’s continuing to profit financially from racism. Langer reveals for the first time that, as part of Metzger’s punishment, all money sent to him for racist propaganda is, to this day, divided in a two-thirds, one-third split. (Unsurprisingly, neither Metzger nor the SPLC has ever been eager to highlight this tidbit of information.) Ten of every thirty dollars donated to WAR goes to the SPLC, while twenty still finds its way into Metzger’s coffers. Still, it’s not just this unseemly result that strikes Langer as a failure of the trial; she sees the SPLC’s victory as one of “historical emptiness.”
In the book’s epilogue, Langer muses on the “ifs” of the episode, pausing to contemplate what could have come of the killing and its aftermath if the three skinheads who pleaded guilty to the murder “had gone to trial in the first place and the people of Portland had been forced to face the emergence of their youthful white supremacist movement with more candor and less panic.” Langer’s reasoned analysis prods readers to do just that, and in transcending the hype and showmanship that came to define her subjects, she reveals the shades of gray that permeate a cult that insists on seeing the world in black and white.