It’s déjà vu all over again. Every column I write in the Trump era somehow needs to begin with some version of the question “Can this really be happening?” It’s only the “this” that keeps changing. One minute, it’s collusion with Putin to undermine the integrity of our election; the next, it’s being cool with child molestation; after that, it’s taxing grad students to pay for private jets. It’s hard to tell if we’re living in a science-fiction movie or a nightmare reality show.
Even so, I thought we were at least done with coddling Nazis. And yet there is the already infamous New York Times profile of one Tony Hovater, which seeks to illustrate the point that Nazis are people, too. They eat boneless wings, wear T-shirts, register for wedding gifts, and—get this—appreciate “mid-90s, Jewish, New York, observational” humor. Isn’t that adorable?
They also like Hitler, who, it turns out, was a guy “who really believed in his cause,” and “really believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.” Sure, he killed a few million Jews, Roma, and homosexuals, among others, but you gotta give him that. Significantly, this appears to be a historical tic of the Times. Back in 1922, the paper assured readers that “several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded.” In 1939, the year Germany occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia before eventually invading Poland and beginning the conflagration that was World War II, the Times broke the story that the nation’s head Nazi enjoyed “oatmeal porridge and prunes or wholemeal rye bread and honey” for breakfast.
The Twitterverse trashed the Times’s Hovater story, followed by the blogosphere. I could not find a single defense of it, save the extremely wishy-washy ones published by the article’s author and editor and a couple of right-wingers. (If you want to read excellent critiques of the article itself, I strongly recommend the Twitter feed of someone called “Mangy Jay.”) Most of the weaknesses of the piece—and there were many—can be subsumed under the heading of “category error.” Just as was the case with the prune-loving Führer who did not wish to invade Poland on an empty stomach, it 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. The Times showed no interest in Hovater’s actual beliefs. It reported, for instance, that he is a proud member of the Traditionalist Worker Party. Might it have been worthwhile to ask whether he shares the view, expressed by Matthew Parrott of the group’s Traditionalist Youth Network in 2016, that “When critical thinkers are shown what to look for, they become anti-semites in due time despite themselves, as Jewish subversion of the West is too pervasive and consistently hostile and destructive to remain objective about for long”? Was Hovater influenced by the racial history of the place in which he was born and raised? A woman who identifies herself on Twitter as “Holla Black Identity Extremist Girl” says that she too was raised in Huber Heights, Ohio, and that her grandparents—the first black family to move there—were welcomed by burning Ku Klux Klan crosses and, later, the murder of her uncle. (Ohio ranks third in the United States in the category “hate crimes.”) How did Hovater feel about the murder of Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville rally he attended? We know he likes Trump, but does he think key people in the Donald Trump/Steve Bannon universe share his ideology? Who and why?
I could go on, but there is no question that the profile proved a massive misfire. And the reason for this is the same reason 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. Like virtually every other mainstream media organization, it is treating an extraordinary situation—one in which our democracy and possibly our survival as a nation are consistently threatened—as just another day at the races. Someone on Twitter observed that, as eager as the Times was to humanize this Nazi, it was just as happy to point out that Michael Brown, the black youth who was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “was no angel.” The Times was tougher on a black victim of police murder than it was on a Nazi not because the paper is “racist.” Rather, it’s because the Times is addicted to showing “both sides” of any controversy, no matter how egregious and awful one of those sides may be.
That the Times, the networks, and other mainstream media outlets have been unable to communicate the degree to which our institutions are threatened by this Nazi-friendly administration is part of the reason that Trump and company can get away with what they do—aided by their own media cheerleaders at Breitbart, the Rupert Murdoch empire, and elsewhere. Where did the Nazi-admiring Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka go after he was forced out of the administration? To Fox News and the Heritage Foundation. Where did Trump go to get the racist (doctored) videos of alleged Muslim violence against Christians that he recently retweeted? From the deputy leader of a fascist political party in Britain.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet blithely dismisses criticism of the paper’s Nazi profile as “the most ridiculous overreaction” from people “who have never actually done much journalism.” Even as the Times genuflects to right-wing attacks, this condescension is typical of the paper’s treatment of criticism from its left. Baquet has the problem exactly wrong: The problem is a frightful under-reaction from people who have spent too much time doing journalism from a mindless “both sides do it” perspective to recognize the evil staring them in the face.