In July of 1990, The Nation devoted an entire issue to a report by the journalist Elinor Langer, “The American Neo-Nazi Movement Today.” Twenty-six years later, it makes for a bracing read.
Anyone writing on Nazis or anything connected with Nazis is invariably asked the one question everyone always wonders about, the dread question, the Sinclair Lewis question, “Can it happen here?” and in being confronted with this several times in the course of this work, I came to see that the key word in the question is obviously “it.” If “it” means another Hitler, the answer is probably no, if only because history does not literally repeat. But there are subtler forms of repetition. In a period of declining national authority manifested everywhere from our weakening social structure to our worsening economic position, a movement is stirring that explains it all, and people are starting to listen.
Rereading the piece today, Langer finds herself “appalled by its relevance.”
The important question for Langer, as she argues in a Nation forum published today, is not whether Donald Trump himself resembles this or that fascist leader of the past but the extent to which the movement supporting him draws strength from, and at the same time strengthens, America’s own openly and proudly fascist movement. As she wrote in 1990, “The neo-Nazis’ ideology and activities are certainly ‘extreme,’ but they exist along a racist continuum on which it is difficult to draw a line.” Over the last quarter-century, Langer says, “The movement has only grown and deepened, coming closer to the mainstream on a lot of issues, especially immigration.” Indeed, Trump is now embraced by both white nationalists and, despite his issuing what the speaker of the House of Representatives calls a “textbook example of a racist comment,” by the current leadership of the GOP.
The introduction to Langer’s report is excerpted below, and the entirety of “The American Neo-Nazi Movement Today” can be read below that as a PDF. Langer later expanded her research into a book, A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America, which was published in 2003.
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The story you are about to read is an ugly one. If it were a film, it would be rated “R.” On television, a solicitous commentator would warn parents to urge children from the room. It is the story of something secret becoming public; of something forbidden becoming permitted; of the long, slow re-emergence of racial thinking in the United States from its retreat after World War II to the point where it can once again energize action; of the gradual, tentative crystallization of a political movement openly aimed at white hegemony. The problems of understanding this phenomenon are many. Composed of elements ranging from the Ku Klux Klan of Connecticut to the skinheads of California, the racial movement is scattered and diverse, and on matters as important as its relationship to American society in general and American racism in particular, observers disagree.