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.”