Jasmin Mujanović, a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe, is the author of “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.”
This past weekend, the New York Times published a profile of an American Nazi that rightly stirred up a major backlash. The article, which dwells at length on the apparent normality of Tony Hovater, its subject, casts a revealing light on U.S. intellectual elites, who persist in underplaying the existential crisis facing the American republic. Amid increasing neo-fascist mobilization, and during the tenure of a president who routinely peddles far-right talking points and policies and equivocates on condemning white supremacists, the Times has produced a soft-focus profile of one of the founding members of the country’s leading neo-Nazi groups.
In other words, one of America’s papers of record, whose writers and editors routinely interact with the most powerful people in the world, has published an article that treats the specter of far-right violence, an increasingly present reality for millions of immigrants and people of color in the United States, as just another voice in the marketplace of ideas. It is as though fascism, the 20th century’s most murderous ideology, has become an obscure, little-understood footnote in history.
The only way such a piece could have been produced — despite the Times’ rigorous editorial standards — is if, at a fundamental level, its staff did not understand the threat represented by Hovater. Or, more to the point, Times staffers are not afraid of Hovater, the way so many of us are — we who are Jewish, Muslim, black, brown or queer, and who have always known that behind Hovater’s dog whistle references to “tradition” and “normies” (i.e., normal people) lies a genocidal vision for America’s future.
Or perhaps Times staffers are simply insulated and figure (correctly) that, when the violence begins, it will not be directed at people like them: wealthy, white and mobile. Hovater and his extremist associates are far more likely to prioritize the murder and expulsion of static, poor, black and brown communities — those who are close at hand. The “coastal elites” in New York, Washington and San Francisco, although reviled by the likes of Hovater and Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief of staff, as “cosmopolitan elites,” are protected from the real consequences of their politics by geography and privilege.
That, in any case, is how it has always been. The primary targets of white terrorism in the United States have always been local. Klansmen lynched their black and brown neighbors; however much they may have claimed to despise them, they did not travel to Manhattan to purge New York of its literati. The Nazis, likewise, organized ordinary Germans and ordinary Europeans to exterminate their neighbors, to loot their homes, to erase the memories of their ever having existed at all. There is, therefore, nothing novel or unique about Hovater’s humdrum suburban life. He is an ordinary monster — but such monsters have always been ordinary.
If the Times felt that the memories of the Jim Crow period or the Holocaust were somehow too distant to instill in their readers coherent lessons about the dangers of fascism, then they need only have glanced at world headlines last week and reflected on the conviction of General Ratko Mladić. Now serving a life sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity, Mladić was the wartime commander of the Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serb forces. In that capacity he presided over the rape, torture and murder of thousands, and the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands more, across Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.
Mladić, at the direction of his political superiors Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević, actually enacted the ideas that Hovater and his cohort have now presented in the pages of the New York Times as the reasonable cry of middle America’s downtrodden white man. For that reason Mladić is, along with much of the 1990s roster of Serbian war criminals, a staple reference point on far-right forums and listservs across the Internet. To them, he is the man who was butchering Muslims before 9/11, a genocidaire ahead of his time, and who sought to create a “Greater Serbia,” much as those who seek to “Make America Great Again.”
Despite the handwringing in the immediate aftermath of November 2016, it is clear that much of the American media establishment has learned little from the unthinkable election of Donald Trump. Barefaced lies, disinformation and hate speech are all now routine and accepted parts of the U.S. media diet. The president is the chief architect and beneficiary of this new regime, but his march to the White House has clearly emboldened all manner of extremists.
If American democracy and constitutional government are to persevere — something that cannot be taken for granted — a full-throated defense of their norms and values will be required by citizens and the press alike. Unfortunately, with its glib profile of Hovater, the New York Times has failed its readers and emboldened the enemies of the republic.