On Saturday, The New York Times ran a profile of a white supremacist living in Ohio. His name: Tony Hovater. The purpose of the profile was simple: show how a seemingly-normal young man could get sucked into the maw of toxic thinking. And the piece did that successfully.
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. 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.
The article points out that he appears on Radio Aryan, and that he launched the Traditionalist Worker Party, which showed up in Charlottesville. The website for the group sells $20 swastika armbands. The Times explicitly notes that it’s Hovater’s supposed normalcy that helps sell the white supremacy:
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. “We need to have more families. We need to be able to just be normal,” said Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, in a podcast conversation with Mr. Hovater. Why, he asked self-mockingly, were so many followers “abnormal”?
Hovater explicitly denies that he’s a Republican, rips democracy, and says that “Jews run the worlds of finance and the media.” Hovater says he began as an anarchist libertarian and then moved to white supremacist as a way to “lobby for interests that involve white people.” As with the rest of the alt-right, he advocates for racial segregation and says that he’s a “white nationalist” but not a white supremacist. He put up a Facebook post lauding the Charlottesville rally and routinely praises Hitler.
The Times received severe blowback for the article, which people accused of mainstreaming the alt-right, treating Hovater with too much respect. The Times even apologized in halfhearted fashion:
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.
The point of the article was to show just how the alt-right is attempting to slide into the mainstream. It’s a solid and important piece of reporting. They owe no apologies for it. The piece falls right into line with Hanna Arendt’s banality of evil theory — sometimes those with the most evil beliefs are banal themselves. And that’s true of Hovater and his ilk.