In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, our newspaper giants have dispatched an army of reporters to the forgotten centers of America in an attempt to “understand” Trump voters. Outlets like The New York Times reach out to poor, white men who voted for Trump, and hold them up as the embodiment of the Trump coalition. The problem is that this vision is betrayed by reality, as Hillary beat Trump by twelve points amongst those making less than $50,000 per year, and simple math reveals that women and minorities make up the majority of the Trump coalition. The entire premise of these “we must understand these angry white men to understand Trump” is flawed, and it demonstrates how woefully unprepared much of our major media is to help the populace understand how President Trump happened.
Over Thanksgiving, the Times published yet another soft profile on a Nazi, written by Richard Fausset. It caused such an uproar that their national editor, Mark Lacey, was forced to write a response. The piece is an example of how journalism has decayed—where journalists effectively retweet what they have been told without adding vital context. For example, this train wreck of a sentence comes off as a statement of fact (emphasis mine):
But Mr. Hovater, in the days leading up to the wedding, was somewhat less anxious. There are times when it can feel toxic to openly identify as a far-right extremist in the Ohio of 2017. But not always. He said the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him, demonstrating that it is not the end of the world to be attacked as the bigot he surely is: “You can just say, ‘Yeah, so?’ And move on.”
Who says that it can feel toxic? Fausset? Hovater? Is that something that’s a known fact to the people of Ohio? The piece is littered with openly racist assertions from Hovater, and there is almost no pushback from the Times to properly contextualize his statements. Here is another example of this abject failure.
A profile of someone does not need to rebut their beliefs. There is real value in simply giving evil a microphone, and letting them hang themselves with their own words. Theoretically, that's what the Times was trying to do here, but they utterly failed at their task. It's one thing to let a Nazi like Hovater define his worldview through that lens, but it's quite another to let him rationalize his feelings with falsehoods. If the NYT wanted an example of how to write a profile on an extremist hellbent on fostering a community where innocents are killed, all they needed to do was take a cue from their excellent terrorism reporter, Rukmini Callimachi. This quote from her subject interested in joining ISIS could also be problematic if left to its own devices.
”Once [ISIS] saw my sincere curiosity, they were very kind. They asked questions about my family, where I was from, about what I wanted to do in life.”
However, Callimachi spent the previous section laying the groundwork for the quotes to come, and even reached out to an expert to help put ISIS's efforts to recruit this woman in proper context.
Even though the Islamic State's ideology is explicitly at odds with the West, the group is making a relentless effort to recruit Westerners into its ranks, eager to exploit them for their outsize propaganda value.
“All of us have a natural firewall in our brain that keeps us from bad ideas,” said Nasser Weddady, a Middle East expert who is preparing a research paper on combating extremist propaganda. “They look for weaknesses in the wall, and then they attack.”
Fausset reached out to one expert for his Nazi profile, and they were simply used to say how many members the white supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party has. Callimachi established the context that ISIS operates within before she let her biased interview subject do so, while Fausset lets Hovater normalize his Nazi beliefs in between Fausset's humanizing anecdotes about this Nazi's life. It is incredibly important to shine a light on the fact that evil is and always has resided next door in seemingly “normal people” in this country, but the Times spent infinitely more time describing Hovater's neighborly traits than his hateful ideology. The Times could not have come off any more clueless if they tried. They actually sent this tweet out to promote a story where they very clearly normalized Nazi's extremist views.
There's a part of this failure that is due to the overwhelming white maleness of journalism. Nazis are viewed as something to be understood far more than feared because they're not a direct threat to anyone who isn't a woman or a minority. We pretend that their views are anathema to America, even though Hitler derived a significant chunk of his bankrupt ideology from American eugenics. Here is a passage from Mein Kampf:
There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but [the US], in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially. By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalization, it professes in slow beginnings a view that is peculiar to the People's State.
This country was built on the backs of slaves and on the graves of the natives, and white America has been spinning falsehoods trying to redefine those facts in the larger context of “American exceptionalism.” Nazis have been around at least as long as America has. In order to write about Nazis, we must understand their appeal, and traveling to economically dilapidated areas to interview white men who “feel left behind” is an implicit endorsement of the lie at the heart of their own narrative. The supposition is that if the economy were good, these attitudes would not be as widespread.
Again, Hillary Clinton trounced Trump amongst the poor. Claiming this wave of racism that elected Donald Trump was caused by economics is a bullshit excuse that could only exist in a country dominated by white supremacy. Women have only been able to vote in 25 out of our 58 presidential elections. The Civil Rights Act is younger than the baby boomers. America still has a long way to go towards resembling an equal society, but profiles like this assume that we have achieved this goal, and that our racist history has nothing to do with men like Tony Hovater glorifying white supremacy.
If The New York Times was really interested in understanding Trump voters, why aren't they sending reporters out to talk to the 25% of Latino women who voted for Trump? Or the 13% of black men? Why is every single one of these “understanding Trump voters” an interview with a white man in an economically depressed area? This only serves to further the narrative that racism is the result of economics, and not something deeper and more sinister embedded in American society. By operating off this supposition, The New York Times has turned in to a de facto Nazi sympathizer. This isn't the first time the Times has pulled something like this, as they wrote this glowing profile a little over a month before Hitler opened Buchenwald concentration camp.
White supremacy is intrinsic to America, and The New York Times helps to perpetuate it with profiles like this one. As long as we continue to operate under the premise that this rise of open white supremacy is caused by economics and not our own culture, it will continue to fester.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.