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The Alt-Right and the Not-Quite Intellectuals

Why reporting trumps opinion

Paul Berman
November 29, 2017
Photo: Tablet Magazine
Photo: Tablet Magazine
Photo: Tablet Magazine
Photo: Tablet Magazine

The entire universe has agreed that The New York Times did a terrible thing a few days ago in running Richard Fausset’s portrait of a young Nazi from the Ohio suburbs named Tony Hovater, but I have to confess that, regardless of the universe and its opinions, I learned something from the piece. Hovater is a founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, which rioted at Charlottesville. From Fausset’s piece and the accompanying photography, I learned that he has a bookcase. One of the books on the shelf is nothing less than World War II by C.L. Sulzberger, who used to write the “Foreign Affairs” column for the newspaper his family owns—which ought to have merited a rueful comment or two from the paper in question. But mostly I was struck by the names of other writers, who appear to have influenced Hovater in his intellectual development, such as it is—e.g., Murray Rothbard, the grand theoretician of anarcho-capitalism and a founding father of the modern rightwing libertarian movement. Young Hovater started out as a Rothbardian, it seems, which is to say, he has a nerdy side. His tattoos are impressive, but his biceps, not. He is a reader. Perhaps not a serious reader, but, even so, he turns out to be someone whose life can be explained only with reference to authors he has read and a trajectory of his thoughts, from “vaguely leftist rock musician” (in Fausset’s phrase) to Rothbardian libertarianism to a collection of books on World War II. In this way, Hovater, who is pictured wearing a red T-shirt, appears to resemble some of the rioters at Charlottesville, who dressed in proper suit jackets with tie-less shirts, the way professors do.

Fausset and his editors at the Times wanted to discover some dramatic cause or origin of young Hovater’s turn toward fascism—a “Rosebud,” as Fausset says—that would presumably be something like an abusive father, or a divorce by his parents, or a drug problem, or some other terrible experience. The search for this sort of thing is a mania of the Times. It is an ideological tic. It is Rosebud-ism. It is the presupposition, based on nothing at all, that someone who turns to extreme and violent ideas must be impelled to do so by some external event, perhaps from long-ago, exactly the way that Citizen Kane’s journey into mogul-hood was distorted by an unhappy event of his childhood. It used to be that, every time a jihadi committed a jihad, the Times (and other papers, too) would go looking for drunk-driving arrests and bad experiences in school and other such matters, in search of the original cause.

But I think that a more typical reality is the one that we see in Fausset’s article. Someone is caught up by ideas—Murray Rothbard’s libertarianism, in this case. And one doctrine leads to the next, not necessarily through any logical connection or inner imperative, but merely because doctrines are intoxicating, and a penchant for intoxications of that sort may drift along from theory to theory, sometimes veering toward ever more exotic and thrilling ones, the way that somebody with a weakness with drugs may advance from marijuana to heroin. Between Rothbard’s libertarianism and Nazism there is ideologically no connection at all. But there is the lure of isms, and the life of the sect. Today we live in an era, thanks to Donald Trump and other developments, when the life of the rightwing sects has become altogether thrilling. Look at what marvelous experiences young Hovater has had: the founding of his Traditionalist Worker Party, with a few hundred members, presumably much like himself; the spectacular success of the riot in Charlottesville, with an actual murder, no less; another success at a “White Lives Matter” rally in Tennessee in October; and now a full-length profile in The New York Times! It has been one high after another.

Fausset’s discussion of books and ideas is interesting, too, for what it does not show. It does not show a substantial ideology at work. In France and Germany right now, the extreme right is developing on a basis, in part, of intellectual tradition. Is anything similar taking place in America? Fausset’s article makes clear that, in the case of young Hovater, nothing of the sort is taking place. Hovater, then: is he a representative figure of the new movement? Presumably Fausset thinks that he is, in fact, representative. That is the logic of the piece. So we learn something, which ought not to surprise us. In Europe, the leaders of the ultra-right and the new right-wing populisms tend to be serious militants of their own cause, with serious intellectuals on their side. But in the United States, Donald Trump is a buffoon, and Tony Hovater of the Traditionalist Worker Party is the village idiot. Does that make our American situation less dangerous, or more dangerous? I wonder.

I do not mean to draw too many deductions from Fausset’s piece. I do mean to say: lay off on the poor man! Fausset, I mean. He went to the suburbs of Ohio, and he did what reporters are supposed to do, which is to report. There was not enough of that during the political campaign in 2016. We needed more pieces, not fewer, on Trump voters and the new developments. We needed the reporters to be open-minded, and not judgmental. We have not lacked for attitudinizing during the last couple of years. We have lacked for reporting. Here is a reporter. It is good. Let him go on reporting, without feeling that he has to prove his anti-Nazi credentials every two sentences.


Read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural analyses for Tablet magazine here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.