A recent Weekend Update segment on Saturday Night Live featured Kate McKinnon as Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Challenged by Colin Jost to justify his inability to remember anything salient regarding contact with Russians during or after the election (contact that the real Sessions joked about at the Federalist Society), McKinnon/Sessions replied:
SESSIONS: I’ve had some memory problems stemming from a childhood trauma.
JOST: A childhood trauma? What was it?
SESSIONS: The passing of the Civil Rights Act.
The joke neatly pinpoints the fundamental role that race has played in Sessions’s political career, but it also more expansively speaks to the absurdity of accounting for the malevolence of white supremacy through the clichés of therapy-speak. While it is not inaccurate to talk about a felt loss of privilege as a “trauma,” it is also spectacularly beside the point. Even if we could hypothetically trace a person’s racist actions or words back to a particular event which they experienced as a kind of harm or shock, what would we gain? What is the point of diagnosis?
That was the question I found myself asking as I read the controversial New York Times profile of Tony Hovater (“A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland”) this past weekend. Numerous critiques have picked apart the many journalistic and historical deficiencies of the piece. Two twitter threads—by “Mangy Jay” and Angus Johnson—are particularly good about the questions that Richard Fausset (the profile’s author) did not ask. Yoni Appelbaum added a deeper historical context for Hovater by discussing the long history of segregation and white nationalism in the Dayton area—where Hovater lives.
Other, more diffuse reactions have, however, identified the problem not so much as a lack of journalistic craft or historical knowledge but as a moral obtuseness on the part of Fausset. (Mangy Jay’s critique also goes in this direction.) These critiques generally circle around charges of either “normalizing” Nazis or of empathizing with them. Fausset, they argue, was utterly wrong in trying to present Hovater as a person who is in some way relatable and whom we ought to try to understand—not because we want to stop him but because we need to diagnose the experiences which have pushed him toward the darkness of white nationalism.
This particular line of critique is familiar and it lands us in a familiar place: a kind of double bind where the terms of our critique—normalization and empathy—squirm uncooperatively as we try to tighten our grip. How, for instance, can we both take a stand against the “normalization” of people like Hovater and also simultaneously remind ourselves that other forms of white nationalism have been integral to the settler colonialism of the U.S. itself? Or how can we insist that writers who want us really to understand the motivations and complexities of far right extremists are morally myopic and yet also argue that one of the core virtues of the humanities is its ability to create more empathetic people?
There are good answers to both those questions—how to be empathetic without granting extremists moral priority over their victims; how to historicize white nationalism without undercutting our own claims to representing the true ideals of America—but I am more interested in why we keep returning to these two issues, why journalists have such a hard time writing about far right extremists and why critics of those journalists are unable to make any headway in shifting the conversation about the far right.
Fausset gives us a good place to start in a brief defense he wrote of the Hovater profile after the flood of critique came rolling in. He writes that his article was meant to identify the particular cause or set of causes which brought about Hovater’s “radical turn.”
What prompted him to take his ideas beyond his living room, beyond the chat rooms, and on to Charlottesville, where he marched in August alongside allies like the neo-Confederate League of the South and the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement, which bills itself as “America’s Premier White Civil Rights Organization”? Where was his Rosebud?
The reference to Rosebud—to a particularly traumatic experience which implants itself in a young person’s psyche and drives them toward a particular course of action ever after—may be a little tongue-in-cheek, but Fausset also is clearly at least half in earnest, and certainly his editor felt that the piece needed a clear answer to the question of when and why Hovater ‘became’ a white nationalist.
After I had filed an early version of the article, an editor at The Times told me he felt like the question had not been sufficiently addressed. So I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them. I could feel the failure even as Mr. Hovater and I spoke on the phone, adding to what had already been hours of face-to-face conversation in and around his hometown New Carlisle, Ohio… As he did so, I was thinking about an album I grew up with by the Minutemen, the Southern California punk group, and its brilliantly koanic title: “What Makes a Man Start Fires?”
Ultimately, Fausset tries to make a virtue of his inability to formulate an answer (koans don’t really have answers, after all): “I decided that the unfilled hole [i.e., the lack of explanation for Hovater’s “radical turn”] would have to serve as both feature and defect.” “Sometimes a soul, and its shape,” he concludes, “remain obscure to both writer and reader” (emphasis added).
To refer to Hovater as “a Man” and “a soul” is, of course, profoundly meaningful; through this quasi-theological language Fausset tacitly invokes narratives of universal sin and redemption. The profile becomes as much an exercise in “there but for the grace of G-d go I” as it is a portrait of a particular individual. This could happen to anyone!
Most people who are Jews or people of color do not believe that some mysterious set of occurrences could have tipped the scales and sent them down a path toward white nationalism. But saying that Fausset’s piece is blind to its own normative whiteness is, I think, just the first step in unpicking the problems involved in his approach to writing about fascists.
The next step lies in realizing that the purpose of Fausset’s use of the theological language of souls and “Man” is the desire to ‘give’ Hovater interiority—or to try to read Hovater’s soul and relay its inner workings to us. Fausset tells us that he sees that Minutemen title—“What Makes a Man Start Fires?”—as “the question [that] embodies what good journalism strives for.” What Fausset hoped to write was a piece that peeled back the layers of Hovater’s ideology and discovered some kind of repressed or sublimated shock or shame, something visceral or even primal that once described would allow the reader to feel secure in knowing that Hovater’s extremism—his desire to “set fires”—has an ultimate source, a Rosebud. Once we know this, we can be doubly relieved—first, that whatever happened to Hovater is probably uncommon; secondly, that it didn’t happen to us. We’re safe from the possibility of a multitude of Hovaters and safe from ourselves.
Fausset is therefore palpably irked that Hovater doesn’t have some hidden trauma which could give us this reassurance. “Mr. Hovater grew up on integrated Army bases and attended a mostly white Ohio high school. He did not want for anything. He experienced no scarring racial episodes,” Fausset wrote in the original article.
This frustration reveals that what is at stake is not just the answer to “what causes someone to go fascist?” but “what causes someone to do something out of the ordinary?” Fausset’s choice to embed his portrait of Hovater’s white nationalist ideas in a kind of gauze of banality—pineapple slicers, Applebee’s, Wii video games—was, I think, less an attempt to “normalize” white nationalism and more an expression of Fausset’s frustration with the lack of obvious clues pointing to something, as he says, “exotic,” something that looked like a stimulus. Fausset’s inability to find a Rosebud, then, is not just a political problem—we need better answers for why there’s a resurgence of right-wing extremism—but also an existential one. Can we know why people do what they do?
Fausset’s profile presumes that we answer that question in a particular way: by plunging vertically down the mineshaft of someone else’s interiority. We scramble around with a flashlight and maybe a pick, unable really to excavate properly but capable of scratching off a layer or two of loosened rock. What we hope to find is the unusual—the fossils and fuels that were deposited long ago by other creatures, the fissures and ores that rippled into the mine’s rock from far away tectonic events.
But this method is obviously inadequate for understanding the phenomenon of the far right today. (To be honest, I have my doubts about its adequacy in understanding the actions of anyone.) The verticality which writers like Fausset insist upon in their quest for Rosebuds is not just politically malapropos; it’s also analytically sterile. No further insights into the nature of extremism can be derived from the identification of some plausible trauma anchoring a “radical turn.”
Many journalists and even quite a few historians, I think, believe that we cannot tell stories about actual people without fixating on the vertical exploration of an individual’s interiority, that anything else is just structural and abstract. To surrender our interest in interiority, we presume, necessarily chokes off the richness of experience. That’s a question for another day, but I want to lodge my disagreement and my belief that we must find new ways of thinking and writing about questions like “why do people do what they do?” outside of our fixation on the vertical and the interior. For until journalists can think their way out of the mineshaft of interiority, more pieces like Fausset’s are sure to be written.