In November, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the United States made an appearance in Little Rock, Arkansas. But if you heard any details about the rally and counterprotest, it probably wasn’t from any mainstream media outlets.
About 20-30 members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a neo-Nazi group, rallied on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. Nearly every one of them was from out of town. They chose this location because, in their own words, “There’s a lot of support here.”
For locals who are familiar with some of the far-right extremist movements in this state, that statement certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, the town of Harrison is still known as a hub of white supremacist activity in Arkansas: It is home to the national headquarters of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and its director, Thomas Robb. Billy Roper, an outspoken neo-Nazi and former member of a skinhead gang, organized a similar rally for “South African rights” in Little Rock in 2012. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) “Hate Map” reports several other far-right and white supremacist extremist groups in central Arkansas alone.
It seems clear that the NSM traveled here not to change the hearts and minds of leftists and liberals, but to show solidarity with other white supremacists and far-right extremists, or so it seems.
Local Media Complicit in Spreading NSM’s Messaging
About a month prior to the rally, Heimbach sent out a press release to every major local and state media outlet. The press release described plans to hold a rally advocating for “South African rights,” describing the NSM as a “white civil rights organization” that was advocating US sanctions on South Africa. Neo-Nazis frequently — and falsely — claim that white South African farmers are victims of “white genocide.”
At the rally, Heimbach and other members of the NSM claimed to be advocates of the working class. They used the language of leftist identity politics to draw comparisons that obfuscate their racist ideologies.
Ultimately, though, the NSM didn’t show up for counterprotesters, leftists and anti-fascists. The left may be able to recognize these smokescreens and dog-whistles, but the Nazis did not come out for them, and even more importantly, they didn’t come out for other white supremacists, either.
According to Keegan Hanks, a senior research analyst at the SPLC, white supremacist movements tend to use coded language in public in an attempt to gain sympathy from people with less extremist views.
“What I would say is they’re probably just trying to get more moderate conservatives, for instance, or people who aren’t there to outwardly oppose or explicitly oppose their message from the get-go,” says Hanks. “They don’t want someone who’s allegedly very far to the left.”
A web story by reporter Shelby Rose for local news outlet KATV reads, “They [the National Socialist Movement] tell us they were in Little Rock to bring attention to a white genocide happening in South Africa. But no matter the message, it brought a lot of counter-protesters against their organization as a whole.”
Not once does this article refer to the NSM with clear, recognizable terminology that would accurately inform the average media consumer of their views, such as “white supremacist,” “white nationalist” or “neo-Nazi.” In fact, at first glance, you would be hard-pressed to find any damning evidence in this story that the NSM started as a self-admitted Nazi party and continues to uphold Nazi ideologies.
Not only that, but the article goes on to include a rather weak quote from a counterprotester at the rally, and immediately follows it up with a well-crafted statement from neo-Nazi Jeff Schoep that poses perhaps one of the most tempting and insidious arguments that neo-Nazis employ to capture the support of centrist and conservative white Americans: “When you speak on behalf of white rights and you speak on behalf of white people, it’s often called racism or hate. But why is it when the other races do it, it’s called being progressive?”
The article presents this dangerously effective piece of neo-Nazi propaganda without any accompanying criticism or rebuttal. The article then goes on to quote the Little Rock Police Department (LRPD) complimenting the rally as “relatively well-behaved.”
Rose did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I think the decision of how to cover these rallies is always a calculation, particularly given the political climate we live in right now,” says Hanks. “When you think about a group like the National Socialist Movement, which has access to a pretty small audience and tries to get people to believe in their message … through whatever propaganda outlets they have, it’s important to weigh who you’re exposing their ideas to and how you’re doing it.”
When it comes to media coverage of white supremacist movements, Hanks says it’s crucial for journalists to properly examine quotes from members of these movements.
“You want to make sure that if you are quoting an organization like this, which of course has an outwardly stated purpose of spreading these racist and xenophobic and anti-Semitic views, that you’re properly contextualizing them, particularly given the fact that they do use coded language at times,” he says. “It’s important to make sure that they aren’t able to successfully paint their message as ‘moderate,’ because it’s not moderate.”
The man with the swastika tattoo on his neck certainly seemed threatening at the rally. So did the neo-Nazi openly carrying an assault rifle in front of the crowd, and the man who jeeringly called counterprotesters “degenerates” and “communists.”
But what about the Republicans in your class who may have once said something like, “Why is it okay to be racist to white people, but it’s not okay when it’s the other way around?”
They almost seem more threatening when you think of so many other seemingly average, otherwise harmless people like them going home and turning on the TV and seeing their repressed, reactionary feelings being legitimized on a trusted, mainstream media outlet like KATV. Just as frightening are police — like an LRPD officer who was at the rally for crowd control — casually conversing with neo-Nazis. How likely is it that they, like the president of the United States, may believe that some of the neo-Nazis are “very nice people?”
It’s these center-right conservatives and white moderates who they’re here for.
Neo-Nazis don’t need locals like Roper or Robb or Julian Calfy, another local who was expelled from high school for threatening a school massacre and who attended the rally in solidarity with the NSM. They need centrists citing the First Amendment and fighting tooth and nail to give neo-Nazis the right to spread propaganda. They need right-wing media conglomerates like Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns KATV, to subtly reassure white people that having feelings of resentment toward people of color is perfectly fine.
Despite many white supremacist movements’ use of obfuscating language, it’s still glaringly obvious to many journalists what kind of rhetoric they stand for. The vast majority of local media outlets completely ignored the rally. In fact, KARK released a statement explicitly stating that the station did not plan to cover it, and encouraged other media outlets not to cover it either. According to Spencer Sunshine, associate fellow at Political Research Associates, this is an important strategy when dealing with the far right: Journalists should consider whether covering small demonstrations for racist causes is a newsworthy event, or if it’s just giving hate groups free publicity.
“Media outlets need to take special care in how they craft their coverage of racist organizing,” Sunshine told Truthout. “Indeed, in the last couple years, organized racists have received a gratuitous amount of media coverage, which has helped inflate the perception of their importance.… It should be remembered that the original American Nazi Party of George Lincoln Rockwell in the 1960s was actively harmed by a media ‘quarantine,’ which had been organized by Jewish groups in an attempt to cut off the party’s oxygen.”
The NSM and its leader, Schoep, gained a reputation for acting like “Hollywood Nazis,” in the words of other white supremacist groups. The NSM openly used swastika imagery and dressed in uniforms modeled after Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts up until relatively recently, when they decided to rebrand themselves — purely aesthetically, of course. Their views remain unchanged: They still idolize Hitler and enjoy swastika burnings.
We don’t want to overstate the case, however. As far as white supremacist groups go, the NSM continues to be one of the most conspicuous. It seems doubtful that a group of militant-looking white men with swastika tattoos and red flags with Norse symbols on them is going to be that difficult to identify as Nazis. But if “relatively well-behaved” is how some mainstream media outlets want to portray people who literally idolize Hitler, how will the media tackle the more obscure, seemingly more “palatable” white supremacists, the “alt-right” and Richard Spencers of the country?
Widening the “Overton Window”
Since Trump was elected, media outlets have started paying more attention to a political theory known as “the Overton window.” Proposed by conservative free-market advocate Joseph Overton, it describes the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. According to this theory, whether or not an idea is politically viable largely depends on whether or not it lies in the window. Advocating for an idea that lies outside of public tolerance may necessitate shifting or widening the Overton window.
According to Overton, a tactic for making fringe ideas politically viable is to advocate for an even more extreme idea that’s farther out on the fringe. The idea is that less fringe ideas will slowly start to be more acceptable by comparison. White supremacists like the “alt-right’s” Paul Nehlen has even explicitly acknowledged this as one of their tactics.
Hanks, on the other hand, says he doesn’t find the Overton window that useful. He attributes this current phenomenon in US politics to an overall shift toward the right across the globe.
“I think what we’ve actually seen with the rise of the internet, with the rise of prominent social media platforms, with the rise of disinformation and misinformation campaigns, is that we’ve basically just had all this content, much of it extremist, outwardly racist and even conspiratorial, just become more visible,” says Hanks. “I think we’ve also seen kind of a rightward shift in international politics, such as populist success in Europe too.”
So is it true that as long as “Hollywood Nazis” are still Sig Heil-ing and running around with tiki torches and armbands, clean-cut white supremacists like Spencer might just have a shot at tossing his equally genocidal ideologies in the ring?
The frightening part is there seems to be some evidence that this tactic might be working for the political right in the US. Many consider the election of Donald Trump to be ultimate proof of the Overton window shifting.
It seems that white supremacists’ actual recruitment numbers are not as concerning as the subtle but significant influence they are beginning to wield over the country’s politics.
As more and more white supremacists try to rebrand themselves, journalists have a responsibility to be vigilant. There needs to be an end to this farce that neutrality necessitates taking a centrist position. The only position journalists should hold is a truthful one supported by material reality — and knowing the truth also means knowing what is or isn’t a lie.