According to the internet axiom known as Godwin’s law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler” will enter the conversation. The point of Godwin’s law is to highlight the absurdity (and often, the offensiveness) of invoking Nazis in a debate about, say, the rules of Monopoly.
The violent white supremacists who marched this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, however, are real, actual Nazis, as Godwin himself—an attorney who served as the first staff counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation—is quick to admit. But this is the US, not Germany. It’s the 21st century, and Adolf Hitler is dead. So what does it mean to be an American Nazi in 2017?
There are neo-Nazi organizations in the US, including the National Socialist Movement (formerly the American Nazi Party). But you don’t have to be a member to qualify as a modern-day Nazi. In fact, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, and white nationalists are all effectively Nazis, regardless of whether or not they choose to go by that name, according to Federico Finchelstein, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research whose work focuses on the relationship between populism and fascism. That’s because all of these groups exhibit the fundamental traits of Nazism—chiefly racism, anti-Semitism, and the glorification of political violence.
“In colloquial terms there is a tendency to identify a type of far right [politics] with fascism and Nazism,” says Finchelstein. “But when we are seeing those marching in Virginia, including the terrorist associated with them, these are Nazis, or neo-Nazis, as they base their thinking in the resuscitation of a failing doctrine.”
The first goal of neo-Nazis is to push the agenda of white supremacy, says Finchelstein. This agenda is closely linked to their idealization of America’s horrific past.
“Their self-declared goal is to return to an America that they identify with, one that is racist,” says Finchelstein. Just as Hitler’s propaganda relied heavily upon nostalgia for German’s pastoral landscapes and small villages, and Benito Mussolini idealized the Roman empire, American Nazis look to the US before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
American Nazis also want violence. In Charlottesville, observers noted that it was nearly impossible to distinguish militia members from law enforcement. Neo-Nazis view the possession and display of weapons as deeply patriotic. Though paramilitary force is intrinsic to fascism, in the US, guns and ammunition can be portrayed and defended as an expression of constitutional rights.
Their end game is that of all Nazi-fascist movements: To destroy democracy and impose a regime based on racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. That said, white supremacists may participate in the democratic process whenever it’s convenient to their goal—just as Nazis did in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, where dictators were first voted into office.
To achieve that goal, Nazis need a leader who can give the movement real political power. They do not yet have one. Former KKK leader David Duke and white supremacist Richard Spencer are prominent in the racist movement, but neither has enough political credentials to lend power to the fascist cause.
Many Nazis support Trump. However, Finchelstein characterizes Trump not as a Nazi himself but as “an authoritarian, xenophobic leader elected with neo-Nazi support.”
Trump’s slowness to condemn white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as his comment Tuesday that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville march, suggests that—remarkably for an American president—he does not want to alienate these groups. But he has not gone so far as to explicitly align himself with them. And the Nazis seem to think that while he has some desirable traits as a leader, he is ultimately too soft. As one of the white supremacist told Vice in an interview, what they might want is “somebody like Donald Trump, but who does not give his daughter to a Jew,” someone “a lot more racist than Donald Trump.”