So neo-Nazis have slithered back into the news.
They stampeded by the hundreds onto the University of Virginia campus last weekend to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. They marched, chanted, and spawned a weird new white-supremacist fashion: tiki torches. They looked like a bunch of frat rats marching to a luau. But they were throwing Heil Hitler salutes.
Nothing they shouted or did was new, except for the tiki torches. I had heard and seen it all since covering my first Ku Klux Klan cross burning in 1985. Ordinarily you'd laugh off these maladjusted nitwits. But this crowd, the new Generation Hate, is emboldened by America’s deep pass to the ultraconservative fringe. And they seem to have the ear of our commander in chief, which says a lot more about America than most of us care to admit.
I’ve covered white supremacists as a staffer in several newsrooms. When it comes to publishing stories about them, editors fall into two distinct camps: You either cover the shit out of them and expose their vile ideologies to the public, or you ignore them . . . and hope they go away.
But they never go away.
Neo-Nazis clashed with throngs of counter-protesters at last Saturday's rally at UVA, with groups of foes hurling themselves at each other, grappling to the ground, throwing punches. It looked like a mosh pit I once found myself in at a Wendy O. Williams concert. Then in one terrifying moment, a man reportedly associated with the fascist group Vanguard America drove a 2010 Dodge Challenger into the opposing crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.
Days later, a man suspected of being inspired by ISIS drove a van into a crowded Barcelona tourist spot, killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 100 others. Many Americans made clumsy parallels between the two events. But they missed the point: Terrorists of every stripe twist religious doctrine until they have created a new orthodoxy that justifies their attacks.
Neo-Nazis are to Christianity as ISIS is to Islam.
Cheeky Tiki Boys
A photo moved nationally by Thomson Reuters shows white nationalists rallying on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on the night of August 10, 2017.
After the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, I found a three-ring binder in my writing room labeled “Northwest Far Right.” Inside were my observations about the dangerous fringe groups I interviewed in the spring of 1998. (This was a few months before the birth of my son, which occurred on the very day that white supremacists abducted James Byrd Jr., a black man, tethered him to a pickup truck, and dragged him to his death on an asphalt road in Jasper, Texas.)
My notes, edited below for clarity and concision (with a little context bled in), tell of my first meeting with the godfather of America's neo-Nazi movement:
Hayden Lake, Idaho (March 24, 1998) – I turn off Rimrock Road past the sign reading “Whites Only” and steer my rental up a driveway to a group of wood-frame buildings, a guard tower, and a chapel. It looks as if someone has tried to rebuild the set of TV's old Hogan’s Heroes sit-com. I half expect to be greeted by Sergeant Schultz, the portly guard of the fictional Nazi prisoner-of-war camp Stalag 13.
But the Aryan Nations compound is real. And, as it happens, surreal.
I knock on the door of a building that reads, “Office.”
I knock again, this time with vigor, and hear a gruff voice: “Come on in.”
I open the door and an Alaskan malamute bounds out of a back room. I offer my hand for the dog to sniff. Just then, a muscular German shepherd shoulders past the Malamute heading straight for me, barking and baring its teeth. I push my notepad into my crotch, trying not to tremble.
“Fritz!” yells the gruff voice.
The dog cowers and crawls beneath his master's desk.
Pastor Richard G. Butler, founder of Aryan Nations and America’s most virulent neo-Nazi, invites me to take a seat. He’s hunched over a broken FAX machine wearing a gray suit long out of style, his white dress shirt stained with food from days past. He is wrinkled and Germanic, with mussed gray hair, his pallor a sickly gray, a mole glaring from his face. He looks every day of the 80 years he's been sucking up our good air here on Earth.
I already know that Butler, the godfather of America's neo-Nazi movement, believes Jews are the literal spawn of Satan and that African Americans and other non-whites are subhuman. But I'm here, a working journalist trying to understand how anyone could believe such views.
I explain my sudden appearance to Butler: I have come to see him because my editor back at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland assigned me to cover the Northwest’s radical right. I'm here to learn about folks who feel so disenfranchised by their government they are drawn to ideologies such as his. Butler looks bored by my explanation. He's heard it all before and does what he does best. He belches out a series of white supremacist platitudes.
“The federal government is not our government,” he says. “The whole government is Jew. . . . The Jew is not a white man . . . By our own hand, we’ve fallen by our own race.” He says America’s sovereignty was destroyed in 1868, when an “alien race” was permitted to become U.S. citizens. “We castrated ourselves. … We are zombies … We’ve got a lot of white males, but few white men.”
Until today, Butler had never heard of me. But he’s aware that my newspaper is owned by a Jewish family from New York. I am a white Southern Baptist conceived in Texas, born in Florida. I was hoping to blend in a little, gain Butler’s confidence. But he sees right through me. He can tell I’m a nonbeliever in his strange little master plan to create a whites-only caliphate in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.
Butler's plot, known as the Northwest Imperative, is built on the infamous Fourteen Words attributed to Butler’s ally, David Lane, an imprisoned member of a deadly terrorist group called The Order: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
Butler hopes to fund this race war, in part, by selling pure-bred German shepherds from the Motherland. But his war plans have been thwarted. Butler's stud dogs have faced a series of dark calamities.
Twelve days before my visit to the Aryan Nations compound, Butler’s prize German shepherd, Hans Michael Von Girnt, was found on the other side of a fence on his 20-acre property. The 125-pound dog had been shot and gutted, its heart ripped out. Butler accuses the Jewish Defense League of killing the animal.
Local police, no fans of Butler or his minions, have so far been unable to solve the animal cruelty case. But it's a good bet that Fritz and Hans were targeted by the Jewish Defense League, which vows to stamp out anti-Semitism by any means necessary. (The FBI describes the JDL as a junior varsity terrorist group.) Butler, of course, hates his Jewish antagonists for beating him at his own game.
Fritz, the menacing German shepherd reclining under Butler’s desk, was supposed to have been one of his stud dogs. But Fritz never sired a litter. It seems that Butler one day dropped Fritz at the vet’s office for shots and a physical. But someone called the vet pretending to be Butler, saying he wanted the animal castrated. The vet bought the ruse and cut off Fritz’s nuts. When Butler found out, he blew a gasket.
“The peace, love, tolerance people won’t face you directly,” he says. “They accuse us of hate, but these are the true haters. They hate the white man. They hate everything the white man has achieved.”
I take a look around Butler’s office, which he keeps about as hot as a pizza oven, a temperature that seems to suit sickly old men like him. The room is a monochrome of gray floors and walls full of swastikas and black-and-white photos yellowed by age. Adolph Hitler stares down at me, judgmentally, from inside his frame.
Butler blathers on about Christian Identity, a faith that seems to have been invented by white supremacists to fit their hatred for all other races. The core of Christian Identity is that the lost tribes of Israel turned up in Scandinavia, meaning that God’s true chosen children are white. They believe that the Biblical story of Phineas, who murdered an Israelite man and his Arab lover, shows that Jews are evil. But that’s bunk. The message is really about obedience to God.
I ask the old man impertinent questions and he answers with doctrine: “We’re for total separation. … Country is the land that a nation lives on. … A nation is a family. … A family lives in a house, a racial household. … Doors are to keep out undesirables.” Every time I ask this doddery old man a question that makes him bristle, I hear Fritz growling.
“Fritz!” Butler keeps saying to calm the animal.
Only later do I surmise that Butler has probably been stepping on the dog’s tail to make him growl.
Butler wants to take me to his chapel.
He gets up from his desk and steps toward the door. I collect my notes and take several quick steps to catch up, as Fritz, eyeing me menacingly, noses toward my legs. I hop outside and quickly slam the wooden door behind me, pleased to hear Fritz’s claws scratching on the other side. Butler seems oblivious to this little drama.
Inside the chapel, I see the flags of Butler’s people: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, The Netherlands, Russia, and of course Germany. There’s also a Colonial flag with 13 stars and, on another flag so monstrous its folds are on the floor, a swastika.
I tell Butler my father fought in World War II. On March 19, 1945, Dad was blown off the deck of the USS Franklin, surviving an attack 60 miles from the coast of Japan that killed 724 of his shipmates. Those men had fought tyranny in Europe and the South Pacific so that guys like Butler were free to spew their hate.
I tell Butler my Dad would be appalled by his swastikas and reverence to Hitler. And I ask him a question that’s been gnawing at me since I walked into his place.
“How do you plan to sell this view of yours to the God-fearing Americans who fought in World War II?”
“Truth,” he says, “is a hard thing to sell. The government is an anti-white government, an anti-Christ government. We are under the tyranny of a Zionist occupational government.”
I wince. “What would you tell my father?”
“I would tell him he fought on the wrong side.”
I hold my temper. Some of Butler’s skinhead friends are on the compound. I’m the enemy here.
“The Jews will never assimilate,” he tells me. “Our Father will bring forth those of his followers who are worthy, and they will cleanse the planet.”
I am thinking that if there’s any justice, this cleansing will begin here with Butler and his fuckwit followers.
The old man would die on September 8, 2004. But a new generation of neo-Nazis would awaken.
America must be vigilant. Its journalists must keep exposing Generation Hate. Because trust me, the next Richard Butler is coming.