Every man looks like a Nazi, and every Nazi just looks like every man
This is the mid-week version of Men Yell At Me. A newsletter about the intersection of patriarchy and politics in America. You can read more about me here. If you like it and you want more, well, there is more where it came from. And you should subscribe.
This essay is part of a series of work, I’ve done about neo Nazi Richard Spencer and the trial in Charlottesville. You can read my profile of Nina Spencer here. My article about the historic nature of the trial here. And my newsletter about media coverage of the trial here.
The first thing I notice when I arrive in Charlottesville is that every white man looks like a neo-Nazi. What I mean is, every man has an undercut — short on the sides, longer on top. They’re wearing khakis and button-ups. It’s the uniform of white, middle-class, cisgender men — the uniform of my ex-husband and the uniform that neo-Nazis donned when they stormed the campus of the University of Virginia on the night of Aug. 11, 2017.
I’m here for the first week of a civil trial, where nine plaintiffs who were injured at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 are suing 24 defendants, who planned that rally. The plaintiffs are claiming it was a conspiracy to perpetrate violence. The defendants claim it was their right to protest and that the violence was self-defense.
It’s the week before Halloween, and my hotel room is right next to campus. Every time I go out at night, I see a swirl of ghosts and ghouls, sexy Spongebobs and sexy Minions. Everyone, it seems, has a costume.
I am at the trial because, in 2018, just one month before my divorce was finalized, I interviewed one of the defendants, Richard Spencer, in a hotel conference room in Whitefish, Montana. I was there writing about his divorce. The entire day before I spoke to him, I listened to audio of him screaming at his wife — telling her to kill herself, while his baby sobbed in the background.
Before the interview, I spoke to other journalists who had spoken with him. He’s so polite. He’s so well-spoken. And that had been the story. The dapper Nazi. The new KKK in a suit and tie and a fresh undercut.
He was not polite at all. He started out that way, of course. But when I refused to stop asking questions about why he’d screamed at his wife and if he’d ever hit her, he was frustrated. Then he calmly asked to go off the record. And when I agreed, he screamed at me too. When I turned the recorder on again, he spoke politely. On. Then off. Then on again.
I’m here because I’m interested not in the spectacle of hate, but in how the hate is hidden. How it disguises itself. And how we refuse to see it for what it is.
People are always trying to tell you that horrible people are actually polite. Oh, that man killed 50 women? He was always such a nice neighbor. This happens before I go out to the trial. A researcher tells me that, actually, Christopher Cantwell, one of the defendants, was nothing but polite. I reply, “No, he was polite to you.”
The first week of the trial, Cantwell went on a racist tirade in his opening remarks. He claimed that his racism is a performance. This is all just a show. It’s a farce. It’s racist theater. But in Charlottesville a woman died, and many more people were severely injured.
Spencer spends every day of the four-week trial carrying a stuffed blue dinosaur in and out of the courtroom in a large canvas tote. He calls it his emotional support animal. He mentions that his kid gave it to him. I call his now ex-wife, who sighs audibly when I tell her about the dinosaur. No, she doesn’t know about it, but she does know he owes her a lot of money in child support.
The night of August 11, hundreds of men stormed the campus of UVA to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. They brought tiki torches, reminiscent of the fire of the KKK. Their uniforms: khakis and button-ups, the uniform of the white man. And the haircut itself, both an evocation of hate and a claim on mainstream style.
In a 2016 article, Esquire pointed out that the hairstyle has a connection to Hitler’s Germany, where the cut made it easy to put helmets on and take them off. But the style experienced a resurgence in the 21st century. In 2011, The New York Times called it the style of the “crunchy cosmopolitan.”
I meet with the writer Jamelle Bouie, who lives in Charlottesville, and I tell him that everyone here looks like a Nazi. And he laughs and says, isn’t that the point? To look like every white man everywhere?
I’ve previously been to Charlottesville only once, as a child, on the way to Monticello on a family vacation.
I am surprised by how much Charlottesville reminds me of Iowa City, a town just over 20 miles from where I live. It’s a Midwestern college town. A progressive city in a red state.
In the middle of this state, Iowa City prides itself on its liberal values. A good place, a nice place. But it also has a lack of affordable housing and a police force that used tear gas on peaceful protesters. Which is to say, it’s also an American place.
While the trial is happening in Charlottesville, other trials are occurring throughout the country. The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And in Georgia, three men are on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
It’s a convergence of law, hate, and race. Media reports keep labeling these actions as extreme, or committed by extremists. But when it’s everywhere in America, it’s just who we are.
As the trials continue across America, a journalist in Wisconsin tweets, frustrated that the only role Kenosha has in what happened there was that it was the setting. That’s all. Important, but not the entirety of the story. Because if you make that setting a central point, it’s easy to say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Or, “That place is so racist.” To use the contrast to create a sense of virtue where none exists.
What is in this town is everywhere. Charlottesville, which sits on land owned by Thomas Jefferson and worked by enslaved people, has a long history of racism, as do the redlined streets of my own town.
Alison Kinney, writing for The New Republic, points out that in the early days of the Klan, members would dress up not in the iconic white hoods, but in costumes that evoked traditions of carnival, minstrelsy, and Mardi Gras. Kinney writes, “[The Klan] wore gigantic animal horns, fake beards, coon-skin caps, or polka-dotted paper hats; they imitated French accents or barnyard animals.… Many early[Klansmen] also wore blackface, simultaneously scapegoating and mocking their victims.”
Hate loves a costume. In 1871, Georgia Rep. John H. Christy testified in Congress: “Sometimes mischievous boys who want to have some fun go on a masquerading frolic to scare the negroes…”
A defense that was echoed in 2021 in Charlottesville. “I consider this a spoken-word performance, and I take this kind of thing seriously, especially once I found out people were going to be able to listen in,” Cantwell said on a podcast last week, according to a Vice story. Cantwell claimed he looked like a star, and co-defendant Jason Kessler agreed. This was all just a show.
But I wonder who is allowed to hide behind the costumes of hate? After all, for most of its existence Klan members did not wear hoods. And on Aug 11, the uniform of the neo-Nazi was the uniform of every white man. Hate is right there staring us in the face. It’s at our tables. It’s in our beds. How many white Americans are descended from people who were involved in lynchings? Whose parents and grandparents also marched with torches to terrorize our neighbors? And yet, White America is surprised every time hate is unmasked. Grabbing our pearls shocked. As if we, by our silence, had not participated in the cover up.
For the four weeks of the trial, the plaintiffs argue that this wasn’t just a little neo-Nazi show. They showed texts and screenshots of Discord chats where organizers share violent memes that talk about running over protesters. Such comments, they argued, directly resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, who died when James Fields Jr. drove his car into the crowd. This wasn’t just a group of men joking about death; they wanted death. They weren’t just talking about a white ethno-state, they were trying to create one.
What the lawyers in this case are doing is drawing a connection between words and violence. And it works. Four weeks later, the jury will find the defendants guilty on some of the charges, resulting in $25 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Ahmaud Arbery’s killers will be convicted. Kyle Rittenhouse will go free.
But at the end of that week, the cases are still building. Prosecution and defense lawyers will still be unmasking, revealing. Everyone hates these guys now. But as Richard Spencer so often likes to remind everyone as he defends himself against the charges, there was a time when he was a media celebrity. When he was quoted and filmed by so many media outlets. When he could wear the label of “dapper Nazi” and he’d be on CNN.
In the end of the trial, Spencer will paint himself as a family man. He will talk about his kids baseball. His dinosaur prop will be there. And when I listen to him say this, I’ll think only of those recordings where I heard him scream and rage, ignoring the fear and tears of his child. I’ll think only of the unpaid child support.
My last day in Charlottesville is Sunday and it is Halloween. I go to church, because I want to know how a minister would talk their congregation through a five-week trial that will reveal so much ugliness and rot. But that day, the weather is warm and bright and the trees are flushing red, gold, and green. I walk through Charlottesville’s mall. Families and hung-over college students are having brunch, and little kids in costumes — a pumpkin, a strawberry, a little Baby Yoda — run up and down the brick pathways.
Inside the church, Pastor Liz hands me a costume. It’s a German Oktoberfest costume, complete with a green felt hat that has yellow yarn braids. “Put this on,” she tells me. I start to laugh. The irony doesn’t escape me.
The sermon is about joy and about reclaiming things that are evil for the cause of good. I think about the streets of this town and the fight of local activists to force accountability for the violence of the rally on every level. About the reclamation of spaces and streets and history, through the tumbling of monuments, and the restoration of history. And that’s what led to the rally, wasn’t it? The organizers of the rally came to Charlottesville because of a fallen statue and a desire to retell a story. And I am sure, eventually, that story will have to be told again, and then again. History is a series of revelations. Stories our children learn about things we couldn’t admit to ourselves.
I go home that night and dress in a skeleton costume and drink with a friend in a bar that looks like another bar I was just in in Charlottesville. People aren’t dressed up for Halloween anymore, instead, I’ll think how all the white men, also kind of look like Nazis.
Men Yell At Me is about the places where politics and our bodies collide, and yes, all the men who yell. I am an author and journalist. You can read more about my work here. I send out two weekly emails. The mid-week email is usually an essay, interview, or piece of journalism. The Friday email is a round up of stories I’m reading, drinks I’m drinking, and the dinguses in the news who are dingusing. I’ll always keep the bulk of my emails free, but a newsletter subscription helps me travel, write, research, and pay for dog boarding when I go places.