Perhaps, when Donald Trump said that there were probably many fine people marching with the white supremacist neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, he was thinking of the “nice Nazis” in Hogan’s Heroes – that odd prisoner of war sitcom that ran from 1966 to 1971 on CBS. John Banner played the bungling Nazi sergeant-of-the-guard, Sergeant Schultz. He was a hoot. Werner Klemperer played Colonel Klink, the incompetent commandant of the camp – not a bad guy – just a laughably incompetent guy. Everyone got along just fine. No one was carrying torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us!”
Werner Klemperer was the son of Otto Klemperer – the famous very German conductor who fled Germany, and the Nazis, in 1933, and settled here in Los Angeles, and was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in 1937 became a US Citizen. Many decades later, as an old man who had seen everything, Otto Klemperer did say he was a bit uncomfortable with his son playing a Nazi on television – but then he shrugged. A job is a job, and Colonel Klink was one of those “nice” Nazis – not a bad guy, really.
Those were the days. Donald Trump, in college at the time, must have watched Hogan’s Heroes. Everyone watched Hogan’s Heroes. Nazis were not all that bad – not all of them. That notion became embedded in America’s tribal memory. Television used to have that power.
Before that it was Charles Lindbergh. After the kidnapping and murder of his son, he and his wife moved to Europe for a time, and Lindbergh attended a few Nazi rallies. These folks had their act together, and as one of the many isolationists here at the time, he saw no reason we should go fight them:
Upon Lindbergh’s return to the States, he agitated for neutrality with Germany, and testified before Congress in opposition to the Lend-Lease policy, which offered cash and military aid to countries friendly to the United States in their war effort against the Axis powers. His public denunciation of “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration” – as instigators of American intervention in the war – as well as comments that smacked of anti-Semitism – lost him the support of other isolationists. When, in 1941, President Roosevelt denounced Lindbergh publicly, the aviator resigned from the Air Corps Reserve.
Roosevelt eventually forgave him. Everyone forgave him. He was still that dashing and handsome but humble hero of 1927 – the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. Lindbergh had simply fallen in with the wrong crowd – that “America First” crowd. That’s what they called themselves – but there are no “nice” Nazis. That “America First” business led to some very dark places. America figured that out.
Donald Trump adopted those two words, America First, but everyone seems to have decided, probably rightly, that Trump knows nothing about any of that Lindbergh stuff. Donald Trump is not a student of history. He’s more of a Hogan’s Heroes kind of guy, and as for Charlottesville, he says fine people, who simply like those beautiful old statues of Robert E. Lee and whatnot, ended up marching with that white supremacist neo-Nazi crowd. They had no problem with Jews, or blacks or Hispanics or Muslims. They just liked the statues. Cut them some slack – but really, Colonel Klink was pretty cool.
Okay, Donald Trump didn’t really mention Colonel Klink. He didn’t have to. Everyone watched Hogan’s Heroes. Nazis were not all that bad – not all of them. That notion really has become embedded in our tribal memory. And yes, television used to have that power, but now it’s Breitbart. Someone has to show that there are “nice” Nazis.
Joseph Bernstein tells that tale:
In August, after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville ended in murder, Steve Bannon insisted that “there’s no room in American society” for neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and the KKK.
But an explosive cache of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News proves that there was plenty of room for those voices on his website.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart courted the alt-right – the insurgent, racist right-wing movement that helped sweep Donald Trump to power. The former White House chief strategist famously remarked that he wanted Breitbart to be “the platform for the alt-right.”
That’s exactly what it became, thanks to this guy:
The Breitbart employee closest to the alt-right was Milo Yiannopoulos, the site’s former tech editor known best for his outrageous public provocations, such as last year’s Dangerous Faggot speaking tour and September’s canceled Free Speech Week in Berkeley. For more than a year, Yiannopoulos led the site in a coy dance around the movement’s nastier edges, writing stories that minimized the role of neo-Nazis and white nationalists while giving its politer voices “a fair hearing.” In March, Breitbart editor Alex Marlow insisted “we’re not a hate site.” Breitbart’s media relations staff repeatedly threatened to sue outlets that described Yiannopoulos as racist. And after the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Breitbart published an article explaining that when Bannon said the site welcomed the alt-right, he was merely referring to “computer gamers and blue-collar voters who hated the GOP brand.”
That was bullshit:
These new emails and documents clearly show that Breitbart does more than tolerate the most hate-filled, racist voices of the alt-right. It thrives on them, fueling and being fueled by some of the most toxic beliefs on the political spectrum – and clearing the way for them to enter the American mainstream.
It’s a relationship illustrated most starkly by a previously unreleased April 2016 video in which Yiannopoulos sings “America the Beautiful” in a Dallas karaoke bar as admirers, including the white nationalist Richard Spencer, raise their arms in Nazi salutes.
The “nice” Nazis have returned:
These documents chart the Breitbart alt-right universe. They reveal how the website – and, in particular, Yiannopoulos – links the Mercer family, the billionaires who fund Breitbart, to underpaid trolls who fill it with provocative content, and to extremists striving to create a white ethno-state.
They capture what Bannon calls his “killing machine” in action, as it dredges up the resentments of people around the world, sifts through these grievances for ideas and content, and propels them from the unsavory parts of the internet up to Trump World, collecting advertisers’ checks all along the way.
And the cache of emails – some of the most newsworthy of which BuzzFeed News is now making public – expose the extent to which this machine depended on Yiannopoulos, who channeled voices both inside and outside the establishment into a clear narrative about the threat liberal discourse posed to America. The emails tell the story of Steve Bannon’s grand plan for Yiannopoulos, whom the Breitbart executive chairman transformed from a charismatic young editor into a conservative media star capable of magnetizing a new generation of reactionary anger. Often, the documents reveal, this anger came from a legion of secret sympathizers in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, academia, suburbia, and everywhere in between.
There are “nice” Nazis everywhere, and the usual denials:
“I have said in the past that I find humor in breaking taboos and laughing at things that people tell me are forbidden to joke about,” Yiannopoulos wrote in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “But everyone who knows me also knows I’m not a racist. As someone of Jewish ancestry, I of course condemn racism in the strongest possible terms. I have stopped making jokes on these matters because I do not want any confusion on this subject. I disavow Richard Spencer and his entire sorry band of idiots. I have been and am a steadfast supporter of Jews and Israel. I disavow white nationalism and I disavow racism and I always have.”
He added that during his karaoke performance, his “severe myopia” made it impossible for him to see the Hitler salutes a few feet away.
Steve Bannon, the other Breitbart employees named in the story, and the Mercer family did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
There was no need to comment:
Like all the new media success stories, Breitbart’s alt-right platform depends on the participation of its audience. It combusts the often secret fury of those who reject liberal norms into news, and it doesn’t burn clean.
Now Bannon is back at the controls of the machine, which he has said he is “revving up.” The Mercers have funded Yiannopoulos’s post-Breitbart venture. And these documents present the clearest look at what these people may have in store for America.
The rest is a detailed discussion of those documents, with this context:
A year and a half ago, Milo Yiannopoulos set himself a difficult task: to define the alt-right. It was five months before Hillary Clinton named the alt-right in a campaign speech, 10 months before the alt-right’s great hope became president, and 17 months before Charlottesville clinched the alt-right as a stalking horse for violent white nationalism. The movement had just begun its explosive emergence into the country’s politics and culture.
And there’s this detail:
Yiannopoulos was a useful soldier whose very public identity as a gay man (one who has now married a black man) helped defend him, his anti-political correctness crusade, and his employer from charges of bigotry.
But now Yiannopoulos had a more complicated fight on his hands. The left – and worse, some on the right – had started to condemn the new conservative energy as reactionary and racist. Yiannopoulos had to take back “alt-right,” to redefine for Breitbart’s audience a poorly understood, leaderless movement, parts of which had already started to resist the term itself.
So he reached out to key constituents, who included a neo-Nazi and a white nationalist.
“Finally doing my big feature on the alt right,” Yiannopoulos wrote in a March 9, 2016, email to Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, a hacker who is the system administrator of the neo-Nazi hub the Daily Stormer, and who would later ask his followers to disrupt the funeral of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer. “Fancy brain-dumping some thoughts for me?”
“It’s time for me to do my big definitive guide to the alt right,” Yiannopoulos wrote four hours later to Curtis Yarvin, a software engineer who under the nom de plume Mencius Moldbug helped create the “neoreactionary” movement, which holds that Enlightenment democracy has failed and that a return to feudalism and authoritarian rule is in order…
And there were others:
“Alt r feature, figured you’d have some thoughts,” Yiannopoulos wrote the same day to Devin Saucier, who helps edit the online white nationalist magazine American Renaissance under the pseudonym Henry Wolff, and who wrote a story in June 2017 called “Why I Am (Among Other Things) a White Nationalist.”
The three responded at length: Weev about the Daily Stormer and a podcast called The Daily Shoah, Yarvin in characteristically sweeping world-historical assertions (“It’s no secret that North America contains many distinct cultural/ethnic communities. This is not optimal, but with a competent king it’s not a huge problem either”), and Saucier with a list of thinkers, politicians, journalists, films (Dune, Mad Max, The Dark Knight), and musical genres (folk metal, martial industrial, ’80s synthpop) important to the movement. Yiannopoulos forwarded it all, along with the Wikipedia entries for “Alternative Right” and the esoteric far-right Italian philosopher Julius Evola – a major influence on 20th-century Italian fascists and Richard Spencer alike.
And finally, they had their masterpiece:
Breitbart published “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” It quickly became a touchstone, cited in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, CNN, and New York Magazine, among others. And its influence is still being felt. This past July, in a speech in Warsaw that was celebrated by the alt-right, President Trump echoed a line from the story — a story written by a “brown-sounding” amanuensis, all but line-edited by a white nationalist, laundered for racism by Breitbart’s editors, and supervised by the man who would in short order become the president’s chief strategist.
The machine had worked well.
It worked a whole lot better than Hogan’s Heroes, but Eugene Robinson heard this:
The speech Trump delivered Thursday in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square might have been appropriate when Britannia ruled the waves and Europe’s great powers held dominion over “lesser” peoples around the globe. It had nothing useful to say about today’s interconnected world in which goods, people and ideas have contempt for borders…
Trump added what he probably thought of as a Churchillian flourish: “I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.”
Triumph over whom? Trump mentioned “radical Islamic terrorism” as one of the enemies posing “dire threats to our security and to our way of life,” but he didn’t stop there. He went on to add Russia and – weirdly – “the steady creep of government bureaucracy” to the list. It is appalling that the president would describe patriotic public servants as a kind of fifth column that “drains the vitality and wealth of the people,” and I guess some precious bodily fluids as well.
The problem is obvious:
What does Trump mean when he speaks of “the West” and its civilization? “Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” he said. “We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.”
If the president read a few history books, he’d know that for most of the past 2,000 years, China and India were the world’s leading economic powers and Europe was a relatively primitive backwater. He’d know that Europe rose to dominance not by erecting walls but by opening itself to the rest of the world – its resources, products and people.
There is nothing pure about Western civilization. Its ability to absorb and incorporate outside influences has proved a great strength, not a weakness. Imagine Italy without tomato sauce, a gift from the New World – or the United States without the high-tech companies founded by immigrants, gifts from the Old.
Nazis don’t believe that, not even “nice” Nazis, and Peter Beinart noted the racial and religious paranoia of Trump’s Warsaw speech:
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.
Trump was talking nonsense, but for a reason:
Steve Bannon, who along with Stephen Miller has shaped much of Trump’s civilizational thinking, has been explicit about this. In a 2014 speech, he celebrated “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam” and “our forefathers” who “bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.”
Steve Bannon, with the help of Milo Yiannopoulos, put those same words in Trump’s mouth, but Beinart saw something bigger:
The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech – perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime – was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. Jihadist terrorists can kill people in the West, but unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, they cannot topple even the weakest European government. Jihadists control no great armies. Their ideologies have limited appeal even among the Muslims they target with their propaganda. ISIS has all but lost Mosul and could lose Raqqa later this year.
Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The “south” and “east” only threaten the West’s “survival” if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders. They only threaten the West’s “survival” if by “West” you mean white, Christian hegemony. A direct line connects Trump’s assault on Barack Obama’s citizenship to his speech in Poland.
This stuff has now entered the American mainstream. Charles Lindbergh couldn’t pull that off – he got slapped down – but Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos at Breitbart pulled that off. All they needed was a president who had been raised on Hogan’s Heroes. Colonel Klink was pretty cool. Otto Klemperer shouldn’t have shrugged.