“One problem with calling American extremists Nazis is that the word carries an inevitable outlandishness”

One problem with calling American extremists Nazis is that the word carries an inevitable outlandishness. Nazis have a unique place in the cultural imagination; their image is a singularly terrifying and ridiculous thing. Applying that label to the alt-right runs the risk of making them seem like exotic cartoon villains. But the men and women marching in Charlottesville weren’t exotic; they were people’s neighbors, colleagues and study buddies. The racism of the Nazis wasn’t particularly exotic, either: The uncomfortable truth is that Nazi policy was itself influenced by American white supremacy, a heritage well documented in James Q. Whitman’s recent book “Hitler’s American Model.” The Germans admired, and borrowed from, the “distinctive legal techniques that Americans had developed to combat the menace of race mixing” — like the anti-miscegenation laws of Maryland, which mandated up to 10 years in prison for interracial marriage. At the time, no other country had such specific laws; they were an American innovation.

What term, then, is the right one? None — fascists, white nationalists, extremists — fully encompass the men and women in this mass. Watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have spent decades tracing the intricate ideological differences among various fringe sects: neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and so on. Yet when these impulses collect into one group, it’s impossible to arrive at a simple, low-syllable explanation of their particular ugliness.

But that’s precisely why “Nazi” was, originally, such a useful word. It was never intended as an incisive diagnosis. It was a snappy, crude, unfussy insult, repurposed and wielded by people the Nazis intended to dominate, expel or kill. It contains a larger lesson, which is that we do not have to engage in linguistic diplomacy with people who want to destroy us. We don’t have to refer to them with their labels of choice. There is a time for splitting hairs over the philosophies of hateful extremists, but there’s also great value in unambiguously rejecting all of them at once with our most melodious, satisfying terminology. “Nazi” is not careful description. But careful description is a form of courtesy. “Nazi,” on the other hand, has always been a form of disrespect.

Sasha Chapin, “Marching Orders”, The New York Times Magazine (10 September 2017), 14.