by Michael Tracey
If you happened to be alive during the years of 2016 to 2020, you can probably recall the routine issuance of frantic bulletins that “Nazis” were suddenly on the march in the US. Not just that some ludicrous, ragtag group of self-identified Nazis could be occasionally spotted in the wild — which had always been a somewhat regular, albeit freakish occurrence. Rather, the idea was that full-bore ideological “Nazism” had surged as a genuinely formidable political force, and everyone needed to be extremely terrified of this.
Principally responsible for the alleged outbreak of pro-Nazi fervor, or so the prevailing theory went, was Donald Trump. He had either tacitly or deliberately fueled the Nazis’ rise, because associating himself with Nazis would definitely be a huge boon to his electoral fortunes. MSNBC anchor Joy Reid encapsulated this view when she warned in 2017 that “resurgent Neo-Nazism” had gripped the US under Trump’s rule. Reams of academic articles were published on the subject, wondering whether Trump was the new “American Führer”; it was a commonly-held belief that “Literal Nazis” had taken power. (As opposed to figurative Nazis). Evidence for the theory ranged from the individual emotional turmoil experienced by journalists, to Twitter trolls with cartoon frogs as their profile pictures, to allusive suggestions — including by former apparatchiks of the National Security State — that the existence of immigrant detention centers was proof a Nazi regime had seized the reins of state.
This fearful narrative was propelled by episodes which may now appear somewhat farcical in hindsight, but at the time were taken deadly seriously. One example was an alleged spate of anti-semitic hate crimes that occurred in 2017 — a series of “bomb threat” phone calls were placed to Jewish Community Centers. Even before any details had surfaced about the identity of the suspects, an outfit called the “Anne Frank Center” hysterically attributed personal responsibility for the incidents to Trump. Fans of dark humor were no doubt thrilled when it later emerged that the bomb threats had in fact been called in by a teenager in Israel, as well as a deranged former Intercept journalist — and not some MAGA-hat guy sitting in a corrugated shack in the backwoods of Arkansas. (The “Anne Frank Center” was being run at the time by a hardcore partisan Democratic operative in New Jersey, whom I personally met years ago when he was running a pro-LGBT group. Let’s just say the individual is a tad… excitable. Still, this individual’s bombastic anti-Trump screeds were credulously portrayed by media outlets as carrying the solemn moral weight of the fabled Holocaust victim.)
And so the ever-present specter of Actual Nazis running rampant, taking their direction from Führer Trump, loomed large over the American political scene. This understandably generated lots of fear and stress, most of which tended to be conveniently funneled into boosting the political prospects of Democrats. Even figures as milquetoast as former Maryland governor and 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, hardly anyone’s idea of an envelope-pushing thinker, proclaimed that the conditions in the US circa 2017 were reminiscent of the conditions in Germany circa 1933. Thus, all responsible citizens were obligated to heed the call for unshakeable “Resistance.” O’Malley typified the trend whereby standard-fare Democrats became incredibly radicalized in their style of rhetoric, even if their policy prescriptions remained relatively static. Always top of the agenda for ambitious liberals was to compete amongst themselves for who could express their Trump-related anxieties in the most apocalyptic terms. Which, of course, included the belief that Trump was governing on behalf of Nazis and/or was himself a Nazi.
The frenzy arguably culminated with the notorious 2017 Charlottesville incident, when a woman was killed in a vehicle collision by someone understood to be a Nazi. Subsequently, Trump was accused of having confirmed his Nazi-enabling intentions when he was seen to have equivocated in his denunciation of the offending Nazis. It was this incident, in fact, that Joe Biden said compelled him to seek the presidency in 2020 — spurring his mission to ensure the Nazi-backed Trump would be denied a second term.
Two advocacy organizations in particular devoted huge amounts of resources to documenting the purported rise of Nazism during this period. If you read an article over the past several years which purported to announce that Nazism, “white nationalism,” and similar tendencies were ascendant, there’s a good chance the basis for the article’s claims was sourced either to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) or the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “Neo-Nazi Groups Explode Under Trump,” read one representative Daily Beast headline from 2018, citing a report produced by the SPLC. In denouncing Trump for having “flirted with the deepest racists and Nazis,” Charles Blow of the New York Times cited a report from the ADL which claimed that “anti-semitic incidents in the United States surged 57 percent in 2017.” And 2017, as Blow shrewdly reasoned, “was of course the first year of the Trump administration.” The methodology of such “reports” is hardly ever scrutinized with any degree of precision; organizations like the SPLC and ADL are largely just assumed by journalists to possess unchallengeable empirical authority. On the rare occasions when someone in the media does think to dig deeper into the genesis of these groups’ oddly precise statistical figures, doubts as to their veracity sometimes arise.
After having spent such enormous effort warning Americans that their country was being overwhelmed by Nazis, you’d have thought it would be a no-brainer for these groups to spring immediately into action last month and sound the alarms again. Because another “incident” took place that was right up their alley: an honest-to-god pro-Nazi rally. In the middle of New York City. Thanks to footage captured by journalist Elad Eliahu, we know that on April 23 in Downtown Manhattan, a group of rally-goers gathered to chant — with total, uninhibited exuberance — “Azov! Azov! Azov!”
Chants of support for the controversial Azov Battalion break out at a pro Ukraine rally in lower Manhattan
Attendees chant “Azov” pic.twitter.com/fFguwpRa82
— Elad Eliahu (@elaadeliahu) April 23, 2022
Eliahu told me the rally was organized by a group called “Razom for Ukraine,” which has held regular protest actions in the city since the war began, including to demand a No Fly Zone. But on this occasion, they were focused on rapturous praise for “Azov.”
In case you still need a primer on what “Azov” refers to, you may want to consult The Nation magazine, which has been unique among US left-liberal media over the last several years in still allowing a modicum of countervailing thought. And so The Nation is one of the vanishingly few outlets that continues to plainly describe Azov — i.e., the Battalion of the Ukraine military currently fighting in the war — as an “outright Neo-Nazi group.”
The bluntness of The Nation’s description stands in stark contrast to what the vast majority of US media consumers have recently been told about said group. Elsewhere, Americans are being instructed to actively root for the righteous battlefield victory of Azov — particularly in the city of Mariupol, where the fighters have been under sustained siege by Russia. It’s easy for the untrained eye to miss, but US journalists — including the top Ukraine war correspondent for TIME magazine — have taken to characterizing these Azov fighters merely as Mariupol’s brave “defenders.” Which is a term that coincidentally obscures the fighters’ ideological composition. Thanks to most US and “Western” media coverage, this foreign battalion comprised of “outright Nazis” has become primarily known as valorous warriors for “democracy.”
Tune into NPR or the BBC, and you will similarly hear the “defenders” euphemism used in reports about Mariupol. Naturally, this is also the preferred nomenclature of the “Kyiv Independent,” the newly-formed English-language media outlet whose sudden emergence owes to an emergency infusion of funds late last year from the European Union’s equivalent of the National Endowment for Democracy. Relentlessly touted by “Western” media as an authoritative source for news-on-the-ground from Ukraine, the outlet has also enjoyed massive algorithmic amplification by Twitter — with it seldom ever noted that their chief “defense reporter” publicly proclaimed himself a “brother in arms” with Azov.
Despite his public admission of affiliation with what most reasonable observers used to uncontroversially classify as a Neo-Nazi regiment, millions of Americans have been fed a regular supply of “journalism” from this person, Illia Ponomarenko, who appears to function as Azov’s main English-speaking PR operative. But he’s far from alone: a whole roster of newly-minted social media stars regularly heap praise on Azov fighters for “sacrificing their lives for democracy.” By sheer coincidence, these superstars also frequently tend to be affiliated with US-based think tanks funded by the weapons-manufacturing industry.
Do you think if NPR or BBC listeners were clearly informed that the “defenders” of Mariupol were in fact “outright Neo-Nazis,” they might have a slightly different reaction to the news segments extolling their bravery? Especially if they can recall earlier NPR or BBC segments, such as those which warned listeners to be petrified of Trump-backed “Nazis” taking over the US? Alas, we can only speculate.
Now, one might reasonably ask: isn’t this whole “Nazi” angle a bit overblown? After all, in the US, that label gets blithely slapped onto anyone who’s slightly more right-wing than Mitt Romney. And it’s not an unfair point. The elasticity of the term “Nazi” has become so preposterous, and it was deployed so indiscriminately during the era of Trump, that one could be forgiven for having an urge to immediately eye-roll whenever they hear it uttered.
Here’s the point, though: in a prior political context, the purported existence of Nazis was supposed to prompt an earnest outpouring of shock, horror, and counter-Nazi mobilization. But in the current political context, the existence of Nazis is supposed to be carefully ignored — in service what is now the superseding imperative, namely to “Stand with Ukraine.”
Because even if not every Azov fighter actively subscribes to full-fledged Nazi ideology — which is plausible — they would still resoundingly meet the media’s typical criteria for instant explosions of hair-on-fire condemnation. There are currently mountains of evidence, much of which was contemporaneously gathered over the course of the ongoing war, that Azov “defenders” at the very least physically adorn themselves with unabashed Nazi symbols. Examples of such symbols that have been recently observed on their uniforms include the Wolfsangel, the Black Sun, and even a crest of a division of the SS — the paramilitary organization of the actual, historical Nazis. You know, the ones commanded by Hitler who exterminated lots of Jews. If a bunch of Trump supporters were running around with these symbols stitched onto their clothing, do you suppose the US media would be extra charitable in deciphering whether they really subscribed to Nazism?
At this very moment, you can log onto the ADL website and see the Wolfsangel, Black Sun, and other Azov-brandished iconography on the organization’s official list of “hate symbols” actively being “appropriated by Nazis.” This is the same ADL which evidently sees no need to make even a cursory statement about the pro-Azov rallies breaking out in the streets of the US. “Don’t think we have any comment here. Thanks for reaching out,” Todd Gitnick, the ADL’s Communications Director, told me when I asked if they had any thoughts on the “Azov!” chanters in NYC.
Likewise, the archives are still available on the SPLC’s website from just a few years ago — apparently a bygone era — when the organization would occasionally chronicle various activities related to what it called the “the notorious Azov Battalion.” In one item, they even quote an FBI special agent stating that “Azov Battalion, now a piece of the Ukrainian National Guard, is known for Neo-Nazi symbolism and ideology.” So I put the same question to the SPLC — simply asked if they had any thoughts on the NYC rally — and got this response from Marion Steinfels, a “Public Affairs and Communications Consultant” working for the organization: “Hey Michael, thanks for reaching out. I’m in touch with our team and will be back to you shortly.” Needless to say, they never got back to me. They’re very thankful I “reached out,” though.
Gee whiz, what a strange development: two of the most lavishly-funded advocacy organizations which had been zealously devoted to the cause of monitoring “Nazis” during the Trump years — when they would declare a state of emergency anytime a purported “Nazi” sneezed — now have absolutely nothing to say about open displays of support for a foreign Battalion whose uniforms are blatantly covered with what these organizations themselves identify as “hate symbols!” It also happens that Azov fighters are known for carrying out creepy torch-lit processions very similar to what was supposed to have been the end of the world when it happened that day in Charlottesville — but nevermind.