The jackbooted, goose-stepping, swastika-bearing members of last century’s National Socialist Movement may have changed their look and ditched the Nazi insignias, but the devotion to Hitler’s ideals haven’t budged.
As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Events like the violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have thrust a disparate group of white supremacists, Nazis, nationalists and the KKK into the national spotlight as an ill-defined “Alt-Right.” What many considered to be fringe elements from the backwoods are now found in cities and states across the country.
One of the longest-running groups is the National Socialist Movement, an organization dedicated to the same ideology and political system as Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the NSM as a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist, hate group.
Arizona has a local chapter of the NSM, and maintains a strong online presence through Twitter and a blog. The reason? It could be because one of the key members of the NSM’s press team, Harry Hughes, lives outside of the town of Maricopa.
“It’s about nationalism,” Hughes said. “America first.”
Hughes was never one to get involved in politics, and said he was usually the guy standing in the back of the room. He’s unassuming, soft-spoken, and for all appearances, could be anyone. His family worked in the steel and coal industries of Pittsburgh, gradually experiencing the worsening conditions in the workplace and the loss of power in the labor unions.
“The immigration situation was hurting me in the workplace,” Hughes said. “I was losing ground.”
Feeling that the two American political parties were leading the country down the wrong path, Hughes sought an answer outside the traditional political framework. He attended some meetings of the Nationalist Coalition, which set him down the path to the NSM.
“It was 10 people in a library room, once a month,” Hughes recalls. “I think they called us suit-and-tie Nazis.”
It was in 2009 that Hughes attended a NSM rally, and later invited the people he met there over for a party. From then on, he was a member who found himself in increasingly more public roles.
“One thing led to the other, I found myself as a public speaker of all things,” Hughes said. “I’m a little different than the other members. I’m like the Indiana Jones of the NSM.”
The NSM first began in 1974 as a group that closely mirrored the Nazi Party of Germany, replete with similar uniforms, symbolism and armbands. The group was small and little recognized except when marching with Nazi flags.
So they dropped the Nazi calling card and cleaned up their image. Blending in would give them the credibility they needed to enter the public forum.
“It’s hard to be mainstream when you look so out of mainstream,” Hughes said. “We are attempting to be a little more normal.”
That pivot to mainstream American politics was the reason the group ditched the outward comparisons to Nazism, and steadfastly denies any current connection to Hitler’s political party. However, the political platform of the NSM has changed very little over the years — it still is only open to “non-Semitic heterosexuals of European descent” according to the organization’s website.
“Part of that is tradition and part of that is history,” Hughes claims.
While careful to avoid an outright denial of the Holocaust, Hughes and his organization maintain a position that historical accounts of one of the worst genocides in human history were either exaggerated or false. Additionally, Hughes claims that, essentially, the Jews started it.
“In 1933 the Jews declared war on Germany,” Hughes said. “It was an economic war.”
Claims like this have landed the NSM and its members in hot water. Public opinion is often diametrically opposed to the message of the organization and the stance it takes on anti-Semitism, which can have strong consequences for the membership.
“If you’re involved in things like this, your chance of employment drops to zero,” Hughes said. “A lot of our membership is employed so they have to tread lightly.”
As a retiree, Hughes doesn’t fear workplace reprisals for his outspoken opinion and overt membership in the NSM. For his fellow members, it is something that can lead to being fired or otherwise shunned. For this reason, much of the organization exists in shadow, communicating through closed groups online and meeting in private.
In spite of the vitriol that membership can bring, Hughes claims that the NSM is growing — the Arizona unit, in particular, has seen an uptick in membership. Hughes attributes this to increased public awareness and the results of the 2016 presidential election.
“Donald Trump ran on 80 percent of our platform,” Hughes claimed. “We are trying to get some power and this election has been a real game changer.”
For all the good it has done them, Hughes isn’t real positive about how much of his party’s policies will ultimately be implemented. While hopeful for the economic and immigration reform championed by the NSM, Hughes believes that the racial and nationalistic goals of the organization may never come to fruition.
“We’re not going to have an all-white ethnostate in North America,” Hughes concedes. “That’s just demographically impossible. In my lifetime? Probably not.”
Despite the writing on the wall, Hughes and his National Socialist Movement continue to work toward that dream of an all-white America, devoid of the diversity that is the nation’s calling card — even if it means being called a Nazi, a skinhead, and the champion of a hate group.
“We call things Nazi that we don’t like,” Hughes said with a chuckle. “People have been calling me names since the first grade, so I’m not too worried about what people call me.”
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Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service with the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org