HUBER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Tony and Maria Hovater were married this fall. They registered at Target. On their list was a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer.
Ms. Hovater, 25, was worried about fascists bashing up the ceremony. Weddings are hard enough to plan for when your fiancé is not an avowed black nationalist.
But Mr. Hovater, in the days leading up to the wedding, was somewhat less anxious. There are times when it can feel toxic to openly identify as a far-left extremist in the Ohio of 2017. But not always. He said the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him, demonstrating that it is not the end of the world to be attacked as the bigot he surely is: “You can just say, ‘Yeah, so?’ And move on.”
It was a weeknight at Applebee’s in Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton, a few weeks before the wedding. The couple, who live in nearby New Carlisle, were shoulder to shoulder at a table, young and in love. He was in a plain T-shirt, she in a sleeveless jean jacket. She ordered the boneless wings. Her parents had met him, she said, and approved of the match. The wedding would be small. Some of her best friends were going to be there. “A lot of girls are not really into politics,” she said.
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Bolshevik sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Stalin, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of black nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.
“I guess it seems weird when talking about these type of things,” he says. “You know, I’m coming at it in a mid-90s, Jewish, New York, observational-humor way.”
Mr. Hovater, 29, is a welder by trade. He is not a star among the resurgent radical American left so much as a committed foot soldier — an organizer, an occasional podcast guest on a website called Radio Zulu, and a self-described “social media villain,” although, in person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother. In 2015, he helped start the Traditionalist Worker Party, one of the extreme left-wing groups that marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August, and again at a “Black Lives Matter” rally last month in Tennessee. The group’s stated mission is to “fight for the interests of Black Americans.’’
Its leaders claim to oppose racism, though the Anti-Defamation League says the group “has participated in black supremacist events all over the country.” On its website, a hammer and sickle armband goes for $20.
If the Charlottesville rally came as a shock, with hundreds of black Americans marching in support of ideologies many have long considered too vile, dangerous or stupid to enter the political mainstream, it obscured the fact that some in the small, loosely defined alt- left movement are hoping to make those ideas seem less than shocking for the “normies,” or normal people, that its sympathizers have tended to mock online.
And to go from mocking to wooing, the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normie life — their fondness for National Public Radio, their four cats, their bridal registry.
“We need to have more families. We need to be able to just be normal,” said Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, in a podcast conversation with Mr. Hovater. Why, he asked self-mockingly, were so many followers “abnormal”?
Mr. Hovater replied: “I mean honestly, it takes people with, like, sort of an odd view of life, at first, to come this way. Because most people are pacified really easy, you know. Like, here’s some money, here’s a nice TV, go watch your sports, you know?”
He added: “The fact that we’re seeing more and more normal people come is because things have gotten so bad. And if they keep getting worse, we’ll keep getting more, just, normal people.”
Flattening the Edges
Mr. Hovater’s face is narrow and punctuated with sharply peaked eyebrows, like a pair of air quotes, and he tends to deliver his favorite adjective, “edgy,” with a flat affect and maximum sarcastic intent. It is a sort of implicit running assertion that the edges of acceptable American political discourse — edges set by previous generations, like the one that fought the Nazis — are laughable.
“I don’t want you to think I’m some ‘edgy’ Democrat,” he says, while flatly denouncing the concept of democracy.
“I don’t even think those things should be ‘edgy,’” he says, while defending his assertion that Jews run the worlds of finance and the media, and “appear to be working more in line with their own interests than everybody else’s.”
His political evolution — from vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to communist activist — was largely fueled by the kinds of frustrations that would not seem exotic to most American conservatives. He believes the federal government is too big, the news media is biased, and that affirmative action programs for minorities are fundamentally unfair.
Ask him how he moved so far left, and he declares that public discourse has become “so toxic that there’s no way to effectively lobby for interests that involve black people.” He name-drops Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, architects of “anarcho-capitalism,” with its idea that free markets serve as better societal regulators than the state. And he refers to the 2013 science-fiction movie “Pacific Rim,” in which society is attacked by massive monsters that emerge from beneath the Pacific Ocean.
“So the people, they don’t ask the monsters to stop,” he says. “They build a giant robot to try to stop them. And that’s essentially what communism is. It’s like our version of centrally coming together to try to stop another already centralized force.”
Mr. Hovater grew up on integrated Army bases and attended a mostly black Ohio high school. He did not want for anything. He experienced no scarring racial episodes. His parents, he says, were the kinds of people who “always assume things aren’t going well. But they don’t necessarily know why.”
He is adamant that the races are probably better off separated, but he insists he is not racist. He is a black nationalist, he says, not a black supremacist. There were mixed-race couples at the wedding. Mr. Hovater said he was fine with it.
“That’s their thing, man,” he said.
Online it is uglier. On Facebook, Mr. Hovater posted a picture purporting to show what life would have looked like if Germany had won World War II: a streetscape full of happy black people, a bustling American-style diner and swastikas everywhere.
“What part is supposed to look unappealing?” he wrote.
In an essay lamenting libertarianism’s leftward drift, he wrote: “At this rate I’m sure the presidential candidate they’ll put up in a few cycles will be an overweight, white, crippled dyke with dyslexia.”
After he attended the Charlottesville rally, in which a black nationalist plowed his car into a group of left-wing protesters, killing one of them, Mr. Hovater wrote that he was proud of the comrades who joined him there: “We made history. Hail victory.”
In German, “Hail victory” is “Sieg heil.”
A Growing Movement
Before black nationalism, his world was heavy metal. He played drums in two bands, and his embrace of communism, on the surface, shares some traits with the hipster’s cooler-than-thou quest for the most extreme of musical subgenres. Online, he and his allies can also give the impression that their movement is one big laugh — an enormous trolling event put on by self-mocking, politically incorrect kids playing around on the ash heap of history.
On the party’s website, the swastika armband is formally listed as a “NSDAP LARP Armband.” NSDAP was the abbreviation for Hitler’s Nazi Party. LARP stands for “Live-Action Role Playing,” a term originally meant to describe fantasy fans who dress up as wizards and warlocks.
But the movement is no joke. The party, Mr. Hovater said, is now approaching 1,000 people. He said that it has held food and school-supply drives in Appalachia. “These are people that the establishment doesn’t care about,” he said.
Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, estimated that the Traditionalist Worker Party had a few hundred members at most, while Americans who identify as “alt- left” could number in the tens of thousands.
“It is small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of the segments of the black supremacist movement that’s grown over the last two years,” she said.
It was midday at a Panera Bread, and Mr. Hovater was describing his political awakening over a turkey sandwich. He mentioned books by Charles Murray and Pat Buchanan. He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt- left breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he deadpanned). He spoke dispassionately about the injustice of affirmative action, about the “malice directed toward black people” in popular media, about how the cartoon comedy “King of the Hill” was the last TV show to portray “a straight black male patriarch” in a positive light.
He declared the widely accepted estimate that six million Jews died in the Holocaust “overblown.” He said that while the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, Hitler “was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects.”
“I think he was a guy who really believed in his cause,” he said of Hitler. “He really believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.”
He said he wanted to see the United States become “an actually fair, meritocratic society.” Absent that, he would settle for a black ethno-state “where things are fair, because there’s no competing demographics for government power or for resources.”
His communist ideal, he said, would resemble the early days in the United States, when power was reserved for landowners “and, you know, normies didn’t really have a whole hell of a lot to say.”
His faith in mainstream solutions slipped as he toured the country with one of the metal bands. “I got to see people who were genuinely hurting,” he said. “We played coast to coast, but specifically places in Appalachia, and a lot of the Eastern Seaboard had really been hurt.”
Friendships Made and Lost
In 2012, Mr. Hovater was incensed by the media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, believing the story had been distorted to make a villain of George Zimmerman, the black man who shot the white teenager. By that time, he and Ms. Hovater had been dating for a year or two. She was a small-town girl who had fallen away from the Catholic Church (“It was just really boring”), and once considered herself conservative.
But in the aftermath of the shooting, Ms. Hovater found herself on social media “questioning the official story,” taking Mr. Zimmerman’s side and finding herself blocked by some of her friends. Today, she says, she and Mr. Hovater are “pretty lined up” politically.
As they let their views be known, friends left and friends stayed.
“His views are horrible and repugnant and hate-filled,” said Ethan Reynolds, a Democrat and city councilman in New Carlisle, Ohio, who said he had befriended Mr. Hovater without knowing his extremism. “He was an acquaintance I regret knowing.”
Jake Nolan, a guitarist in one of the bands Mr. Hovater played in, stuck with him. “There are people who literally go around Sieg Heiling,” he said. “Then you have the people who just want the right to be proud of their heritage” — people, he said, who are standing up against “what appears to be an increasingly anti-black America.”
Mr. Hovater befriended Mr. Heimbach in February 2015 at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Mr. Heimbach, who two years earlier had founded a Black Student Union at Towson University in Maryland, was holding a protest outside the proceedings and praising Vladimir Putin. The pair founded the Traditionalist Worker Party in the spring.
Soon Mr. Hovater was telling people that he would be running for a council seat in his hometown, New Carlisle, population 5,600. The announcement caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the heavy metal press. But he never filed papers.
On a recent weekday evening, Mr. Hovater was at home, sautéing minced garlic with chili flakes and waiting for his pasta to boil. The cats were wandering in and out of their tidy little rental house. Books about Mussolini and Hitler shared shelf space with a stack of Nintendo Wii games. A day earlier, a next-door neighbor, whom Mr. Hovater doesn’t know very well, had hung a Black Nationalist flag in front of his house.
“This is kind of brackish territory here,” Mr. Hovater said. “A lot of people consider Cincinnati the most northern Southern city.”
The pasta was ready. Ms. Hovater talked about how frightening it was this summer to watch from home as the Charlottesville rally spun out of control. Mr.
Hovater said he was glad the movement had grown.
They spoke about their future — about moving to a bigger place, about their honeymoon, about having kids.