Can national socialism, repackaged as ‘white identity’ politics, earn votes in rural counties that voted for Trump?
by Lois Beckett
When the men in black walked into her restaurant one Friday morning and sat at the round table in the corner, Brittany Porter knew exactly what they were.
Pale, skittish, aggressively tattooed, they wore black T-shirts with a cryptic white logo over their hearts. One had a razor inked along his left jaw and two SS lightning bolts dripping next to his eye like a double set of tears. One wore a handgun on his hip.
Porter went to the table, smiled and asked what they wanted. It was just after 8am. Two of the neo-Nazis ordered chicken nuggets.
On Facebook the night before, Porter read about the group of racists who were coming to eastern Kentucky to hold a rally. They had chosen an economically struggling stretch of coal country with a population that was 98% white and that had voted 80% for Trump. In their propaganda videos, the neo-Nazi leaders had talked about the scourge of drug addiction in Pike County.
At 30, Porter knew Pike County’s problems. She herself was a recovered addict, as was her friend Chrissy Wooton, another waitress at the restaurant. Neither of them trusted either political party. Wooton, whose husband is a coal miner, had voted for Trump. Porter had not.
Together, they discussed whether they should start the day by accidentally pouring coffee into the neo-Nazis’ laps.
The neo-Nazis were on their way to Whitesburg, Kentucky, where they had secured a private piece of land in the woods to hold a weekend summit with a coalition of other white nationalist groups. At the table, there were several members of the Traditionalist Workers party, including Jason, a sallow musician in a black-metal punk band who left New York City to move to a mostly white community in Indiana; Scott, who had recently been kicked out of an Irish pub in Kentucky for celebrating Hitler’s birthday; and Gabe, diffident and a little shy, with long eyelashes and the white power tattoos on his cheek.
Porter and Wooton watched from distance, swooping in now and then to refill the coffee cups. But they were too curious to stay quiet. Porter said people on Facebook “were talking a bunch of crap”. They were saying that the group was the Ku Klux Klan.
Wooton asked again more bluntly: “Are you guys KKK?”
The event the men were attending did, in fact, have KKK members on the list of potential guests. But the men at the table laughed and grinned. They were a political party, Matthew Heimbach, the group’s 26-year-old leader, explained gently. “Our motto is faith, family and folk,” he said. Heimbach was the most famous man at the table: the one who was being sued for shoving and shouting at a young black protester at a Donald Trump campaign rally last March, and who had recently filed legal papers saying that Trump, who had reacted to the protesters by shouting “Get ‘em out of here!”, should be held responsible for his behavior.
Heimbach was wearing the same black T-shirt, with his party’s logo, as the other men, but he had a big cross around his neck and the cheerful bearing of a youth pastor: burly, bearded, bouncy with enthusiasm. One Kentucky local who watched a propaganda video Heimbach made had been perplexed that he looked like a teddy bear.
Their political party had been misrepresented, Heimbach explained to the waitresses. They’re not the KKK. They’re focused on family and faith and local control, on fighting the international corporations who came into Appalachia and took all the profits from Kentucky’s coal. Heimbach did not try to sell the waitresses on his plan for a white ethno-state, his conviction that the Holocaust did not happen, his belief in thousands of years of Jewish conspiracy. He just talked about family struggles and immigrants taking jobs and hurting workers and how white Americans needed more representation.
Wooton, who had voted for Trump, was responding enthusiastically. She was furious at the lack of government response to the opioid addiction crisis and skeptical of establishment politicians. Her husband, a coal miner, had lost his job under Obama and been hired again three days after Trump’s inauguration. Wooton came back to the table repeatedly to press Heimbach for more answers, explaining her manager was still calling him a racist. She asked if Heimbach was willing to work with people of other races. He said of course he was. He talked about the importance of black communities making decisions for themselves, about how black policemen might be better at policing black neighborhoods. Wooton agreed and agreed again.
Talking to Wooton, Heimbach acted like a local politician: polite, a little longwinded, but genuinely passionate. He was not Richard Spencer, the clean-cut, rich-boy racist who got punched in the face at Trump’s inauguration. He was not a ranting internet troll. He was a small-town kid who put himself through college selling custom wardrobe tidying systems, and now he was using those skills trying to sell fascism to the American people.
Heimbach’s Pike County trip was part of his broader preparation for 2018, when the party was planning to field six candidates in local elections for school board, county council and other positions in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Dakota and Texas. All the candidates will be under 30, all open white nationalists, though they plan to focus their campaigns on more local issues.
Wooton kept coming back with more questions, but it was clear that she liked much of what she she was hearing. When she left the table, Heimbach grinned triumphantly at his group; it seemed he was attracting some local support.
Stepping from the shadows
White supremacists and neo-Nazis complain endlessly about media lies, and yet no one is more eager to pick up the phone than Heimbach and other extremist leaders. Getting attention – even negative attention – helps them recruit and inch toward the mainstream.
Analysts from the Data & Society Research Institute concluded the far right has risen to new prominence this past year in part by “attention hacking”, manipulating the conventions of mainstream news. Members of the “alt-right”, a mixed group of racists, nationalists, antisemites and misogynists, understand that many news stories are built on a framework of conflict and outrage, fueled by the power of a shocking image or the lure of a supposedly telling contrast. “The media’s dependence on social media, analytics and metrics, sensationalism, novelty over newsworthiness, and clickbait makes them vulnerable,” its report said.
People who have had personal run-ins with Heimbach – who have experienced him in action – say the media should not simply ignore his activities. Instead of glamorizing them or portraying them as cartoonish monsters, scrutiny should attempt to reveal their impact.
However, one anti-fascist observed, it doesn’t matter if the news coverage attempts to be negative – neo-Nazis will still try to recruit people in the comments section underneath.
Measured in numbers, white nationalists and neo-Nazis remain the fringe of the fringe. Last year’s BronyCon, the annual conference of grown men who take an ironic fascination in the cartoon My Little Pony, attracted 7,600 people. Anthrocon, a convention of “furries” who like to do fun things while wearing fuzzy, full-body animal costumes, attracted more than 7,000. The Kentucky neo-Nazi summit in April attracted about 150 people, about 75 of them members of the Traditionalist Worker party. Heimbach claims that his party has 600 dues-paying members nationwide. They do not call themselves Nazis. Heimbach said the term Nazi is a slur, and that he draws inspiration from many fascist and national socialist regimes, not just Germany’s.
Heimbach said being labeled a Nazi would undermine his attempt to educate the American people about “what national socialism truly is”, claiming it invokes “every lie and every over-the-top media creation of the last 72 years [since 1945]”.
Ryan Lenz, an analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks American hate groups, sees no justification for his argument. It is fair to label Heimbach a Nazi because he is an avowed national socialist, Holocaust denier and antisemite.
“In this context, Nazi is not a slur. It’s not an attack. It’s an accurate description,” he said.
Neo-Nazi activism in America has been undermined for decades by what both extremist leaders and hate group monitors describe as incredibly childish infighting. Neo-Nazis have squabbled over their religious differences (some are Christian; others are pagans, some worshipping the Norse god Odin; one or two, a Neo-Nazi leader claimed, are even Buddhist), over their uniform and symbol choices, over which neo-Nazi stole which other neo-Nazi’s girlfriend.
“Most of these people are malignant contrarians who have a lot of loyalty and trust issues,” said Lenz.
But Trump’s rise to power has encouraged the extremists to try to bridge their divides. Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan leaders were jubilant over an openly xenophobic, politically incorrect presidential candidate who promised to stop illegal immigration and enact a Muslim ban – and they have pursued news coverage, attracting headlines and staging dramatic photos. In May, a number of different groups met in front of a threatened Confederate monument and set garden torches on fire. In the photos, shared around the world, a mass of shadowy figures and flames made for a startling image.
Heimbach has been perfecting the provocative art since he first made national headlines in 2012 by founding a White Student Union at his university, the perfectly logical complement to the campus’ Black Student Union, he said. Towson University, where he graduated in 2013, was majority white. It was one of the safest public universities in Maryland, but Heimbach would lead journalists around campus at night as he and his friends patrolled with flashlights in search of black crime.
When students and faculty protested this behavior, Heimbach claimed the rallies against him were proof of anti-white bias. The outrage brought in television cameras and left his classmates of color deeply anxious.
“People were afraid of Matthew,” said Ignacio Evans, a former classmate and the vice-president of the Black Student Union at the time.
At a campus town hall meeting, Evans recalled, Heimbach had said: “I am going to bleed this university white.”
“It sent shockwaves through the campus,” Evans said. As a result of Heimbach’s activism, he thought attendance at campus events dropped. People didn’t want to leave their rooms.
Everyone knew Heimbach had a gun. “It wouldn’t be uncommon to see him in a video shooting things,” he said.
Evans countered Heimbach’s views publicly – and, as a result, he was featured on white supremacist websites, one of which dubbed him a “black supremacist”.
Evans said he had received a death threat at his college graduation, and walked across the stage fearing that he would be shot in front of his mother and his girlfriend.
Jonathan Munshaw, who covered Heimbach’s early tactics for the Towson student newspaper, said he only ever verified one Towson student who was part of the White Student Union: Heimbach himself. But students on campus truly believed that the group was much bigger, Munshaw said – and they were terrified.
To the national media, the campus conflict was irresistible. “Matt was so accessible,” Munshaw said. “The national media outlets could come in and it was fairly easy for them to get a story because he was always very willing and ready.”
It was the perfect recipe for a television segment: the white supremacist, the black students arguing against him. “It was an easy story,” Munshaw said.
Trump: the ‘gateway drug’ to white nationalism
The Aryan Terror Brigade. The National Socialist Movement. The neo-Confederate League of the South. After he graduated from college, Heimbach met and formed alliances with so many different extremists groups that Lenz, the SPLC analyst, said he once thought Heimbach “might be an informant of the federal government”.
Heimbach serves as a lynchpin between the scattered groups of the radical right – the one who can build connections with “the working-class skinhead movement and the upper-class academic racists”, said Lenz, who has been interviewing Heimbach periodically since he graduated from college.
His argument, Lenz said, is: we’re all compatriots in nationalism, and therefore we should stand together, whether we believe in the Holocaust or not.
Heimbach had only been a white nationalist in college. But supporters of his White Student Union responded by sending him books in the mail that helped shift his views about the Holocaust. “At the end of the day,” he said, “you end up at national socialism.”
Lenz said he does not know how Heimbach, who says he is forced to work low-paying jobs, can afford to travel constantly across the country and fly to Europe every year to meet with far-right groups. He said Heimbach had denied having a wealthy patron who funded the trips. Heimbach said he paid for the trips himself, with some contribution from his party, and that he kept costs low by staying with other far-right activists.
“I’ve been waiting for my rubles to show up. It hasn’t happened yet,” he said, chuckling, referencing “more than a few media outlets that have claimed I’m secretly working for the FSB”.
By the month before Trump’s election, Heimbach had shifted gears and developed a new message discipline “capable of spinning answers to questions like someone who had spent years in a spin room”, Lenz said.
Trump was Heimbach’s dream come true. In early 2016, Heimbach had described the presidential candidate as the “gateway drug” to outright white nationalism.
“He’s not one of us and everyone needs to know that,” Heimbach told the site Vocativ last year, describing the president. “But he’s opening political space. He’s definitely opening up political space for people like ourselves.”
On 1 March 2016, Heimbach and some of his party members attended a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky. Heimbach was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Almost immediately, he and his group caught the attention of a Trump protester in the crowd.
“For a second, I thought they were counter-protesters [against Trump]. They looked like punk rock kids,” the protester said. Then she realized: “No, those are skinheads.”
The protester asked not to be named to avoid attacks from far-right trolls. She described watching Heimbach move through the crowd before the speech, handing out literature, trying to recruit Trump supporters for his Traditionalist Worker movement. He was circumspect, as usual, talking about workers losing jobs.
“I don’t think I ever even heard him say the word white,” she said. Instead, it was: “‘People are coming in, close the border, and they’re taking our jobs and our communities’ – it was very dog whistle-y.
“Nobody gave him any flak about it,” the protester said. “He wasn’t getting any pushback.”
In retrospect, she thought, Heimbach helped in revving up the crowd, priming it for what came later.
When the protester’s group finally raised their banners toward the end of Trump’s speech, Heimbach’s group immediately rushed them, not just to tear down their anti-Trump banner but also to punch them, several protesters alleged in a lawsuit. The onslaught “was so intense and violent” that the protester, who was in the back, said she was overwhelmed.
The protester said Heimbach and his group had insinuated their way into the middle of the crowd, and when a moment of tension arrived they suddenly turned violent, and other men around them mirrored their behavior, shouting, pushing, furious.
Trump, from the stage, had called: “Get ’em out!”
A video from the rally shows Heimbach, in his hat, repeatedly laying hands on a young black protester, Kashiya Nwanguma, and shouting in her face. Next, an older man in a Korean war veterans uniform shoves her, follows her for a few steps and shoves her again.
Three protesters are now suing Heimbach and a Korean war veteran over this violence – and suing Trump for inciting the violence.
A federal judge recently ruled that the case could move forward, writing: “It is plausible that Trump’s direction to ‘Get ’em out of here’ advocated the use of force.”
In a letter to the head of a Korean war veterans chapter, the veteran, Alvin Bamberger, apologized and said he was ashamed of his behavior, according to a copy of the letter obtained by a local news outlet. He blamed his behavior on being caught between black protesters and white supremacists, though he acknowledged that was no excuse.
In a blogpost afterward, cited in court filings, Heimbach wrote: “There’s some viral footage of several heated moments in Louisville. One features yours truly helping the crowd drive out one of the women who had been pushing, shoving, barking, and screaming at the attendees for the better part of an hour.” ( In court filings, Nwanguma denied she had done this.)
“It won’t be me next time, but White Americans are getting fed up and they’re learning that they must either push back or be pushed down,” Heimbach wrote.
In court filings, he had denied that he behave improperly, but also argued that Trump should be held responsible for his behavior.
Heimbach was charged with harassment, a misdemeanor, and was recently served a summons to appear in court.
For decades, American neo-Nazis have been trying to break into the mainstream by running for local political office, as Heimbach is now hoping his supporters can do. George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi party, told a journalist in 1966 that he expected he would be elected president by 1972 on a national socialist ticket, pushed to victory by a dramatic economic collapse. Instead, he was murdered by one of his own supporters outside a laundromat in 1967.
Far-right parties in Europe have had more political success. Amid the Greek debt crisis in 2015, Golden Dawn, a violent neo-Nazi party known for beating attacks on immigrants and people suspected of being gay or on the left, captured the third largest number of seats in the Greek parliament.
American neo-Nazis look at Golden Dawn’s rise and take hope. Heimbach has met with far-right nationalists across Europe, he said, including three visits with Golden Dawn over the past three years.
“There will come a point where the people begin to awaken. [Golden Dawn] had to go through many years as a dedicated small group of men and women to carry the flame,” Heimbach said.
He has also met with nationalist activists in the Czech Republic and spoke last year at the annual conference of Germany’s National Democratic party. He calls himself a friend of the British neo-Nazi group National Action, which was banned in December after the home secretary dubbed it a terrorist organization.
Heimbach has also been banned from entering the UK “on the grounds that your presence here would not be conducive to the public good”. In response, he tweeted it was outrageous that he was denied while “radical” Muslims were let in. “#EnglandYoureDrunk”, he wrote.
Heimbach can put on a show of moderation. He doesn’t think everyone should have to live in a white ethno-state. That’s just his preference. He doesn’t hate other races. He just thinks that black Americans have, on average, a “lower future time orientation”.
In interviews and speeches to other neo-Nazis, Heimbach is less circumspect, quoting Goebbels and speaking fondly of Mussolini.
He is a Holocaust denier, believing that the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime did not happen, that it’s all a “Bolshevik conspiracy”. He has expressed sympathy for the racist killer Dylann Roof and praised white supremacist Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.
Real Christianity, he said, is “patriarchal, homophobic, racist and antisemitic”. He laughed. “I see that as a good thing.”
Heimbach lives in Paoli, Indiana, with his wife and son; his fellow party leader, Matt Parrott; and Jason, the young white nationalist who moved from New York City to join him and who now edits his video projects and produces white nationalist music. Three other white families who support their views have moved to Paoli to join them, Heimbach said – two from northern Indiana, one from Virginia. They try to get together weekly for board game nights and home-brewed mead. They play Risk – “of course, the battle of world domination” – and Cards Against Humanity.
“We played Monopoly, but then we decided that was too capitalist,” Heimbach said.
Almost none of the consequences he has faced for his activism seem to faze him. Heimbach says he was excommunicated by his Eastern Orthodox church for his racist beliefs. His family cut him off after he became famous for founding the White Student Union. By his count he has been fired from seven jobs, including a position as a trainee case worker at the Indiana department of child services. He claimed this was a punishment for his political convictions.
A spokeswoman for the department wrote in an e-mail Heimbach was “dismissed for his behavior at work” after less than three weeks as a trainee. “His behavior in training was disruptive of the workplace, incompatible with public service, and not protected speech,” she wrote. “For example, what I’ve been told is that, while in training, his response to a question suggested violence against a client.”
Since college, Heimbach has been able to draw other racists around him, forming a likeminded group that acknowledges him as a leader. Throughout hours of interviews he has a politician’s confidence, but when he talked about his family, he sounded sad.
“My parents didn’t exactly know what I was thinking or up to. I think in modern America, [there are] a tremendous amount of parents who would be horrified and scandalized with what their young sons and daughters are reading on white nationalist forums or reading on the Daily Stormer,” he said.
After the coverage of his White Student Union, his family – who did not respond to requests for an interview for this article – confronted him in a phone conversation.
“My folks said that they didn’t raise me like this, that they didn’t approve of this and that I had to make a choice, if I was going to do this or choose my family. And I said to them, this is choosing my family, because I want my siblings and their grandchildren to have a future. They didn’t understand.”
The rise of Nazi thought in America could change that, he said. “Hopefully, as politics changes, as our ideas continue to grow, hopefully we’ll be the new mainstream before too long.”
“I’m not bitter and resentful,” he said later. “It hurts – like, it’s not easy – but it’s the safest thing for them to do.”
The night before their rally in downtown Pikeville, the neo-Nazis gathered on a scruffy patch of private land to eat picnic food and listen to each other give speeches about the future of the white race.
That evening, a convoy of about 20 cars had wound from the parking lot of a Walmart through narrow Kentucky back roads, past small houses flying the Confederate flag. White residents stood at their front doors or on their porches, watching silently as the cars passed.
The road turned from pavement to dusty gravel to dirt. In the field at the top of a hill, there was a white rental tent, rows of cars, a portable toilet. Young men in paramilitary-style black outfits strode around the tent, armed with rifles and walkie-talkies.
The dress code for the white supremacist unity summit in April was strict: men were supposed to wear “a black work shirt, black pants, and black boots; with an organizational patch on the left arm. Women are requested to dress modestly and in black as well.”
Heimbach had allowed a small group of journalists to attend the Whitesburg neo-Nazi summit, including the Guardian and a French television crew, to attend part of the weekend’s private speeches. He claimed that he had turned down other larger American outlets, disliking their coverage.
In the tent, decorated with a White Lives Matter banner, the neo-Nazis slammed Trump for claiming he was both a nationalist and a globalist, and for keeping so many Jewish people as advisers. But they said they still hoped that the movement he had started would give them a political opportunity.
“Reform is impossible,” Heimbach declared in his speech. Heimbach assailed the removal of Confederate monuments, comparing politicians who permitted monuments to white supremacy being taken down to Isis destroying temples in Syria.
“How long is it before the statues to Union soldiers are torn down, because, well, they weren’t multicultural enough they weren’t as accepting of transgender rights for children … they weren’t progressive enough?
“How long before not just the south but every symbol of our people is wiped clean from this Earth like we never existed?”
Heimbach’s speech was well received. But as the night went on, the divide between the traditional neo-Nazi groups and the new, internet-savvy “alt-right” began to show. The speeches grew so dull, despite the periodic Nazi salutes and chants of white power, that most of the younger extremists melted away into the dark, leaving a smaller and smaller audience to listen to old Nazis drone on.
On Saturday morning, they conducted a series of military marching exercises at their retreat. The man leading the exercises advised the group that perception is reality. Coming across as disciplined and tough and organized were crucial to their mission. But the drilling went poorly. One young man, obeying the order to turn, stepped boldly the wrong way.
That afternoon, the neo-Nazis managed to be an hour late to their own protest in downtown Pikeville. More than 100 anti-fascists in bandanas had arrived by 2pm, when the rally was supposed to start. There was no sign of Heimbach and his crew.
When the larger group of more than 100 people marched in, they were in good spirits, waving flags and carrying hand-painted wooden shields with fascist symbols and, in one case, a real axe, bundled with sticks, a home-made symbol of fascism. Heimbach bounced through the scrum in his sensible shoes, helping to organize his followers into neat lines. Despite the howls of the plastic trumpets and the chants of the anti-fascists and the long lines of state police on the other side of the barricades, he moved with no sense of drama, as if he were a high school coach organizing his kids at an away game.
Gabe, the one with the razor tattooed on his jaw, was in the front row, holding a shield and clearly excited. “Fuck you!” he bellowed at the protesters.
Scott, wearing a rifle and aviators, was standing nearby. “Gabe!” he hissed in a warning tone. Gabe subsided.
“Take a bath! Take a bath!” the fascists chanted at the anti-fascists.
Heimbach’s public speech was heavy on the socialism and light on conspiracy theories, denouncing corporate interests and environmental degradation, endorsing worker unions and “nationalization of key industries”.
“The Republicans and the Democrats support Wall Street, they support more wars, they support your blood being spilled for their sake,” he said, over the sounds of shouts and jeers and horns.
“We are here to tell you: you don’t have to choose the lesser of two evils. You can choose people that are actually on your side. Because we are you. We are the people you go to church with, you see in the grocery story, you work with.”
At one point, the men gave the Nazi salute and chanted for at least a minute: “Heil Heimbach! Heil Heimbach! Heil Heimbach!”
Heimbach, who was standing near the front of the crowd, faced them and grinned. “I’m going to remember that the rest of my life,” he said, with just the right amount of irony.
The men laughed, a low rumble of approval lost beneath the screams of the crowd.
‘He thinks we’re stupid’
Pikeville was true Trump country, a rural area with permissive gun laws and strong conservative values.
In the political analysis of Trump voters, neo-Nazi advocates like Heimbach and some on the left tend to agree: Trump voters are a white identity movement, motivated to vote for him at least in part by outright racism, a claim Trump supporters vehemently reject.
The locals in Pikeville greeted the influx with outrage and shock. Outside a Pikeville tattoo parlor the day before the neo-Nazis were coming to town, a group of local men expressed disgust at the agenda and concern that the event would discourage students of different races from coming to the local university.
After their shift was over that Friday before the rally, Porter and Wooton were not finished talking about Heimbach’s breakfast visit to their diner. They went to a nearby Taco Bell to discuss him more. Wooton had loved what he was saying, loved his passion. But hearing that Heimbach supported a white ethno-state immediately ended her interest. Wooton has brothers who are mixed-race.
“If they’re saying they want an all-white community, where would my brother go?” she said. She was appalled by the idea of segregation: she did want more representation for white Americans, just like the representation she sees people who are black or Mexican receive. At the same time, she ultimately wanted political leaders for different racial groups to work together for the common good.
“That’s taking us a hundred years back,” Porter said. She had told the group that she was gay, and they had said nothing in response. The Traditionalist Worker party, with its endorsement of traditional marriage, its rhetoric about “deviants”, was not going to earn the vote of this white Kentucky woman. Porter’s girlfriend worked for a local prosecutor. She knew that the people charged with crimes in their area were overwhelmingly white.
Wooton was incredulous that Heimbach could be a Holocaust denier. “He’s so smart. He has to know better than that. There’s television footage of piles of bodies,” she said.
“They have a lot of really good ideas. It’s really sad that they just bring this racism,” she said.
She looked depressed. She had been hopeful that Heimbach was a politician who could actually bring help to their area. “He seems really really smart. He seems like he knows what he’s talking about on a lot of things. And this stupid racism that’s going to hold him back from so many things – he could do so many positive things.”
She was distressed. She could not understand it. “Maybe he’s a little mental,” she said. It was the only immediate explanation, that he had “a little mental problem that he can’t get past this racist thing”.
Both women were increasingly angry that Heimbach had chosen to come to Kentucky to spread his message.
“He’s targeting us,” Wooton said, “because he thinks that we’re stupid.”
“And he’s wrong about that,” Porter said.