It was almost 3am, and Matthew Heimbach and I were sitting in an International House of Pancakes restaurant somewhere between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Paoli, Indiana, when Matthew asked me why I never asked him about the Holocaust.
The question caught me by surprise, not because I was unaccustomed to Matthew talking about Jews – only a few hours earlier he had ranted about how Jews were behind tens of millions of aborted white babies – but because I didn’t know the answer to the question.
It was on the evening before the presidential election, and I had known Matthew for a few years, watching him gain steam as a nationalist leader in America and putting together the Nationalist Front, his ragtag coalition of white pride malcontents.
I had spent the past six years with members of the radical right in order to write a book that explains the resurgence of rightwing radical groups who march in the streets, whose beliefs are rooted in the flotsam of decades of American racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy.
Matthew’s vision was to bring the these groups together within a single political movement – and in the time I knew him he became one of the most significant far-right figures in the country.
His question about the Holocaust made me wonder if all the time we had spent together had dulled me in some ways or softened my journalistic instincts.
If you spend enough time with another person, however much you disagree with or abhor that person’s opinions on certain matters, you are bound to find traits you like. And there were traits about Matthew that I honestly liked. He was always upbeat and friendly and had a way of dismissing the rest of the far right in a way that was hard to disagree with.
Also, there were political issues that we agreed on. We both felt strongly for the struggle of Palestinians, and we both believed that the prevalence of money and special interests in American politics had gotten the country into trouble.
Perhaps I was getting a form of Stockholm syndrome. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that at some point along the way I had let myself get taken in by Matthew’s charm and gregariousness.
The folksy, friendly qualities that made him so much more dangerous than your garden-variety white supremacist had gotten under my skin, and it dawned on me that the reason I hadn’t asked him about the Holocaust might be that I didn’t want to hear what he had to say about it.
Somewhere along the line, in the churning and virulent sea of Klan members’ ramblings, neo-Nazis’ aggression, and old-school white supremacists’ hatred, Matthew had become an island of relative calm, someone with whom I discussed the craziness of the white supremacist movement rather than a subject whose views I dissected and scrutinized.
The reporting for the book always took place with the full knowledge and consent of my subjects. I never concealed who I was or presented myself as anything but a journalist. But during my reporting I had spoken to several law enforcement officers who had infiltrated Klan and militia groups during the 1970s and 1980s, and they all said it was easy to become friendly with the people they were investigating and that keeping an eye on the ball was sometimes a challenge.
Had I, too, begun to lose sight of the ball?
I chewed on a forkful of red velvet pancake with syrup when it dawned on me that Matthew’s question was a gift, bringing me back to where I needed to be. It was a wake-up call, a reminder that however friendly we had become, there was still a chasm between us that neither of us wanted to cross and certain things I could never condone.
Of course, I didn’t say this to him. “I’m not sure why I haven’t asked you about the Holocaust, Matt,” I said. “I suppose I always planned on getting around to it, but now is as good a time as any.”
I put down my fork and took a sip of iced water.
“So how can you defend national socialism when it was behind the murder of 6.6 million innocents?”
With that, everything fell back into place again.
It was jarring to listen to Matthew explain the mathematical impossibility of cremating millions of Jews, the lack of historical witnesses to the Holocaust, the impracticality of using Zyklon-B, and the benefits the international Jewry had seen in perpetuating the lie of the Holocaust. These were all boilerplate Holocaust-denying arguments and had been debunked ad nauseam, yet they still proved irresistible to those who wanted to give a veneer of pseudo-science to their antisemitism.
They were feats of faux-intellectual acrobatics, non-factual contortions designed to force a square peg into a round hole, and Matthew’s refusal to acknowledge the mountain of historical evidence of the slaughter of a people reminded me that however friendly or rational he seemed, especially compared to other white nationalists, he still believed and promoted the same racist ideas.
When Matthew was done explaining how there were bound to be deaths at PoW camps – which, according to him, is what the concentration camps were – but that these camps weren’t any worse than what the Russians were doing at the time, he stopped and asked me what I thought about it all. I told him it was pretty much what I had expected, and with that we paid our bill and got back on the road.
Writing a book about something that is ongoing is a surreal affair because one needs to decide at some point when the story in the book ends, whereas in real life it continues, unaffected by narrative concerns.
There is always a next rally. Always something bigger and more consequential.
In this story, it was Charlottesville.
Charlottesville was to be a grand and much-overdue coming together of the leaders of the alt- and far right, and was given the hashtag-friendly name Unite the Right. The lineup of speakers was unquestionably impressive, living up to the name of the rally. Richard Spencer would be there, as would David Duke, Mike Enoch, and the alt-right internet luminary Anthime Gionet, aka Baked Alaska, who announced on his Twitter feed on the eve of the rally on August 11: “Tomorrow we make history at #UniteTheRight.”
Matthew had top billing. His name was on the poster along with the other prominent leaders of the far right. He had arrived.
I hadn’t planned on going. I’d been to more than my fair share of these things, and I wanted to be done with it. But throughout the summer of 2017, as the rally drew nearer, Matthew began telling me that antifa promised to bring thousands to Charlottesville. According to him, they were flying in from New York, Chicago, and Oakland as well as bussing in from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. At the same time, the number of threats against him had been increasing.
In the end a mix of curiosity, fear of missing out, and force of habit drew me to Charlottesville. I’d been going to these things for so long that it seemed strange not to.
Much like you don’t notice yourself aging, I had failed to see Matthew’s politics harden over time
Once I arrived at Charlottesville, it felt immediately like something had changed. The night before the rally, a few of the members of Matthew’s Traditionalist Worker party (TWP) kicked me out of a party at their house.
I’d brought another journalist who they immediately suspected was a Jewish spy, and Scott, Matthew’s gormless henchman, fetched a bacon pizza and asked her to eat it in what he believed was a clever ruse to ferret out Jewish infiltrators.
There was an edge to the crowd I hadn’t seen before. There were more guns than I was used to and much more bravado. As soon as I got there Matthew Parrot told me I had to leave. “Nazi Joe is here, and he’d be fucking pissed we invited a journalist. He’s going to come up and start something. You guys better get out.”
As menacing a name as it was, I soon found out that “Nazi Joe” was an alias the TWP used for Eric Striker, undoubtedly another alias.
Striker was a short, skinny kid with a big head and cartoonish features who liked to rant against Jews on the website the Daily Stormer. He was about as daunting as a very small dog, but his animosity spread among the usually bookish TWP crowd and, in some way I couldn’t quite put my finger on, altered the tenor of my relationship with the group. Matthew wasn’t there, but Striker said he spoke for him when he said I could stay but “the kike had to go”.
I was taken aback by the aggression. It felt more like a skinhead gathering than a TWP party. The next day provided further hints that Matthew was hardening, slipping further to the right.
A couple dozen TWP members in matching uniforms and construction helmets (a not-so-subtle nod to the TWP’s pro-worker bent) gathered early in the morning in a parking structure a couple of blocks from the park where the rally would take place. In their hands were riot shields, flags, and clubs. They were the tip of the spear, primed in case Antifa was there. Then came the League of the South (LoS), National Socialist Movement (NSM), and a few other groups.
All told, there must have been close to a hundred people – all marching behind Matthew. He wore his new uniform, a snug, black shirt that stretched over his paunch, a black armband emblazoned with the silver logo of the TWP, and a black tie stuffed into the buttons of his shirt. Unlike his men, he didn’t carry a shield or a club, and his helmet was a military-style combat helmet rather than a construction hat.
One of the guys from the LoS was telling the group to use the clubs against the abdomen, not the head. The head was assault, the abdomen was not. I wasn’t completely convinced he knew what he was talking about, but to be fair, he also said to not strike unless the enemy struck first, which I guess made it all the more legal.
“We’re not the alt-right and we’re not the far right,” he roared with his club in the air. “We’re the hard right!” A pickup rolled up, and as if to underscore his point, Chester Doles, Peaches, and a couple of other guys from the Confederate Hammerskins, a violent skinhead group, jumped out.
I looked at Matthew’s crowd again.
Spencer wasn’t there. He, Mike Enoch, and the members of American Vanguard, Identity Evropa, and everyone else who belonged to what had become known as “white nationalism 2.0”– simply another term for the suits of the movement – were meeting elsewhere.
This was a 1.0 crowd, and I was struck by the realization that Matthew, who had once spent a freezing March day outside the Conservative Political Action Conference happily arguing with conservatives, was now a completely different person from the one I met years ago.
The transition had been gradual, and perhaps I had been too close to see it. Much like you don’t notice yourself aging, I had failed to see Matthew’s politics harden over time.
Now, in the stark glare of the parking lot fluorescents, surrounded by what could only be described as troops, shaking hands with the Hammerskins, marching with the old guard of the movement, his transformation was obvious.
Matthew was no longer “the affable, new face of organized hate” but rather someone who believed he was at war.
Matthew had come a long way since I first met him, but he’d also not moved an inch. No one could argue that he hadn’t created an alliance of disparate far-right groups. He had curated an organization, the Nationalist Front, that somehow housed neo-Nazis, KKK, alt-right, and other racists, but it raised the question: to what end?
His friends from his former life, the one that included Youth for Western Civilization, had moved on, some to influential positions within conservative circles. But Matthew, for all his eloquence and affability, was now an avowed National Socialist, a dedicated antisemite, and the de facto leader of some of the most radical white supremacists in the nation.
He still maintained that his end goal was a true party for the white working man and that he still didn’t consider other races inferior in any way, but at the same time he was rubbing elbows with the most alienating crowd conceivable. Although his plan was to work locally and convince everyday Americans that fascism was their friend, somehow he’d convinced himself that he could do it with the help of Klansmen and tattooed skinheads.
Where he once had ridiculed Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist Movement, for being delusional enough to believe that the American public might somehow get behind a party sporting the swastika, Matthew now believed that the public would somehow come to trust the friendly neighborhood Hammerskins, “kill niggers” tattoos and all.
Ultimately, however, I believe Matthew’s vision, and the incarnation of the far right in America that I spent years covering, is destined to fail. Not because America is inherently good and that the forces of justice and progress are always stronger than those of intolerance and hatred, but because white supremacy is doing just fine without the far right.
The country has spent decades perfecting an ostensibly nonracial form of white supremacy, and it is serving with remarkable efficiency. Private prisons, mandatory sentencing, seemingly unchecked police power, gerrymandering, increasingly limited access to healthcare and abortion – these are all tendrils in an ingenious web designed to keep people poor and powerless.
Yes, white people were caught in that web too, but when it comes to those experiencing poverty, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos vastly outnumber whites.
The people Matthew was ostensibly fighting for– the broken, beaten, and forgotten whites of Appalachia and the Rust Belt – weren’t victims in a war against white people but rather collateral damage in a war against poor people and minorities. I believe Matthew was right when he said that the elites and politicians hate his people, but they don’t hate them because they’re white; they hate them because they’re poor.
In the end, Matthew both succeeded and failed at the same time. He built the large alliance on the right that he’d always dreamed of, but it was a darker, angrier, and more extreme version than what he had pitched me all those years ago. If his plan had been to use his alliance to win the hearts and minds of those who weren’t yet “red-pilled,” then his goal seemed farther away than ever.
There was a reason the National Socialist Movement had been around since the 1960s with almost nothing to show for it: because despite all the latent racism in America and the explicit and implicit white supremacy built into the fabric of our society, National Socialism would always be a fringe outlier.
By succeeding, Matthew had made the same mistakes that all the coalition builders before him had made. The Nationalist Front would never be a political force in America. If Matthew played his cards right, he might become the next George Lincoln Rockwell, William Luther Pierce, or Richard Butler.
But his steady path further and further to the right guaranteed only one thing: Matthew Heimbach would always be an extremist.