(INDYSTAR.com) - Three weeks ahead of the coming apocalypse, Matthew Heimbach knew that violence was a real possibility in Charlottesville, Va.
A prominent white nationalist who’d squared off with leftist counterprotesters before, Heimbach said the group he was leading into Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park would be prepared: helmets and shields. And a security wing of his fringe political party would openly carry weapons.
Standing in the middle of an Indiana forest where he sometimes films propaganda videos, Heimbach cast himself and his cause — the defense of white heritage — in the most romantic of terms.
“I know — and my wife knows — whenever I go to an event, like the ancient Spartan wives used to tell their husbands, come back with your shield — or on it. And my family knows this will likely cost me my life or freedom in this system we are fighting.”
A portly, bookish man with a jet-black beard and rimless eyeglasses, Heimbach’s appearance is less of a Spartan warrior than a member of a college debate team.
The story of how Heimbach arrived in Charlottesville — and how he’s come to peddle his ideology from a home base in Indiana — reveals much about members of the white nationalist movement. And it also helps explain why they are no longer content to vent their anger solely online, but feel emboldened to parade their anger through the middle of American cities.
Aug. 12, which some white nationalists have come to refer to as the Battle of Charlottesville, was to be a date when they made a stand. And in the middle of it was Heimbach, dressed in black, wearing a Nazi-style combat helmet, about to enter a street fight with counterprotesters from the extreme left.
Heimbach, 26, arrived without a shield, but with a bodyguard. A scrawny one, maybe half his size, who spent the next hour clutching the back of Heimbach’s shirt, seemingly trying to steer his protectee to safer ground.
Around them, Nazi banners and Confederate battle flags waved. Racist skinheads and Ku Klux Klansmen formed clots nearby. Columns of angry, young white men in polo shirts and khaki pants filed in like some sort of modern-day Hitler Youth. Scattered among this assembly were people spewing slurs against blacks, Jews and gays, and toting signs carrying those messages with colorful letters. One man walked around wearing a t-shirt with an image of Adolf Hitler. These were the people Heimbach was standing with. Helmets and shields were plentiful. His members, he said, opted to leave their guns at home. But on the street were camo-wearing militiamen with sidearms and long-rifles, claiming they were just there to keep the peace, but looking every bit ready for war.
On the other pole of the cultural divide were lines of clergy, locked arm in arm, singing and praying. But also there were anti-fascist groups who came wearing their own helmets and carrying their own clubs, prepared for battle themselves. Their favorite chant: "Kill the Nazis."
Most of America, watching at home, was horrified. Heimbach, a Maryland native who married into a Hoosier family and made Indiana his adopted home, would assess the bilious cauldron of anger and describe it as a dream come true.
Weeks earlier, back in Indiana, Heimbach saw the coming storm in Charlottesville as more than just a rally against the planned removal of a Confederate general’s statue from Emancipation Park. To him and other extremist leaders, Charlottesville represented a chance to “Unite the Right,” as they billed the rally — a chance to bring together the splintered factions of America’s extreme right.
And few people have worked harder for that than Matthew Heimbach.
He has attended meetings of neo-Confederates in Tennessee; he has organized a rally of racist skinheads in California that turned violent; he has traveled to Alabama to show support for Richard Spencer, an occasional rival who is credited with coining the term for this newest crop of young white nationalists — the alt-right.
Heimbach wasn't a main organizer in Charlottesville, but he was among a short roll of leaders scheduled to speak. More broadly, Heimbach is considered a leading figure in the movement. Recently, the Anti-Defamation League listed him among the Who’s Who of the alt-right. And at least one observer has likened Heimbach to a man who was the face of white supremacy a generation ago.
“He’s the next David Duke," said Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. Duke is a former imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Today's “movement” has several faces, and Heimbach’s keeps showing up more than most.
“Matt Heimbach is the constant glad-hander of the radical right because there is not an organization that he is not associated with or rubs shoulders with or sought to build alliances with,” said Lenz.
"He kind of bridges the gap between the intellectual racists and the neo-Nazis. And he's done that for some time," said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
Dreams of an all-white state
Alt-right. White nationalist. White supremacist. The terms are overlapping, if not interchangeable. At the heart of them all, says George Hawley, author of “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” are two things: A devotion to white nationalism and an intense antipathy toward Jews.
Both criteria apply to Heimbach.
Heimbach wants to end racial strife in America — and arguments over history and heritage — not by bringing people together, but by separating them further apart. He dreams of an America carved into separate ethnostates. Whites, perhaps, would occupy the upper South, the Midwest and Appalachia. Blacks would occupy the deep South. Hispanics would be in the Southwest. And those from biracial families or interested in multicultural living could have the coastal areas and the big cities. In these "ethnostates," the schools, churches and workplaces would be racially monolithic. Police forces would look like their communities.
Where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of children of different races seated together at the table of brotherhood, Heimbach would prefer they lived in different time zones. "Obviously America has failed," he says. "One size fits none. Nobody is really happy. This isn’t just for whites. This is for everyone."
As much as he sees race as a problem, Heimbach is just as quick to point the finger at Jews. He sees Jews as manipulating the controls of American finance, politics and media. He blames Jews for pushing America toward a pro-Israel foreign policy that leads to foreign wars and, at home, for pushing civil rights, gay rights and abortion rights. Jews, Heimbach said, "are against the best interests of my people.”
Heimbach's distrust of Jews extends to the Holocaust. He doesn’t accept the historic fact that 6 million Jews died under the rule of Nazi Germany. Heimbach puts the number at less than 200,000, and says most died from disease and hunger. “So what I would say about Adolf Hitler,” he says, when asked, “is that he is the most lied-about man of the 20th century.”
Heimbach’s quest for racial separation is common among white supremacists but that goes against the grain of what America stands for, says Mayo with the ADL. To the Rev. Jeffrey Johnson, a black pastor in Indianapolis, the notion the races can’t live together doesn’t reflect reality. While trouble spots dominate the news, more common — he says — are people of different races who get along. “I’m not going to let a small group of people tell me it’s not happening because they don’t want it to.”
Heimbach’s views on Jewish power are nothing new, said Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Brett Krichiver. “They get resuscitated every time there is an economic downturn,” he said. "Anyone with any common sense can see that these Jewish conspiracy theories just don't add up."
Heimbach’s theories on the Holocaust are not original either, said Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor of Jewish Studies and English at Indiana University, who says they are divorced from reality. “The Holocaust is the most copiously documented crime in human history,” he said. “We have legal trial accounts. We have more history books, memoirs, diaries and journals than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime.”
Then there are Holocaust survivors such as Eva Mozes Kor, who lives 70 miles from Heimbach in Terre Haute. She has the tattoo on her forearm the Nazis gave her at Auschwitz, where she last saw her parents and two older sisters. To such deniers, Kor has a simple question: “Tell me what happened to about 100 members of my (extended) family” who perished there?
Mayo says Heimbach can fairly be described as a white supremacist, a Neo-Nazi and “virulent anti-Semite.”
Heimbach isn’t offended by such labels, but he quibbles with terms. He happily owns National Socialist, the philosophy of Nazism, but says “Nazi” was a derogatory term in prewar Germany. He resists the white supremacist label because he says he doesn’t claim whites are superior to other races, just that whites would be better off apart from them.
Such views might suggest Heimbach was raised on racism, or that he was taught to hate Jews. But a look at his upbringing shows he followed another path to white nationalism.
A subtle move to extremism
Matthew Warren Heimbach grew up the middle of three children in a middle-class family from Poolesville, Md., a bedroom community for Washington, D.C., about 35 miles away. Heimbach remembers the Poolesville of his childhood as a small town.
Hawley said it's fairly typical for this new young crop of extremists to come from families with no interest in white supremacy or radical ideas on race. That seems to be the case with Heimbach. His parents, Karl and Margaret, were schoolteachers who divorced when he was a teenager. Heimbach says they were nothing close to radical, just "Mitt Romney Republicans" who hate their son's politics. His father couldn't be reached for comment. His mother declined an interview. Last year, she told The Washington Post: "His family does not share his beliefs in terms of race."
Heimbach seems to have developed a love of history from boyhood excursions with his father to Civil War battlefields and cemeteries. His father's ancestors were Unionists, but the young Heimbach developed a fascination for the Confederacy. As a teenager, he joined a Civil War reenactment unit based in southern Virginia, reliving battles that took place across the region, always wearing Confederate gray. “You want to be the good guys,” he says. Year after year, he lost at Gettysburg, coming to prefer to think about the early years of the war.
While still a boy, the national controversy over school mascot names came to Poolesville, when government leaders decided the local high school should drop "Indians" in favor of "Falcons." Heimbach recalls it as his introduction to what he calls political correctness, a rallying point among white nationalists.
Still, he says, that didn't mark his turn. Some of his followers trace their conversions to white nationalism from bad experiences in multiethnic neighborhoods. Heimbach's came more subtly.
As a teen, he couldn't make sense of the American invasion of Iraq. He began reading heady political tomes by Noam Chomsky that took dim views of American imperialism and a capitalist system that dehumanizes people to the point they are cogs of production. And he read his grandfather's Rush Limbaugh books. None of it satisfied his angst until he came to Samuel Huntington's “Who Are We?,” which looked at how diversity and multiculturalism affect national identity. And he read Pat Buchanan's “Suicide of a Superpower,” which bemoaned that birthrate trends might foretell “the end of white America.”
Lenz, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, has followed closely Heimbach's career as a radical and came to a simple conclusion. “If anything, I think Heimbach was radicalized because he read the wrong books."
When Heimbach became a student at Towson University, near Baltimore, he took his new philosophies with him and was inspired to create a student organization called Youth for Western Civilization, which aimed to preserve “western culture.” Mayo, with the Anti-Defamation League, said that was code for white supremacy.
Soon, Heimbach and his peers were chalking sidewalks on Towson’s campus with messages such as "White Pride" and "White Guilt is Over." They protested the appearance of a speaker, who had been invited to campus by the Muslim Student Association, that he deemed radical. His group staged a "Straight Pride Day," selling cookies, with discounts for people from minority groups. They brought in speakers of their own with ties to white supremacy. When the student newspaper referred to his group as the “White Student Union,” Heimbach tried to adopt the name formally. Towson turned him down.
Heimbach kept reading, turning to thinkers from Europe’s radical right, including Rene Guenon and Julius Evola. Both were advocates of traditionalism, a philosophy that values customs passed on from previous generations more than modern ideas.
When he graduated Towson in 2013 with a degree in history, Heimbach had new contacts from white nationalist circles. One of them was Matt Parrott.
Born and raised in Paoli, Ind., Parrott got a computer as a kid in the 1990s and promptly used it as a gateway to learn about white nationalism. As Parrott puts it, he was "online-radicalized." While working for a time as an IT specialist working in Carmel, Parrott came to see a bleak future for white America. By 2008, he formed a local Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization. In 2011, he actively pushed for tougher immigration laws in Indiana.
In their online chats, Heimbach and Parrott found they shared a concern about how America's demographics were shifting so that, within decades, white people could become a minority. Rather than shrugging at the prospect, they — like other white nationalists — see it as an existential threat.
They met in person in 2013 at a conference of the American Renaissance, an organization the Anti-Defamation League describes as a white supremacist think tank. In addition to sharing a worldview, Heimbach took a liking to Parrott's stepdaughter, Brooke. Soon, Heimbach moved to Paoli, Ind., where the Parrott family lived, and in 2015, the couple was married. They now have two small children. His wife was unavailable for interviews.
Along with their families, Heimbach and Parrott merged their philosophies on race, politics and faith into a new political organization, the Traditionalist Worker Party. At its core, Heimbach says, is Orthodox Christianity, a family structure where men are providers and protectors, and where women focus on child rearing. The party opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Above all, it focuses on the interests of white Americans who, according to the party's Facebook page, has "for decades have been abandoned by the System and actively attacked by globalists and traitorous politicians."
The reach of the party seems minuscule. Heimbach said he has 500 dues-paying members across the country, with perhaps 20 in Indiana. Outside observers say the numbers are much smaller. The party staged a rally in Pikeville, Ky., earlier this year, drawing about 125 supporters. The setting was seemingly well suited to it message — a nearly-all white community where the demise of the coal industry has been felt sharply. Yet The Guardian, a British newspaper that shadowed Heimbach, said locals weren't receptive. Still, Heimbach found one reward. His members gave the Nazi salute and chanted "Heil Heimbach." He turned to them and said, "I'm going to remember that for the rest of my life."
Heimbach also has traveled abroad to meet with leaders of nationalist movements, as he did in Romania, on the same trip he and his wife were married by an Orthodox priest, and Greece, where the couple honeymooned. There, he met with members of the Golden Dawn, a nationalist group known for its resistance to immigration.
Heimbach said he sees value in being allied with other nationalists. But his definition of nationalist is broad. He appreciates the leadership of Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. And he says he draws inspiration from two groups the United States deems terrorist organizations — Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon — because of the social services they provide. Heimbach said he wants his party to be ready to help white communities who are hit by natural disasters or events such as house fires. “That’s what really every nationalist or revolutionary group does,” Heimbach said. “You invest in communities, and they will trust you.”
When it comes to Paoli, the community has shown little interest in Heimbach, Parrott or their white nationalism. In response to media coverage of Heimbach, locals responded by planting signs around town proclaiming: "No matter what color your skin, no matter where you are from, no matter what you believe, we're glad you are our neighbor." And the town passed an ordinance standing for diversity.
"The town wants nothing to do with what I'm up to," Parrott admits.
Still, Heimbach would like to see Traditionalist candidates for local offices. Running candidates for state or national offices, he said, would be a waste of resources. But, in 2016, Heimbach and other white nationalists found a presidential candidate who seemed in many ways aligned with their worldview.
Even though he was a corporate mogul and part of the capitalist system Heimbach hates, Donald Trump pledged to put America first, keep the country out of foreign wars, and look out for workers. To the ears of a white nationalist like Heimbach, it was sweet music.
"He did harness the rage that existed in union halls, VFW halls, farmers markets and diners in rural white America for decades," Heimbach said. "So I think he, himself, has not created anything, but he did show where white politics are going in the United States."
But there was another note in Trump's rhetoric — his negative characterizations of Mexican immigrants, his plans to stiffen legal barriers to immigration and his pledge to build a border wall — which Heimbach said was clearly an appeal based on race.
"I guarantee if we had a million Swedes a year coming into America," Heimbach said, "I don’t think there would be a tremendous outcry against immigration."
Heimbach's enthusiasm for Trump's message became evident to the nation in March 2016 when the candidate made an appearance in Louisville, Ky. As Trump spoke, protesters interrupted him and Trump urged his supporters to get them out.
In a video that was the talk of the campaign for days, Heimbach — wearing a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap — twice shoved a black woman in the center of the protest, repeatedly shouting and thrusting a finger in her face.
Heimbach faced criminal charges from the incident. He claimed Trump’s callout had deputized audience members to take action. But in July, Heimbach entered a plea agreement on a charge of second-degree disorderly conduct where he maintained his innocence, but acknowledged he would have been found guilty. He was fined $145, banned from contact with the victim and ordered to attend anger management classes, which he expects to begin in September.
Heimbach supported Trump through the election, even attending his inauguration. But now, after Trump ordered an attack on Syria and levied sharp criticism against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has many fans among white nationalists, he sees the president as a disappointment.
Even so, Heimbach says Trump has shown white America a way forward. “I think he has given some momentum to issues,” he said.
Mayo, with the Anti-Defamation League, said: “What has happened is that they feel emboldened because the campaign inspired whites to assert their identity.”
The Trump campaign rally wasn't the first time Heimbach’s actions have cost him, nor the last.
In January 2016, Heimbach was terminated from his job with Indiana’s Department of Child Services before he could complete his case manager training. He said it was related to his political views, but Ashley Emsweller Hungate, a spokeswoman for the Indiana State Personnel Department, said: “His behavior in training was disruptive of the workplace, incompatible with public service and not protected speech. For example, what I’ve been told is that, while in training, his response to a question suggested violence against a client.”
These days, Heimbach says he does mostly blue-collar work made available to him through friends. He said he worked this summer in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana on jobs ranging from landscaper to construction worker to courier. When he appeared before the judge in Kentucky in June, he said he worked for a distribution company and put his income at $1,800 a month. Annually, that would be $21,600.
Which begs the question: How can Heimbach afford to travel the country and around the world? Heimbach said members of his party pay dues and that helps cover some travel expenses. Lenz, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, thinks Heimbach has other donors.
Heimbach's actions have brought other repercussions, as well.
In 2015, he was banned from the United Kingdom before he could attend an event with a British neo-Nazi group. The government issued a letter to him saying his presence in the country would not be "conducive to the public good," according to a copy published by The Guardian. It cited Heimbach's advocacy of racial segregation in the United States and his expression of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views.
In January, Twitter suspended Heimbach’s account. When The Washington Post asked why, the paper was directed to Twitter's “hateful conduct” policy. Screenshots of Heimbach's previous Tweets showed anti-Jewish comments and slurs. But one Heimbach Tweet, posted eight months ago, looks different in light of Charlottesville: “Leftist protesters blocking the road with weapons, threats and violence while make you fear for your life? #HitTheGas”
Finally, Heimbach says his views have separated him from his parents, whom he says have rarely spoken to him since he left college.
Yet, for all the costs, Heimbach says he fears losing more if he were to step back and do nothing. The prospect that white people will no longer be the majority group in America frightens him. He fears whites will be hated and “hunted down.” It is this fear of a "white genocide" that pervades the white nationalist movement.
In his view, an early step in that direction is the erasure of white history. Such as with the removal of Confederate monuments, as in Charlottesville.
'Clear the park'
As Heimbach, his bodyguard and his company of fellow white nationalists approached Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, they were met by a blockade of counterprotesters. Blows were exchanged. Bodies were flung to the ground. Pepper spray flew. Heimbach and his crew made it inside the park, but he was soon asking for water to douse his eyes after being sprayed.
Still, an hour before the speeches were to begin, tensions mounted. Counterprotesters in the street threw full water bottles, smoke bombs and containers filled with paint and urine into the park. White nationalists threw them back. Fights grew more fierce. A counterprotester beat a white nationalist to the ground with a club. Another stomped a man on the ground with his boot. Corralled between metal barricades, Heimbach began darting about with urgency. Finally, he ordered his men to knock down the metal barricade dissecting the middle of the park. Quickly it fell, with Heimbach briefly getting his foot caught in the barrier's metal ribs.
Within moments, a state police officer appeared outside the park with a bullhorn. The event, he said, had been declared an unlawful assembly; everyone had to disperse.
“Clear the park. Clear the streets. Or you will be arrested.”
Later, Heimbach would say he ordered the barrier knocked down because he’d heard the order to disperse was coming, and he wanted to give his group a way to reach the park’s second exit, so as to avoid the difficult way they’d come. As Heimbach left the park, he was greeted by the jeers of counterprotesters along his path. He smiled broadly, waved and blew kisses to his detractors. Seemingly self-satisfied, he said repeatedly, "Have a blessed day."
Soon, white nationalists and counterprotesters were scattered about the streets of Charlottesville, engaging in sporadic violence. In one incident, a black counterprotester was beaten to the ground by a group of white nationalists.
Yet, all the day’s mayhem was eclipsed by what happened less than two hours after the park cleared. On one of Charlottesville’s narrow downtown streets, white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car down a street crowded with demonstrators. And he appeared to hit the gas. Fields’ car smashed into the back of a sedan, which pushed forward into two other vehicles. Bodies flew in the air. At least 19 people were injured. One woman, a counterprotester from Charlottesville named Heather Heyer, was killed.
The episode added an element of horror and outrage to a day that, for much of America, had been grim and sickening. Almost immediately, there were calls to label the crash an act of terrorism.
Heimbach didn’t respond to messages and calls from IndyStar in the hours after the crash, or the next day. Later, he would say he was tending to a friend who had been hospitalized with eye damage from pepper spray. But two days after the horror, Heimbach emerged on the streets of Charlottesville wearing a black T-shirt bearing an image of a fascist leader from 1920s Romania.
In video posted to a white nationalist group’s Facebook page, Heimbach spoke to the media and gathered onlookers. He accused Charlottesville police of failing to enforce his group’s right to protest. Echoing the message white nationalists had been spreading on social media, Heimbach said: “The nationalist community defended itself against thugs in a battle that was brought by this city that wanted a bloodbath.”
Soon, he was shouted down by onlookers. The police whom he just excoriated gave him an escort from the area, protesters chanting behind him, “Nazis go home.”
In the days after Charlottesville, cities nationwide began accelerating plans to remove Confederate monuments. Heimbach said in September he will be training his members in Southern Indiana on a new kind of spontaneous "flash" protest that he expects will debut in Lexington, Ky., which is considering the removal of its monuments. He's also planning to self-publish a book that he hopes will set a vision for the white nationalist movement.
How did he assess Charlottesville?
“A tremendous success,” he said. “We had the largest nationalist rally in a generation here in the United States.”
Of a torch parade through the darkened campus of the University of Virginia, an event that echoed to Nazi-era rallies in Germany and Ku Klux Klan marches of the 1920s, Heimbach said: “It was the sort of thing that hasn’t been seen in America in a long time, and it warms my heart.”
As to the car attack, Heimbach said he thinks Fields was fearful of the crowd of counterprotesters and likely was under attack. In such cases, he said, using a car as a weapon is justified.
And what of the death of Heyer, who appeared to be nothing more than a peaceful counterprotester opposed to the white nationalist message. Heimbach took a hard line.
“It is, of course, tragic when anyone loses her life. But she was part of a crowd that was attacking nationalists for the past several hours. … No particular sympathy for her because she was part of a mob that was trying to kill us.”
IndyStar visuals manager Mykal McEldowney contributed to this story. Call IndyStar Robert King at (317) 444-6089. Follow him on Twitter: @RbtKing.