Update 8/25/2021: The original version of this article stated that Matthew Heimbach had “recently tried to participate in the Medicare for All March and was listed, briefly, as a keynote speaker” for a march that was scheduled to take place in Muncie, Indiana, in late July. Since the original publication of this story, individuals associated with the March for Medicaid For All have claimed on social media that, while the graphics team for the Muncie event was infiltrated, the infiltrator who placed Heimbach on the list of keynote speakers was a lone “troll” who acted independently and not in coordination with Heimbach himself.

The official statement released on June 27 by the March organizers (which was linked in the original piece) condemns Heimbach and confirms that certain “Muncie organizers … purposely [sic] tried to derail and infiltrate our movement.” The statement also says that their Rules and Ethics Committee would be investigating what happened. There are currently no other public-facing statements from the organization about the results of this investigation. 

While we have yet to view or receive incontrovertible proof of these claims, let alone incontrovertible proof that Heimbach was in no way involved with the infiltration effort, for clarity’s sake we have updated the story to reflect the fact that neither Heimbach nor people directly associated with him have been confirmed as the individual(s) behind the posting of his photo on the official March Instagram or his listing as a keynote speaker for the canceled event in Muncie.

Disgraced fascist and violent white nationalist Matthew Heimbach has been re-entering political spaces—as a leftist. Heimbach has had good reason to keep a low profile of late: His neo-Nazi group, the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), imploded after a nonpartisan civil rights nonprofit filed a lawsuit against him regarding his involvement in the infamous Unite the Right rally held four years ago in Charlottesville. The TWP collapse was also hastened by a dramatic instance of domestic violence and inter-party sparring, as detailed in a 2018 police report. Now, sporting a “new” ideology and attempting to tie his past transgressions to his battle with alcoholism, Heimbach is looking to re-introduce himself, relaunch the dissolved TWP, and regain his prominence on the national stage. 

I’ll be upfront: I have had a personal interest in Heimbach’s political trajectory ever since he and his fellow TWP members attacked me while I was protesting at a Trump rally in March of 2016. From a personal and a political standpoint, I have been deeply interested in understanding Heimbach’s appeal both for true believers of the far right and for morbidly curious onlookers. More than this, though, I have been especially interested in the rhetoric he uses (and how he uses it), which sometimes sounds closer to what you’d hear at a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America than at a Klan rally.

For instance, even in the immediate and chaotic aftermath of Charlottesville, where he incited his followers to violence, Heimbach told PBS NewsHour that he was there because “the majority of everyday Americans support our sort of message. They’re tired of globalism, they’re tired of rampant capitalism, they’re tired of Wall Street being put first, instead of Main Street.” Scrub out the reference to “globalism” and you could probably fool many people into believing that this was a quote from Bernie Sanders. As a socialist, I am unsure about what to do with that. Given Heimbach’s new attempts to infiltrate leftist groups and blend in with leftist causes, though, I think it’s important to try to parse what he is doing in order to protect others on the left as well as the people and causes we’re fighting for. 

Who Is Matthew Heimbach? 

It’s not surprising that Heimbach is trying to re-emerge as a political player—he has certainly always demonstrated a fondness for the limelight. What is surprising, however, are his claims to be more of a “Bolshevik” these days, which is what he recently told interviewers at Newsy. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Heimbach, under the name “Matt H. Bach,” was named as a keynote speaker at a Medicare for All march that was slated to take place in late July in Muncie, Indiana. The event, one of many organized around the country last month by the March for Medicare for All coalition, was eventually cancelled after many people (including me) recognized Mr. “Bach” and voiced their strong opposition to his inclusion on the bill through social media. After removing Heimbach from the event, the official March for Medicare for All Twitter account tweeted that his booking was an “error” that resulted from “The graphics team [being] infiltrated.” While this seems, for all intents and purposes, like a crisis averted, these peculiar circumstances showcase a distinct vulnerability of progressive organizations to fascist infiltration. 

Good intentions can be manipulated, good faith can be exploited, and Heimbach is exceedingly capable of doing both.

Typically, parsing the differences between the various flavors of fascism claimed by the far right is an exercise that overemphasizes their intellectual distinctions while taking the focus off of the very real violence and hate at their core. Discussions of Heimbach’s claim to have ostensibly renounced white nationalism are in danger of similarly reducing the matter to a question of pure ideology, so it should be made explicitly clear that Heimbach is still very much a fascist—and his fascism is still very much predicated on a commitment to political violence. In his most recent interview, he describes himself as a “National Bolshevist,” generally referred to by the term “NazBol.” 

“Heimbach plans to relaunch the Traditionalist Worker Party as a National Bolshevik organization,” explains Matthew N. Lyons, author of Insurgent Supremacies and a researcher of the far right for over 25 years. “This in itself means that he is still committed to the same far-right politics he upheld before. National Bolshevism is an ideology that grafts elements of Stalinist or authoritarian versions of communism onto Nazism.”

Lyons points out that Heimbach’s selective appeal to leftist principles has long roots in the history of fascism—from Benito Mussolini, who drew from his early experiences in socialist parties before becoming the fascist dictator of Italy, to Lyndon LaRouche, a famous conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite who embraced anti-war policies to gain a foothold in leftist organizations. Even more mainstream far-right figures like George Wallace and Pat Buchanan (whom Heimbach has credited as an early inspiration) often gestured to populist economic policies that were nevertheless couched in racist ideologies. Heimbach is using his rhetorical skills and knowledge of how to work the press to follow a similar path. 

Matthew Heimbach (center), chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, and fellow supporters spread support for their third party movement in Beattyville, Kentucky, on March 26, 2016. Photo by Michael M. Reaves for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

As early as 2015, Heimbach was identified by antifascists as an opportunist who would embrace a variety of talking points depending on the audience he was in front of. He has obtained a hefty amount of publicity by masterfully using mainstream reporters who, while condemning him as a white supremacist in their reporting, still—often simultaneouslydepict him in a sympathetic light. “Heimbach likes to see himself as a diplomat and as a politician—he is going to be very measured with what he says. He knows how to make sure that the press only puts out the stuff he wants put out,” says Daryle Lamont Jenkins of One People’s Project, an antifascist activist for over 30 years. “He knows how to talk to the press.” 

To be clear: There are many people who have renounced white nationalism, abandoned the far right, and changed their lives, and such changes should certainly be encouraged. For those who feel the urge to sympathize with Heimbach and his supposed metamorphosis, it’s likely that such an urge comes from a good place—it’s not a bad thing to want to see people reject hate and seek redemption. But good intentions can be manipulated, good faith can be exploited, and Heimbach is exceedingly capable of doing both. This is why viewing his avowed transformation with skepticism and weighing it against what we know about him is both the necessary and responsible thing to do.

Heimbach’s disturbing violent past

Even before one evaluates his current politics, Heimbach’s demonstrated propensity for violence (with documented violent acts occurring as recently as 2018) should raise red flags for any organization he approaches. Due in part to his skilled diplomacy when it comes to garnering his preferred kind of attention from the mainstream press, Heimbach’s long history of violence has not been well documented by many outside of antifascist circles. 

Heimbach’s history is not only troubling on the surface—combined with the fact that he is seeking out new media attention, it’s difficult to discern what his underlying motivations may be. “He could be looking to go out in a blaze of glory, and of course he will do an interview beforehand,” Jenkins posited to me. “People should keep an eye on him, and I hope he doesn’t have any weapons … This is a guy who has been gearing up for this since he was in high school.”

Heimbach got his first taste of the spotlight in 2012 after founding a white students’ union at Towson University in Maryland.

Antifascist activist Emily Gorcenski agrees that Heimbach’s reemergence and infiltration of spaces like the Medicare for All March is a big concern. “Fascism is a violence-based movement, and we should expect fascists will be violent. It is a matter of when, not if,” she said. 

The fact of the matter is Heimbach is one of the most notorious and violent white supremacists of the past decade. By his own account, Heimbach grew up in a Christian conservative household and embraced the likes of right-wing political commentator Pat Buchanan and other influential conservative figures. He then graduated to reading the mainstays of many white nationalists’ libraries: Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, and Mein Kampf. By the time he was in high school, Heimbach says he was flying a Waffen SS flag above his bed.

Heimbach got his first taste of the spotlight in 2012 after founding a white students’ union at Towson University in Maryland. Among other things, the group conducted “white patrols,” which involved members prowling the campus grounds looking for Black criminals. After that, Heimbach was briefly involved with the neo-Confederate League of the South, for which he participated in events organized by the Aryan Terror Brigade that included swastika and cross burnings. He also spoke at the 2014 annual gathering of the notorious neo-Nazi website Stormfront, an event that led to him being banned from entering the UK.

It was in 2015 that he started working with the Traditional Youth Party, which later morphed into the TWP. “In the TWP Heimbach worked to build alliances with other white nationalist groups such as the National Socialist Movement (NSM), which is explicitly Nazi, as well as Klan groups and different things, but very much in this explicitly white-nationalist, white-power framework,” Lyons said. 

Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Workers Party speaks to participants at a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally on October 28, 2017, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. The event was hosted by Nationalist Front, a coalition of several white supremacist organizations. Photo by Scott Olson via Getty Images)

Heimbach also traveled to Greece in 2015 to meet with leaders of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, while also making connections with other fascist groups around the world. After white supremacist and domestic terrorist Dylann Roof shot up the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine African-American congregants attending Bible study, Heimbach traveled to Charleston and described Roof as a victim. 

During this timeframe, he was hired by the Indiana Department of Child Services as a caseworker, where he faced an allegation of possible violence against a client before being fired when his white power ties were revealed. Incidents of Heimbach using violence have followed him throughout his life, including several allegations of him being involved in attacks or threats

Heimbach becomes a figure on the national stage

Heimbach was one of the first neo-Nazis who saw Donald Trump’s political rise as an opportunity. I personally learned about Heimbach after attending a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky, in March of 2016. I later wrote about how I watched Heimbach work the crowd of mainly mainstream Republicans for approximately three hours using white-nationalist talking points. He primarily spoke with young men about immigrants taking “our jobs” and about people who didn’t fit “our culture.” No one in this crowd challenged his points, and most seemed to agree with him. As an onlooker, it certainly felt like his divisive language was a big contributor to riling up the crowd—that same crowd that later joined Heimbach and TWP leaders in a terrifying physical attack on me and the group of protesters I was with.  

That was the same day Heimbach infamously attacked Black college student Shiya Nwanguma, whose assault was caught on video and is an often-cited example when discussing the violence of the Trump movement (the clip even appears in the Netflix documentary 13th). Nwanguma, Henry Brousseau (a high-school student who was also attacked), and I all filed a lawsuit against Heimbach and Trump for this attack. This action led individuals associated with the TWP to dox me by posting the address to my home, where I lived with my then-four-year-old daughter, on the Stormfront website. Nwanguma also pursued criminal charges against Heimbach, to which he pled guilty and was placed on two years of probation. 

This attack helped boost Heimbach’s national profile, making him a key fixture in nationalist rallies like the one that took place in 2017 in Pikeville, Kentucky. Most famously, he was a leading figure in the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, 2017. Prior to the rally, Heimbach gave a speech to the TWP and other affiliated groups where he said, “The biggest thing is a show of strength. To show that our organizations … can put 14 words—‘We must secure the existence of our people and the future for white children’—as our primary motivating factor.” (The “14 words” is a common white supremacist trope).

Jenkins, who was at Unite the Right, says that Heimbach and the TWP were instrumental in leading the violence that ultimately culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of protesters. “We saw in Charlottesville that it was [Heimbach’s] group … that actually started all the violence that happened. They initiated it.”

Heimbach is explicitly named in Sines v. Kessler, a lawsuit filed by victims of the violence in Charlottesville. He was recently ordered to pay over $12,000 in lawyer fees due to his noncompliance with court orders in this case. Laying out these details is important for understanding the justifiable resistance by leftist and progressive activists to Heimbach’s supposed political conversion; it is even more important because it demonstrates that his significant involvement in a monstrous white-nationalist movement was really not that long ago. 

Heimbach loses power

Heimbach’s growing influence in white-nationalist circles seemed to be unstoppable, but pressure from antifascists was making his life and the lives of other prominent fascists very difficult. Heimbach was part of radical white separatist Richard Spencer’s ill-fated college tour, which faced large protests from antifascists at every location. Spencer’s speaking events frequently brought out violent white supremacists looking for a fight, culminating in a street brawl at Michigan State between a statewide network of antifascist and community organizations and a white-nationalist posse led by Heimbach. The events at Michigan State led to the arrest of 27 people, including Gregory Conte, a close ally of Spencer. Heimbach claimed that after this incident Spencer refused to help with any of the medical bills his allies had to pay, which hastened a split between Heimbach and Spencer. Spencer cancelled the rest of his college tour soon after his appearance at Michigan State, famously declaring that “antifa [was] winning.” 

Heimbach’s growing influence in white nationalist circles seemed to be unstoppable, but pressure from antifascists was making his life and the lives of other prominent fascists very difficult.

Heimbach still maintained an important position in the far right until his personal life caught up with him in 2018, in what is referred to in antifascist circles as “The Night of the Wrong Wives.” While many tend to focus on the lurid fact that Heimbach was caught having an affair with his fellow TWP leader’s wife, who was also his mother-in-law, it is seldom acknowledged or discussed that, on that same evening, Heimbach brutally attacked his wife and beat her in front of his small children. This attack on his wife constituted a violation of his probation from the case in Louisville, which led to him serving 38 days in jail. 

Along with growing financial pressure due to the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit, these incidents ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the TWP in 2020. Heimbach found himself disliked even by his fellow white nationalists, who characterized him as an unreliable and untrustworthy leader who was more interested in building his own personal brand and power than in advancing their causes. According to self-reported court documents filed during this time, Heimbach returned to Maryland to live with his mother. 

Heimbach tries to rebrand himself

Heimbach, however, was not content with quietly vanishing from the public sphere—it didn’t take long before he began a rebranding effort. In April 2020, Heimbach tried to disavow Nazism, a move that was bolstered and amplified by the “deradicalization” group Light Upon Light. Light Upon Light is run by former Al Qaeda recruiter Jesse Morton and purports to be a resource for individuals trying to leave all kinds of extremist groups. In a series of blog posts and podcast interviews, Heimbach and former NSM leader Jeff Schoep tried to rebrand themselves and distance themselves from their past actions. Most antifascist activists at the time did not find Heimbach’s conversion credible, and they were seemingly vindicated when it was discovered that Schoep still had significant ties to neo-Nazis. 

This has led to criticism of Light Upon Light and their work. [Note: I reached out to Light Upon Light and the Medicare for All March to hear about their experiences with Heimbach and as of the time this article was published, have not heard back.]  “Here’s the million dollar question,” anti-racist activist Kristopher Goad asks: “How many people came to Light Upon Light to attempt to leave white nationalist organizations and instead got a sales pitch from Heimbach?” 

White nationalist Matthew Heimbach fights with antifascist demonstrators at Michigan State University as he and other alt-right advocates try to attend a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer on March 5, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. Spencer was granted permission to speak after suing the university. Photo by Scott Olson via Getty Images.

Jenkins agrees, and he further argues that Light Upon Light has lost all credibility by behaving as if Heimbach was a credible actor. “The most important thing I will say about Heimbach is … never take what you see Heimbach put into the news at face value … You can’t really trust what he is saying.” 

Jenkins also pointed out that Heimbach has never made a serious effort to atone to his victims (a fact I can personally attest to). Jenkins, who has in the past worked with people who have renounced white supremacy, thinks that ensuring the safety of those impacted by white supremacists is the most important thing to do when someone is trying to leave a movement. “[When you transition out of white supremacy] nothing goes away, everything you’ve done is still relevant.”

Heimbach tries to infiltrate leftist organizations

In addition to trying to convince people that he has changed his tune on fascism, Heimbach also has tried to surreptitiously make inroads into organizations without disclosing his white-nationalist past. He first tried this in 2018 when he met with Democrats in Tennessee, claiming that he wanted to retake Tennessee for traditional working-class values. The party later disavowed Heimbach and claimed that they were not aware of his history when scheduling the meeting.

Earlier this year, Heimbach appeared on the YouTube channel of well-known leftist activist David Rovics to discuss his supposed conversion from Nazism, as well as his current beliefs. Heimbach used the opportunity to lead Rovics down a path that had him essentially agreeing with many of Heimbach’s beliefs without questioning the ideology behind them. Rovics initially apologized for this interview, but he now appears to be doubling down on his decision to give Heimbach this platform, present inaccurate information about Heimbach’s past, and insist Heimbach is not a fascist. [Note: Rovics and I had a brief exchange on Twitter, where he stated that he believed I was misinterpreting him and that he didn’t feel safe talking to me, and subsequently blocked me.]

Heimbach was also recently tied to the Medicare for All March and was listed, briefly, as a keynote speaker. There has been a long-standing concern among activists that the Medicare for All movement in particular was being targeted by fascists due to the expressed willingness of organizers to ignore the backgrounds of people wishing to partner with them. “Back in 2017 and 2018, the discussion about the Democratic Socialists of America going full in for Medicare for All was that in the southeastern US, antifascism and anti-racism wasn’t an optional pet project for activism as [fascists will infiltrate and try to] disrupt normal operations,” said Goad.

Thousands of people recognized Heimbach [on the Medicare for All March Instagram] in a second. … Just having a person in the room that regularly checks right-wing propagandists is a safeguard against a group accidentally putting out right-wing propaganda.

Kristopher Goad, anti-racist activist

Jenkins is unsure that the organizers of the Medicare for All March were even initially opposed to Heimbach’s presence, seeing as they have consistently said that they were willing to organize with anyone. “Saying ‘I will march with anyone’ is a problem,” says Jenkins. “I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s an infiltration—I think they just got caught.”

After Heimbach’s picture was posted on the Medicare for All March’s Instagram, multiple activists (including myself) called them out online. The organizers issued a statement condemning Heimbach and subsequently cancelled the local march he was headlining. It is unclear if Heimbach was directly behind the infiltration, and since the incident they have not released any further information regarding how they plan to change their security procedures to prevent this kind of infiltration in the future. What’s worse, many of their volunteers accused anyone criticizing their security practices (or lack thereof) of trying to derail their movement, or even of being agents of the government.

“I find it somewhat hilarious that [the Medicare for All March] was this laissez-faire with their credentials, but then accused everyone and their mother of being a CIA COINTELPRO operative,” said Gorcenski. “If you really thought you were being targeted by the CIA for disruption, why don’t you have better information security hygiene? This is basic.”

Why does Heimbach use leftist talking points?

Since his attack on me, one of the things about Heimbach that I have been most interested in is his co-option of language associated with progressive or leftwing causes. But this tactic of embracing left-wing ideology—or, at least, left-wing rhetoric—in order to advance or provide cover for a fascist agenda has deep roots in history. “If we look at the history of fascism, one of the standard elements of fascist politics is taking elements of leftist politics and twisting them, presenting them in a disordered form,” said Lyons.

This disordered use of socialism has implications beyond recruitment. Right-wing figures such as Dinesh D’Souza and Candice Owens are able to use these nominal ties to make historically absurd claims that fascism and socialism are the same thing. 

Gorcenski thinks that fascists are not interested in actual improvements to the lives of working-class people. “Fascists go after economic justice issues because they know they cannot form solidarity bonds based on identitarian factors. They generate fake solidarity on economic justice matters, by presenting themselves as equally oppressed working-class members,” said Gorcenski. “But fascists are not interested in solidarity; they are interested in legitimacy and power.”

Neo-Nazis, alt-right members, and white supremacists march with torches through the University of Virginia campus the night before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017. Photo by Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Lyons thinks that fascists do often specifically attack capitalism in a genuine manner because they accurately perceive that capitalist profits are more important than the privilege that white men have in society. “Far rightists genuinely regard political and economic elites as their enemies, because they believe these elites are using multiculturalism, mass immigration, and globalization to undermine the traditional social order,” said Lyons.

Since both parties in the US are actively capitalist (with only a small percentage of elected Democrats espousing even democratic socialist views) there is often a vacuum of capitalist critique. Heimbach recognizes this vacuum and is more than willing to step into it to push his distorted and violent worldview. 

How to prevent Heimbach from using leftist organizations to rebrand himself 

It is clear that Heimbach intends to continue inserting himself into the media, and that he will attempt to use the language of working-class solidarity to do so. While he may be changing his language to appeal to a different audience, he is not changing his hate. “He’s downplaying the racism and the anti-Semitism at least in the statements I’ve seen,” said Lyons. “But it really seems like he is continuing the politics he had before, just being selective in what parts he talks about.”

Lyons suggests that left-wing organizations become familiar with right-wing talking points, particularly the kind of fake left-wing talking points that fascists often use. Goad thinks one of the best ways to do this is by working closely with people who research fascists. “Thousands of people recognized Heimbach [on the Medicare for All March Instagram] in a second,” said Goad. “Just having a person in the room that regularly checks right-wing propagandists is a safeguard against a group accidentally putting out right-wing propaganda.”

 The first time that someone hears a political leader calling for immensely popular policies like single-payer health care, housing for all, or universal employment should not be from someone also calling for genocide.

Gorcenski agrees and thinks that organizations also need to be explicit about their own antifascism. “The best thing an organization can do is to be openly antifascist and to be clear about its stance on racism, sexism, and other identity-based power dynamics,” said Gorcenski. “Fascist infiltration rarely happens to organizations that make clear their positions on patriarchy and white supremacy.”

As Heimbach’s interviews with Newsy and Rovics attest, he will also try to use the media to further his agenda. When covering Heimbach and other members of the far right, many journalists have resorted to writing profile pieces with the implicit hope that their blatant racism and anti-Semitism will be recognized and condemned by their readership. However, this is insufficient when presented with someone who is actively manipulating the press in order to further their own hateful purposes. 

“We should avoid focusing too intently on the motives of bigots, abusers, and manipulators, or too intently on the community they originated from, or too intently on anything that frames them as the protagonists of the story,” write Whitney Phillips and Ryan N. Milner in their book You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. “Treating them as inherently interesting and deserving of our undivided attention incentives future bad actions and, by extension, future harms to others.”

I personally think that having a strong anti-capitalist movement is also essential to fighting the rhetoric of the Heimbachs of the world. As Rosa Luxemburg famously said, our choice is between “socialism or barbarism,” and nothing is more barbaric than fascism. The first time that someone hears a political leader calling for immensely popular policies like single-payer health care, housing for all, or universal employment should not be from someone also calling for genocide. Political leaders need to boldly embrace socialism, or they will ensure that the bastardized version that people like Heimbach push for (and abandon after gaining power) will be embraced due to it being the only available critique of the excesses of capitalism. 

There is no doubt that Heimbach is a pathetic man. He has proven himself incapable of building long-term alliances or even holding his own family together. However, he is also a threat to marginalized people everywhere because he has repeatedly shown that he is willing to use violence and manipulation to achieve his goals. All organizations should take proper care to protect their communities and ensure that they are not manipulated by him, or people like him in the future.

“Even if the fascists say things that are 110% aligned with your mission and nothing else, you have succeeded mainly in sanitizing their image. That has downstream consequences because it allows their movement to enjoy legitimacy and growth,” said Gorcenski. “If you let fascists into the movement, then your movement becomes a vessel for fascist propaganda.”

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Molly Shah is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Berlin. Prior to moving to Germany Molly was an activist, teacher and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter: @MollyOShah