I’m sitting alone in a booth at an empty Pizza Hut just south of the Paoli town square. It’s 1:30 p.m. The “Nazis” are 30 minutes late.
The ones I’m waiting on, the members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a nascent political organization trying to take root in the seat of Orange County, are indeed nationalists—white nationalists, in fact. They are also proud socialists. And yet I’ll come to learn that these National Socialists feel it is unfair and inaccurate to lump them in with history’s greatest villains. “We’re not trying to rehash the Germany of the 1930s,” TWP leader Matthew Heimbach later explains. “We are National Socialists in our own time, with our own symbols, with our own ideology, and our own solutions to the current problem.”
Words clearly matter with these guys, but if Heimbach’s terminology—solutions—sends a shiver down your spine, you’re not alone. While his group has only 500 dues-paying members worldwide—16 of them in and around Orange County—the 25-year-old’s rhetoric has cast a considerable shadow and earned him bans from social media and the United Kingdom. In 2015, Al Jazeera America profiled Heimbach under the title “The Little Führer.” The Washington Post has pointed out comparisons to former KKK leader David Duke. PBS NewsHour, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post have all described the mysterious base camp where party members live and commune as a “white ethnostate,” supposedly a model for what Heimbach and company envision as an autonomous white nation—right here, in the heart of Southern Indiana—already largely bereft of the multiculturalism that they claim is polluting white America.
I’ll be getting a tour of the compound today, despite the group’s desire to keep secret the location of the white-ethnostate-within-a-white-ethnostate. Heimbach says the party has been receiving an unusually high number of anonymous 3 a.m. calls and online threats of violence to him, his wife, and even his child in the wake of the increased media exposure. Before the tour, we are to have a meeting over pan-crust pizza and Pepsi.
They arrive around 1:35 p.m., three young men clad in black from military cap to boot. Heimbach apologizes again, blaming winter weather for their delay, as the men slide into the semicircular booth. No sooner do they pick up their menus than Heimbach spots Fox News on the flat-screen across the room. The report is from Chicago, where four young African Americans have allegedly kidnapped a mentally disabled white man and livestreamed video of themselves beating the bound-and-gagged victim and assaulting him with a knife, all while yelling, “Fuck Donald Trump!” and “Fuck white people!”
“If four white guys did that to a black youth, cities would be on fire. There would literally be riots right now,” says Heimbach, a burly man in a black overcoat, black beard masking a youthful face. “And you know what? To a certain extent, justifiably so.”
From across the table, Matt Parrott chimes in that one couldn’t find four white men stupid enough to participate in something like this. (Please pause to consider that sentence.) But African Americans? “Trash is gonna be trash,” says Parrott, 34, in a black hoodie and black T-shirt bearing a pitchfork encircled by an industrial gear—the logo of the TWP, which he cofounded with Heimbach, who is also his son-in-law. “We can argue about which community might have more people of this caliber—we could have that conversation.” But instead, Parrott would rather talk about coverage of the incident and media conspiracy theories.
The same conversation could be going on in front of this same Fox News broadcast in any small-town restaurant, bar, or home in Red America, especially in a time of conservative backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread distrust of mainstream media. The waitress brings out a couple of pizzas and some wings and tops off our sodas as the conversation drifts into issues like immigration (against it), Donald Trump (for him), Mel Gibson (brilliant director), and how Paoli’s Pizza Hut is somehow superior to other locations. About an hour into the discussion, perhaps sensing that I’m either getting bored or not getting the salacious material I might have expected, Parrott addresses the phantom swastika in the room and makes a prediction about this story.
“This will end up in the final copy: Mein Kampf is a good book that makes some good points,” he says. Then, what I think is intended as a joke: “I was so disappointed. I read the whole book and there was no plan to kill 6 million Jews in it. I was like, ‘Did they take that part out?’”
No one laughs.
IF YOU CAN BLEACH the potential menace from that “joke” and tolerate the intolerance of a willful misreading of actual history, the men of TWP might appear nontoxic. Heimbach is amiable, intelligent, and, for a big man, disarmingly soft-spoken. He’s quick to apologize if he’s given offense by breaking a commitment (like being tardy), and seemingly fast to forgive those who do the same to him. He says “please” and “oh, crud” and “thank you, ma’am.” But some fear those manners mask malice. “There is never a conversation I’ve had with him where he is not smiling and pleasant and kind. It’s charming in some respects,” says Ryan Lenz, who has written extensively about Heimbach and the TWP as editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog. “But not so deep behind that smile is someone who actually believes that Jews are running the world, that blacks should be pushed into their own part of the country, and that advances in equality and justice for every American have undermined the very identity of being a white person. He believes that America is for white people and white people only.”
Heimbach has written at length about the Holocaust being a “racket” and part of a Jewish “guilt industry.” “The Holocaust is something that Jews will never let the West forget and they use it to whitewash Zionist war crimes in the Middle East and use the bludgeon ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘Nazi’ to smear nationalists who want to stop immigration or support traditional Western civilization,” he wrote in 2015. He has even posted a photograph of himself posing inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum holding a handwritten sign that read, “6 Million? More like 271,301.”
Just 90 minutes before he arrived for lunch, Heimbach was mic’d up for The Daily Traditionalist internet radio show, broadcast to about 3,000 live listeners per week from his home office, which is also a laundry room. Through the web-based Radio Aryan network, Heimbach and his British co-host Sven Longshanks, piped in via the web, spouted off about the Chicago kidnapping incident in much starker terms, with Longshanks referring to blacks as “savages” that were “not capable of abstract thought” and “not equal” to whites in terms of intelligence, creativity, and mental stamina. “If white people had a country of our own, this wouldn’t be happening,” said Heimbach on the air. But black people, they explained, are merely bit players. “The Jews are the pied pipers,” said Heimbach. “They’re the ones leading this whole thing through their media, they’re the ones promoting this … trying to manipulate our youth, trying to provoke this racial animosity between different groups … This is multiculturalism.”
Heimbach and his followers believe multiculturalism is the forced intermingling of different ethnicities by a global economy that only benefits the wealthy elite (many of them Jews), and it’s eating away at white American culture, even as they feed on Pizza Hut’s Americanization of an Italian import or run outside to smoke Turkish tobacco. They say that globalization promotes foreign peoples and ideals while oppressing working-class whites. The TWP’s goal is two-pronged: First, advocate for what they consider traditional white values—anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and anti-immigration. Second, they envision a white ethnostate—an autonomous land where white Christians can live free from federal tyranny. Heimbach insists that, despite the off-the-cuff slurring of blacks in the restaurant and on the radio, neither he nor his party is racist, that there will be separate-but-equal countries for every ethnicity and even one for multiculturalists. He swears the group shuns violence. He says they do not hate. “Matt goes through incredible rhetorical gymnastics to hide the true nature of his beliefs,” says the SPLC’s Lenz. “He claims that his positions do not come from a position of hate, but from a point of love—a love for white people.”
While Heimbach eschews the word “Nazi,” he has been in league with groups and people who own it proudly. The TWP was once a part of the National Socialists Movement’s Aryan Nationalist Alliance, a coalition of white nationalist parties that includes the Ku Klux Klan and other hardline racists and white supremacist groups. Heimbach has traveled to Europe to meet with leaders of far-right parties and has spoken before gatherings of skinheads and ultra-nationalists both here and abroad. In 2015, the U.K. barred him from entry after the government flagged his anti-Semitic remarks as a potential incitement to violence. The SPLC has called Heimbach “the future of organized hate” and “the fresh face of fascism,” which Heimbach proudly displayed in his Twitter bio until he was banned from the site in January for engaging in “hateful conduct.” Both the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled the TWP a hate group.
In the U.S., Heimbach and Parrott have organized rallies from Chicago to Sacramento, where seven people were stabbed when the nationalists and counter-protesters clashed last June. The supposedly nonviolent Heimbach is currently being sued by a woman who claims he assaulted her while she was protesting at a Trump rally in Louisville last March. According to a motion filed in the case by Heimbach (representing himself), “Plaintiffs have included the immaterial, impertinent and scandalous allegations of ‘racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, blah, blah, blah’ against Heimbach to smear him and force him to defend a trial for heresy in addition to a trial for the garden variety torts of assault and battery.” (Yes, it actually says “blah, blah blah.”) Video of the incident—Heimbach in a red “Make America Great Again” cap, pushing and yelling at the black woman—quickly went viral, drawing national media attention that only intensified as extremist groups, now dubbed the alt-right, were emboldened by the undertones of Trump’s “America First” message.
That platform, or at least some elements of it, certainly resonated with working-class voters in this part of the country, who helped the Republican candidate get elected (Trump won 71 percent of the Orange County vote). Heimbach believes those same rural whites, the farmers and factory workers and laborers who feel left behind by Washington and Indianapolis, might be more receptive to his party’s message. But that’s not what brought him to Orange County.
IN 2013, HEIMBACH drove from his home in western Maryland to attend an American Renaissance white nationalist conference in eastern Tennessee. He was 21, a college senior studying history education, but he was already making national headlines with his activism. He had formed a chapter of the white nationalist Youth for Western Civilization dedicated to “stopping rampant multiculturalism” at Maryland’s Towson University. The group chalked campus sidewalks with messages like “white guilt is over”—a stunt that eventually got them disbanded. Next, Heimbach started an unsanctioned White Student Union that celebrated “European heritage” and patrolled campus at night with pepper spray in response to what their website referred to as a “black crime wave.” “White Southern men have long been called to defend their communities,” read a post on their website, echoing the sentiment upon which the Klan was founded and which was used to justify the lynching of black men in the South. “The virtue of white Christian womanhood is under attack … by degenerate criminals seeking to rob our women of their God given innocence.”
During this time, Heimbach was also active online in various far-right movements. That’s how he came into contact with Matt Parrott, a born-and-bred Paolian who, like Heimbach, had been “self-radicalized” through the internet. Parrott, 34, grew up in an Orange County that was predominantly white and where it seemed like everyone’s father worked in a factory and made enough that the mother could stay at home with the kids. When the manufacturing started to leave, dad and mom were stuck with low-paying service jobs. “White people don’t have an advocate,” says Parrott, who builds and designs websites, mainly for organizations in Asia. “I’ve been a white advocate for most of my adult life.” In 2009, Parrott formed the white nationalist Hoosier Nation. He limited most of his activism to blogging, chat-room debate, and attending conferences like the one in eastern Tennessee, where he was to finally meet Heimbach in the flesh. Parrott brought along his 19-year-old stepdaughter.
Heimbach and the girl shared core values and beliefs, but while hers had been acquired largely through her stepfather, his had formed in spite of his upbringing. Heimbach was born in Poolesville, Maryland, a formerly rural farm town, not unlike his wife’s home of Paoli, before it gradually grew into a more diverse middle-class bedroom community of D.C. commuters. Heimbach’s father was a high school history teacher whose voluminous home library fascinated his eldest son. In high school, Heimbach built a genealogy and found that several of his ancestors had died fighting for the South in the Civil War. “They were all young, working class,” he says. “What were they fighting and dying for?”
He dove into John Crowe Ransom and the conservative Southern Agrarians, who had penned a wave of romantic pro-South propaganda in the 1930s. “I felt justified after all my research that my family had been fighting for a noble cause,” he says. “I believe they were fighting for independence and sovereignty.” Heimbach says while he condemns slavery, slaves at least had a “social safety net” that was not present for poor whites. “They never really had anything,” he says. “And essentially nothing has changed.” Convinced that those men who had fought to uphold the institution of slavery were now worse off than the slaves who had been liberated of their “safety net,” Heimbach brought that poor-man’s fight to all he had been taught about the world. He tried to form a White Student Union at his high school and later proposed a memorial to the fallen Confederates of Poolesville before the town council. Both failed.
While studying the New South, Heimbach read segregationist Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator, governor, and Klansman who pushed for separate geographical states for blacks and whites in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when it was becoming clear to the nation that the “separate but equal” doctrine was simply an extension of Jim Crow. Heimbach saw immigrants as the modern-day interlopers, economic tools of the Wall Street elite who benefited from cheap labor while undercutting the white worker. “I began to see everything as a capitalism problem,” he says. And when he followed the money, he says, it always seemed to end at someone with a Semitic surname.
When Heimbach met Parrott in Tennessee in 2013, the two joined forces to start the Traditionalist Youth Network, a forerunner of the TWP. Initially, they ran the party from their respective homes in Paoli and Maryland. But soon the budding romance between Heimbach and Parrott’s daughter pulled the former to Bloomington where, in 2014, the couple married.
Now “national director” of an organized party—however small—Heimbach presented his platform to hate groups of every ilk and creed across the globe. He attended conferences of the Council of Conservative Citizens and the neo-Confederate League of the South, where he posed with the Confederate flag in front of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. He spoke at the annual neo-Nazi Stormfront summit, was interviewed on David Duke’s radio show, and met with the skinhead Aryan Terror Brigade and the National Socialist Movement, where he was photographed beneath a giant, flaming swastika beside men giving the Sieg-Heil salute. He and his wife honeymooned in Eastern Europe, where he visited with leaders of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn and the Czech Workers Party. “Get on government programs, the blacks and the Mexicans do,” he told the gathering at the Stormfront summit in a presentation on whites taking control of their own nation, entitled “Death to America.” “If there are programs for you, take them—it’s the Jews’ money anyway.”
Heimbach’s rising fame came at a cost. Due to his beliefs, he says, he was unable to get a job as a teacher out of college. His parents and siblings cut off contact. He was excommunicated from his Christian Orthodox church. In Bloomington, he worked briefly as a health insurance agent before being hired as a caseworker trainee for the Indiana Department of Child Services. He says he had read how caseworkers were overloaded and families and children were underserved, and wanted to help. He was dismissed after two weeks when, according to the Indiana State Personnel Department, “his behavior in training was disruptive of the workplace, incompatible with public service, and not protected speech—for example … while in training, his response to a question suggested violence against a client.”
Bloomington, with its myriad campus activist groups from evangelical to anarchist, seemed like a natural home for TWP, but it was still a bit too urban for Heimbach. After he and his wife had their first child, a son named after a Russian tsar, they both wanted to raise their family in the type of tight-knit rural-town community they had grown up in. They landed in Paoli and moved in with Parrott on what would become the infamous compound, where they live with three other party members, and more, they say, are on the way. There, Heimbach broadcasts his daily radio show between temp work as a lineman at area factories and landscaping during the summer. He and the other comrades blog and design propaganda—stickers and postcards and flyers promising investment in infrastructure, bringing jobs home, stopping the influx of refugees, and the party’s three pillars: Faith (Christian values, including “traditional marriage”), Family (paid maternity and paternity leave, women staying in the home), and Folk (creation of an independent white homeland). The bulk of the material is disseminated to the party’s members, most of whom are still based in Bloomington, where a majority of their local demonstrations occur. But Heimbach says they are also focusing on grassroots volunteer work, from sending hands and supplies to help with forest fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to helping area residents fill out their Obama-care and federal-assistance paperwork (“People forget the ‘socialist’ part of ‘National Socialist,’” says Parrott), to helping them rake leaves.
However, Parrott intentionally limits the party’s activity in Paoli and Orange County. “Obviously, I’d like to help folks in my hometown,” he says. “But there are people like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League who are going to say, ‘Hey, there are evil racists who are active in your hometown.’ It’s just easier to protect my family, to protect my property, to be like, ‘No, we are not active in Orange County.’ But I think Orange County will be sad when they see all the cool stuff we’re doing in surrounding counties.”
They might not have long to wait. Heimbach intends to run for the state legislature, along with several other TWP candidates across the country. As Trump’s election showed, a significant number of whites in rural America are looking for answers. In fact, in response to Heimbach’s outsized presence, Paoli came up with a solution of its own.
PAOLI IS SOMETHING of a Rorschach ink-blot test of a town—open to the interpretation of the beholder. The bulwark Greek Revival courthouse, built in 1850 atop a hill overlooking a quaint town square and farmland beyond, speaks to a staunch conservatism that is certainly reflected in the politics of a county that Trump won handily in the last presidential election. Yet the town was founded by Quakers who settled here with the rather liberal idea of escaping the institution of slavery that was inherent in North Carolina. Two hubs of midday commercial activity are the Walmart and the Lost River Market & Deli, a member-owned grocery co-op stocked with bulk granola and grains, gluten-free pastas, whole-grain breads, and artisan soaps. For every pessimist who’ll point out a handful of shuttered storefronts or the Paoli Furniture Factory that will soon close (laying off 367 workers), there’s a cautious optimist who will bring up the nearby Spring Valley, where French Lick Resort employs 1,600 people and draws more than 1 million tourists each year, to illustrate that this rural county is better off than most.
And motorists driving through town, looking for the nefarious “Nazi” compound they learned about in the news, will instead spy dozens of rainbow-colored yard signs with the message, “No matter what color your skin, no matter where you are from, no matter what you believe, we’re glad you are our neighbor!”
The signs are part of a larger campaign called We R One, organized by townspeople reacting to a group many of them only recently discovered operates in their backyard. “For the most part, we welcome people here,” says lifelong Paoli resident Dessica Albertson, who helped start We R One. “[Heimbach] has a right to live here, too, and I don’t even know that we want him to leave. We’d love for him to give up his ideology.”
Albertson first heard of the TWP last fall after PBS NewsHour aired an 8-minute segment on the fledgling ethnostate. A member of Albertson’s church, the pacifist Paoli Mennonite Fellowship, had voiced alarm. The congregant had just adopted two young boys from Congo, and she feared for their safety. Albertson looked into the party. She had known Parrott most of her life—grew up on the same street and rode the same bus to school. “He had always been the kind of person for whom negative attention was better than no attention,” she says. “When I first heard that he was part of this group, I didn’t really believe it.” She recalled Heimbach from the viral video of him shoving the young Trump protestor in Louisville. Albertson and other congregants contacted a few national organizations that monitor and speak out against these types of hate groups, but ultimately decided that lashing out directly at the TWP for their beliefs might seem hypocritical.
“We’re not trying to run anybody out of town,’” says Brad Pickens, a local minister whose family settled here 200 years ago. “We said, ‘Look, these are people who we know, people who have been here a while.’ I don’t agree with their ideas, but it’s important not to vilify or make monsters out of them.”
We R One now has nearly 400 members, and there are other residents who have agreed to display signs and stickers—some in yards that once featured Hillary Clinton placards and more than a few others once (or still) declaring support for Trump. In response to media requests concerning TWP, the local school corporation posted a statement to its Facebook page which reads, in part: “Every student … possesses their own thoughts and those thoughts, regardless of how common or uncommon … are uncensored. When those thoughts lead to an individual’s words or actions, there are expectations which are non-negotiable.” The statement ends with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In January, the Paoli Town Council unanimously passed a proclamation of tolerance: “The Town of Paoli continues to reject racism and bigotry in all its forms and expressions. The Town of Paoli will continue to honor its responsibility to promote tolerance, nondiscrimination and diversity within our community.”
When the TWP first learned of the proposed proclamation, they considered showing up en masse to protest, but instead decided to send only Parrott, the native son, to give a statement. “I have politics that a vast majority of you disagree with,” he told them. “If the town feels it needs to pass this to distance itself from my private political beliefs, which I have no intention of imposing on the town in any way, shape, form, or fashion, then I, too, support this proclamation.”
While there was no dissent against the Town Council action, the reason behind the stance is nebulous and vague. The citizens I spoke to don’t seem suddenly genuinely afraid of violence or rhetoric from the TWP. After all, one of its founders has been living in Orange County for 30 years. Some say they are trying to reassure the minorities who live here, even though the county is still 96 percent white. It could also be a public relations issue—a couple of representatives of local businesses expressed at least remote concern of scaring off commerce and tourists to French Lick Resort, Paoli Peaks ski park, or nearby Hoosier National Forest and Patoka Reservoir. It might also be merely a way for the more liberal-leaning townspeople, themselves a minority, to take a stand against something—anything—in the wake of Trump’s election.
In any case, some experts say yard signs and stickers and a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach might not be enough. Marilyn Mayo, a research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism who has followed Heimbach since 2011, says there are certain ideas that are simply unacceptable. “I don’t think ideas that promote hatred, anti-Semitism, and racism should be welcomed in any community,” she says.
“We are not naive about what they are doing,” says Pickens, the Paoli minister. “We are concerned about protecting people from hateful language.” Pickens believes that the danger lies not with these few ideologues and protestors, but with someone who is more unhinged, a Dylann Roof–like character who might feel compelled to act on the TWP’s words. As Paoli Schools Superintendent Casey Brewster says, as long as Heimbach’s party is just spreading propaganda, a counter-message on behalf of the community at large is the proportionate response.
AT THE PIZZA HUT, the leftover slices and wings are boxed up for dinner. The comrades offer to pick up the check, but I insist on expensing it to my employers. (Disclosure: They’re Jewish.) We walk outside where it has been snowing for the better part of the day, leaving several inches on the ground and road—the one we will take to get to the top-secret compound, the wellspring of the fearsome white ethnostate.
Heimbach and a friend climb into a red van, which I am to follow in my rental car with Parrott riding shotgun. I settle into the driver’s seat and mentally brace for the drive ahead on the snow-covered roads. I envision winding through the wooded hills on the outskirts of town, turning suddenly onto some unmarked gravel road, obvious and yet obscure. After a breathless quarter-mile, maybe more, the two-car caravan will crawl ever-so slowly before rolling out into a clearing, and, finally—
A flashing turn signal interrupts the daydream. Heimbach’s truck has stopped in the heart of town, idling in the middle of a major thoroughfare. The group pulls into the driveway beside an abandoned wood-frame two-story with a backyard no more than two acres big. There, crammed together, are two run-down trailers separated by a small courtyard containing a rusted fire pit and two Trump signs that cordon off an old clothesline pole to prevent cars from backing into it. Several neighbors are no more than an acorn’s throw away.
Parrott says he bought the place in a bank foreclosure and is in the process of fixing up the house for party offices. The men won’t let me inside the trailers, saying that they didn’t have time to straighten up for company. “This is it,” says Parrott, laughing as he gets out of the car. “This is the scary compound. There’s no barbed wire, no guard towers.” There’s not even a fence.
This time, I get the joke.
We part. Heimbach climbs the rickety wooden steps to the front door of his trailer. He knocks the snow off of his black combat boots and disappears inside.