Are you white? Are you an American? Do you feel that your country’s changing ethnic and cultural demographics are steadily strangling your “traditional” values, beliefs, and culture? Moreover, do you find yourself facing a barren social landscape in which steady, meaningful employment and an overall sense of meaning in life are both scarcer than a clinically sane Republican presidential candidate? If so, then you have every right to be aggrieved, just not for the reasons that Matthew Heimbach — a.k.a “The Little Führer” — advocates.
Matthew Heimbach is a self-proclaimed “white nationalist.” In 2013, while still a student at Towson University in Maryland, he founded a youth group called the White Student Union (WSU) in order to attach victim status to the most privileged ethnic group in the history of humankind. After he graduated from Towson, Heimbach decided that he’d like to become a whiney tool OFF campus, so he founded the Traditionalist Youth Network in an effort to act like a traditionally racist dunderhead. This organization takes a big-picture stance by presenting itself as “the united voices of decadence, individualism, Marxism and modernity.” That pretty much means they’re against anything fun.
For the most part, Heimbach’s ideas fit squarely within the standard fare excreted by most right-wing achromatics. In one speech, for example, he blubbered out traditional white supremacist inanity by claiming that, “those who promote miscegenation, usury, or any other forms of racial suicide should be sent to re-education centers, not tolerated.” Some good ole’-fashioned Hebrew hatin’ never goes out of style for these folks. Nonetheless, Heimbach does trumpet some unorthodox ideas that make him stand out a bit among the usual goon-gallery of pasty white, shoulder-chipped, goose-stepping, chrome-domed, Confederate flag humping Skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Neo-Confederates.
Al-Jazeera America recently profiled Heimbach and his demonstrations in support of the now much-maligned Confederate flag. In this profile, the dude that some people have nicknamed “The Little Führer” (after a guy who did something in Germany a while back) bristles at the notion that he’s a racist in the traditional sense. Instead, he fancies himself a supporter of “white power, black power, brown power and yellow power.” Heimbach believes that the different races of humankind (btw, race is totally not an actual biological category, but whatever, man) simply can’t live together and would be better off living in separate, ethnically delineated nationalist groupings. “In countries where races are mixed,” he theorizes, “one race will always dominate the others. That is why we need separation. Not because the white race is better than the black race. We need to stop the hate and separate.” These seemingly accommodationist stances have put Heimbach on the out-and-out with less creatively verbose, race-war cravin’ hate groups like Stormfront.
Heimbach claims that he’s a new, weirdly sympathetic kind of white nationalist. In other ways, however, he embraces ideas that have an established lineage in U.S. thought. Far from being limited to the white supremacist fringe, some of Heimbach’s ideas actually fit within the standard framework of what was once the American mainstream.
The “Little Führer” is a proponent of what I call the “Forgotten White American” style of American grievance-fueled politics. In particular, he thinks the last, best hope for America’s allegedly threatened white population are the poverty-stricken people who inhabit the hills and hollows of Appalachia. He believes the powers that be — the government, black people, the Jews who control the world, etc. — have left poor whites in the economic and cultural dust in the name of multiculturalism and progressivism. Heimbach’s close compatriot, a guy named Tom Pierce, summed up the “Forgotten White American” style when he claimed that, “Appalachia is the last bastion of Christian civilization, but unless we fight, we will lose it all.” Indeed, it’s among Appalachia’s salt-of-the-earth ethnic conclave that Heimbach and his crew hope to establish a new Honky Homeland where white folks can rebuild America for “real” Americans. “I don’t care if people call me a racist or a bigot. I’m going to speak for these people,” Heimbach stated, referring to the white residents of Appalachia, “we have to help ourselves, because no one else will. Nobody ever helped a hick but a hick himself.”
The Traditionalist Youth Network’s fetishizing of all-things Hillbilly is nothing new, however. The idea that the Appalachian Mountain region holds the key to the rejuvenation of the white race goes back quite a ways in American social thought. During the first decades of the twentieth-century — when eugenics was all the rage and immigrants from “racially inferior” eastern Europe and black migrants from the South threatened to remove the giant stick lodged up American WASPs’ collective posterior — many prominent intellectuals identified white Appalachia as a sort of primitive, untouched Eden of white racial virility.
Moreover, as historian Ian Hartman notes, white liberals in the early 1960s adopted a similar stance in their quest to alleviate poverty among Appalachian residents who supposedly embodied the most rugged, undiluted example of white American racial stock. Jennings Randolph, West Virginia’s then senior senator and proponent of (white) anti-poverty programs, was among the most vociferous defenders of the “authentic” white American stock that supposedly thrived in his state. “‘The men and women of West Virginia are descendants of a stalwart race of pioneers,'” Randolph told a 1959 Senate sub-committee.* You don’t get more authentically American than the pioneers! Just ask the Donner Party.
John F. Kennedy also made a habit of extolling the virtues of white Appalachian superiority. “‘West Virginians are not asking for handouts—for charity—or for special treatment,'” Kennedy stated when promoting anti-poverty programs, “‘The people of West Virginia are a proud and independent people—typical of the best in American life.'”* Hartman notes that by making white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon Appalachians into the face of anti-poverty legislation, Kennedy and others formulated a kind of “racialized liberalism” that avoided the politically toxic issue of black inner-city poverty. Nonetheless, 1960s liberals were also invoking an old American idea that the best of the white race could be found in Appalachia’s pristine hollers.’
Although it may seem odd that mid-1960s liberal reformers shared racial ideas with a prominent 21st century, right-wing white nationalist like Matthew Heimbach, poverty is the common thread that connects these two unlikely bedfellows via their fascination with Appalachian whites. As was the case in the 1960s, many contemporary white residents of Appalachia are indeed being left behind by powerful forces, but contrary to what Heimbach and other racist reactionaries think, these forces aren’t made up of blacks, Mexicans, Jews, or any other standard white American scapegoats. Instead, it’s the very forces of American capitalism itself — most ruthlessly manifested in the devastation wrought by the now-declining coal industry — that fuel Appalachian white poverty. As historian Ron Eller told the Appalachian Regional Commission, “In many ways, the true culture of poverty, if it exists in the Region [Appalachia], may in fact be the attitudes and values of those that make the decisions about access to economic opportunity. It seems to me that the real culture of poverty is a culture that doesn’t value people, that doesn’t value the land and the environment that those people live in.”
The real tragedy of the forgotten white American is that the very same forces that many white people embrace — especially America’s unique brand of turbo-charged free-market capitalism — are the very same destructive forces that led to the white poverty that Matthew Heimbach now blames on “decadence, individualism, Marxism and modernity.” Just like generations of white Americans before him who pointed their pitchforks at minority populations rather than at the (almost always white) capitalist titans who were the real source of injustice, Heimbach would rather focus his anger on those who are different as opposed to people who look just like him but have deeper pockets.
The kind of reactionary, pro-separatist racism that fuels Heimbach’s anger at “modernity” is the same anger that has always emerged when white Americans have failed to look in their own socio-economic backyards for the source of their woes. It’s always easier to blame the black guy, or the Hispanic woman, or the all-powerful Jew: as minority populations, these people are easy targets whom angry whites like Heimbach can imagine themselves defeating. It’s a lot harder to imagine yourself toppling coal barons like Don Blankenship or Wall Street pirates like JP Morgan Chase chairman Jamie Dimon. After all, those guys are white. They look like us. They’d never cause us grief…would they? To think such thoughts would be a true white American tragedy.
* See Ian C. Hartman, “West Virginia Mountaineers and Kentucky Frontiersmen: Race, Manliness, and the Rhetoric of Liberalism in the Early 1960s,” Journal of Southern History 3 (Aug. 2014): 659-662.