Excerpted from the book Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power by Anna Merlan, published by Metropolitan Books. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Merlan. Reprinted with permission. Available for purchase here.
“The white majority are fed up with all of these lying, cheating, thieving, war-mongering, child-molesting, political pimps and whores,” Art Jones roared. “Of this corrupt and decadent two-party, Jew-party, queer-party system!” He was gesturing wildly, waving liver-spotted hands. His tie quivered at his throat, bedecked with a two-headed enamel pin: an American flag and a red one with a black swastika, fused together.
It was a glorious, soft late April evening in 2017, and a coalition of white supremacists were gathered high in the green, lush foothills of southeastern Kentucky. Their meeting place was a grassy, lumpen field on private land, overtaken with trucks and dotted with a few tents and a duo of Port-a-potties. A very pale, very male crowd was lingering among the cars as the sun sets, laughing and smoking. A guy who looked barely out of his teens bounced by, wearing a T-shirt for the Daily Stormer, a website popular with neo-Nazi internet trolls. A bald man with a neat, professorial beard and round silver glasses stopped in front of me and the photographer I’m traveling with.
“Do y’all have any unscented lotion?” he inquired, gesturing at the new tattoo on his leg, scabbed-over and looking itchy. We didn’t, but I made a show of looking in my purse anyway, to be friendly, I guess. The purpose of the evening, after all, was to make new friends, to try to bring together disparate racist groups into a harmonious whole, to denounce the vicious Jewish cabal enslaving the country and the world, and to prepare for possible war the following day.
For Matthew Heimbach, this meeting of the different groups was a moment he’d been waiting for his whole young life. Heimbach was the founder and most recognizable face of the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), and at the moment we met in Kentucky, he was busy capitalizing on two things: increasingly open rage and disaffection from white voters, and Donald Trump’s shameless pandering to those feelings, a few months into his presidency.
The TWP was described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a white nationalist group that advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems.” Put more simply, the TWP was Heimbach’s baby, the conduit for all his white-nationalist ambitions.
Personally, I couldn’t help thinking of Heimbach and his cadre as the Social Justice Racists. At the time of the rally, Heimbach was barely 25, chubby and beaming, with a beard creeping up his face and down his neck. He lived in a trailer in Indiana, with a wife, a baby son, and another one on the way. He often mentioned his family when he was getting floridly poetic about his determination to organize in defense of the downtrodden white man.
Heimbach’s focus on his family would seem quite ironic in a little over a year, when he was humiliated and the TWP fell apart after it was revealed that he had an affair with the wife of his father-in-law, Matt Parrott, co-founder of the TWP. Meanwhile, though, his popularity was at its peak, due to his affable demeanor, his ability to forge alliances, and his surprising set of policy positions. Heimbach’s TWP was against climate change but supported better drinking water and healthcare in poor, heavily white regions of the country. He talked a lot about Appalachian children’s teeth and the safety net that failed their parents. The TWP fulminated against “mass immigration” and promised that under the glorious white ethno-state they hoped to build, only “white Caucasians who are descendants of indigenous Europeans” would be allowed to immigrate, and would, moreover, have to assimilate “to the dominant culture for the sake of national unity.”
And, slightly more quietly, Heimbach also wanted to see white supremacist groups organize in a concerted way against their common enemy, world Jewry, which was the purpose of the evening in Kentucky: the rebranding and relaunch of a white nationalist coalition, uniting several groups together — the TWP, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), Vanguard America and League of the South — to be called the Nationalist Front. This was, in fact, their second try at forming such a coalition: The first was launched by the NSM in Georgia in April 2016, and called the Aryan Nationalist Alliance. The TWP joined several months later. But the coalition decided to “rebrand” around November 2016, with the Southern Poverty Law Center speculating that the NSM was, at Heimbach’s encouragement, trying to lightly veil their appreciation for Hitler.
In early 2017, the TWP announced that it would hold a rally and conference for those white-nationalist groups near Pikeville, Kentucky, a small town in a region that was hard-hit by the collapse of the coal industry. Between 2010 and 2015, the county lost five percent of its population, driven elsewhere to look for work. Pike County is an overwhelmingly white area, and about 80 percent of its registered voters went for Trump. “We didn’t vote for Trump because we’re racist,” Chase Goodman explained to me, who had lived in Pikeville most of his life. “We just want our fuckin’ coal jobs back.”
Heimbach hoped to tap into the thick, ropey veins of anger and despair over those lost jobs; he was also hoping to be there when the anger turned on the new president. Just before the rally, he told me that he felt the common man’s inevitable disappointment with Trump would work to his advantage. “I knew he wasn’t one of us,” he said. “I never thought he was a closet white nationalist. I was just hoping he would buy us more time and further polarize politics, which he has done.”
In time, he said, the white working class would reject Trump and the Republican party more generally: “They’ll lose any hope they had in conservatism. They’re not going to become Democrats. And if you like Trumpism, maybe fascism is something you’ll like. Where else can they go?”
The “conference” portion of the event was held on private land after the neo-Nazis were unable to get a permit to hold it in a state park. To get there, we joined a convoy of cars proceeding out of a Walmart parking lot in the town of Whitesburg. A few young guys in black T-shirts wandered the lot carrying semiautomatic rifles, looking chipper.
From Whitesburg, the convoy followed a narrow, winding road, through a landscape dotted with billboards for personal-injury attorneys, the Army, organ donation. As the towns got smaller, the billboards gave way to campaign signs tacked onto trees: GIBSON FOR CONSTABLE, one announced. Another: TRUMP DIGS COAL! The towns themselves turned into vanishing tiny pinpoints with alluring names: Rowdy, Dwarf and, finally, Democrat, marked by a hand-lettered sign, permanent marker on plywood, stuck with an American flag in the corner. Trees crowded the road. Little girls played ball in the front yard of a house with a sagging wooden porch cluttered with stuff. They waved sweetly at the convoy of cars; the white supremacists waved back.
The slimiest, dankest pool of the overlapping conspiracy ponds is extremism, and, particularly in the United States, white-supremacist-based hatred. Hate groups all over the world are fueled by terrified, wild conjectures about the peoples they hate, from globalist Jew bankers pulling the global strings to Islamists spreading Sharia law across America. One Klan group, the Original Knights of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, posts dire warnings on its website about the secret plots of moderate Muslims: The Common Core curriculum is, they advise, an attempt to promote “Islamic Supremacism” in schools. Supermarkets are even selling halal meat without noting that it’s halal (Tricking non-Muslims into eating halal meat is, I suppose, part of some other dreadful plot).
For many of these groups, it is the Jews above all who are the hidden, rotten core of every evil, the most powerful foe, the hooked nose behind everything wrong in America. There are detours — white supremacists also make the vilest claims against black people and Latinos — but after many years and new flavors of hatred, the extremists have maintained one steady and consistent focus. Conspiracy theories about Jews are some of the oldest in history: Depending on who you talk to, Jews have poisoned wells, stolen children for blood rituals, or form a many-headed hydra running the world’s governments and financial systems. Their power is legendary: “The Jew never sleeps,” says Brian Culpepper of the National Socialist Movement. “He works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to eradicate us.”
The history of racist extremism in America is heavily larded with conspiracy theorism: Neo-Nazism is premised on secret Jewish control, of course, as well as a generous dose of Holocaust denial. The Christian Identity movement, some of whose proponents became the earliest sovereign citizens — a broad group who believe that the federal government is in some way illegitimate, and that they should not be subject to its laws or taxes — relies on the concept that only European whites are part of the Lost Tribes of Israel, while Jews and non-whites are those mud people plotting to enslave the world. That’s just one aspect of American hatred, which is a much longer, blood-drenched book. We’ve never been free from hate groups, whether it’s the Klan’s emergence just after the Civil War, its resurgence during the 1920s, or the birth in the early 1970s of the frequently racist, far-right militia movement, beginning with the loosely organized Posse Comitatus.
A big preoccupation for conspiracy theorists on the far right is an imminent one-world government takeover, an army of shock troops who plan to put the country under the savage thumb of tyrannical control. (The anti-globalization movement on the so-called radical left isn’t really the same: Anarchist demonstrators in Seattle in 1999 protesting the World Trade Organization, for instance, weren’t concerned with “one world government,” per se, so much as they were concerned with the human rights and environmental issues they saw as an endemic part of corporate-backed globalization.) Right-wing militia groups took the one-world government fear to particular lengths: They identified the New World Order as the particular threat of the 1990s, and were thrown in a particular tizzy about it when they heard George H.W. Bush echo the term in a speech. Other, more Nazi-oriented folks, referred to the threat as the Zionist Occupation Government — the ZOG — a term that’s been kicking around since the mid-1970s.
Vanquishing the ZOG is a central theme in the seminal The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel by William Luther Pierce, founder of the National Alliance, a white supremacist group. It centers on the Order, a cell of brave white men who orchestrate a violent guerilla war against the System, a Jewish-controlled government that has snatched everyone’s guns and made it a hate crime for white people to defend themselves against the savage hordes. Taking its name from The Turner Diaries, an actual group called the Order also borrowed its most gruesome tactics, assassinating a Jewish radio host named Alan Berg in 1984 for the crime of mocking them on-air. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was also a big fan of the book; he justified his attack by calling it a counterstrike in a war against an oppressive government system. Photocopies of pages from The Turner Diaries were found in the car driven by McVeigh just after the attack.
That evening in the field in Kentucky, the unapologetic, ungenteel variant of hatred was blasted at top volume by, as mentioned, Art Jones, an elderly anti-Semite from Illinois with a surprisingly strong set of lungs. “Now President Trump, he has surrounded himself with hordes of Jews,” he yelled, not entirely accurately. “Including a Jew in his own family!” His audience, seated at long wooden tables under a white tent, muttered in disgusted agreement, save for two little girls who were obliviously coloring. “I’m sorry I voted for the son of a bitch,” he shouted some more. A woman bounced a fretful baby; a squat little man in a tan shirt and a swastika armband poked around behind Jones at the lectern, looking for another beer.
Ostensibly, poor whites from Kentucky were the reason the racists had trekked out to Pikeville. But the actual townspeople of Pikeville weren’t present at the gathering up in Democrat; a local man donated his land for the white nationalists to use — his sympathies were unclear — but almost every one of the attendees was from out of state.
The forces of whiteness were a varied bunch: Some of them were young racists, and some of them were slightly older racists. The National Socialist Movement was there, a neo-Nazi party whose leader, “Commander” Jeff Schoep, lives in Detroit. (The NSM’s use of military titles is part of a pretension of military rigor that’s common among white supremacist groups.) The “Global Crusaders: Order of the Ku Klux Klan” were there, an arm of the KKK that seems especially young: Most of them are from Alabama, skinny, acne-pocked, chicken-necked. A few representatives from the Original Knight Riders Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were beside them, older guys in paramilitary black; one went the name Sky Soldier and bore an unsettling resemblance to Willie Nelson. He shyly handed me his card when I asked for an interview. “Soldiers of God,” it read, “Militant Christians since 1118 A.D.”
Vanguard America was there too, a younger, hipster-looking white nationalist group that seemed to make everyone else a bit uncomfortable, although its members’ sentiments were indistinguishable from the party line: a separate country for whites, Muslims out, beware the Jew. (“Know your enemy,” one of their flyers read, over a sagging, eyeless visage of George Soros wearing a red Star of David on his lapel. “He knows you.”)
And Brian “Sonny” Thomas was there, a white nationalist from Ohio with a graying mullet and a love for classic rock. He made headlines in 2010 for tweeting about wanting to shoot Latinos (“Illegals everywhere today! So many spicks makes me feel like a speck. Grr. Where’s my gun?”), despite having had a child with a Latina woman. He ran an online radio show and periodically popped up in the local news for doing things like unfurling Confederate flags during school board meetings; a state politician got in trouble not long before the conference for appearing on his show to promote a ban on sanctuary cities.
I wandered over to Thomas to chat. “Are you gonna be fair?” he demanded.
“I hope so,” I replied. He grinned, and genially lapses into a long, near-monologue on a variety of subjects: Donald Trump (“He’s totally surrounded by cucks and Jews,” he says, using the derisive supremacist term for a conservative sellout or a weakling of any kind), the president’s recent bombing of Syria (an outrage, we agreed, for different reasons), Venezuela, state’s rights, father’s rights, the gold standard, Charleston mass shooter Dylann Roof (a false-flag attack, Thomas thought, or maybe simply a victim of MK Ultra or similar mind control). He was also concerned about child molestation: “Deep within the upper echelons of power there’s a lot of pedophilia,” Thomas explained. “It’s arrogance. These people think they can’t be touched.” Pizzagate had made inroads, here too, although nobody used that name for it.
Thomas blamed most of the world’s problems on the globalists, people like CNN founder Ted Turner and Bill Gates, but placed America’s moral decline firmly at the feet of the Jews: “The whole media is owned by six companies, which are all owned by Jews.” But he can feel a new and encouraging shift, he added: “I can talk to people like you at a gas pump and we’re not talking in hushed tones, you know? Communication is the first step.”
“I’m Jewish,” I told him. His face registered several different shades of polite surprise.
“That’s fine!” he said at last, reassuringly. “You might think I’m full of shit. And that’s fine.”