The images of Matthew Heimbach in the center of the white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month that ended in violence and death left Richard Vatz with a feeling of sadness — but not surprise.
Heimbach, 26, clad in a black combat helmet with a body guard in tow, has become a fixture on the white nationalist and neo-Nazi speaking circuit since graduating from Towson University in 2013. In Charlottesville, where demonstrators marched down the streets, yelled anti-Semitic chants such as “Jews will not replace us” and proudly displayed Nazi swastikas, Heimbach was once again front and center.
But each time the burly, black-bearded and baby-faced Heimbach appeared on national news reports, Vatz couldn’t help but cringe at the path his former student advisee has chosen for himself.
“He is not one of the students I would point to who represents my influence,” said Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson. “My basic reaction is that it is very sad to see someone throw his life away on ridiculous kinds of persuasive promotion.”
Vatz, 70, first met Heimbach in 2011 when he agreed to sponsor a Towson student group Heimbach started called Youth for Western Civilization. The group came under fire after members scribbled “White Pride” messages in chalk on campus sidewalks, drawing intense backlash from faculty and students alike. Vatz would later withdraw his sponsorship.
More than four years have passed since Vatz last spoke with Heimbach, but he continues to follow Heimbach’s career in the news and feels it has become increasingly radicalized.
Heimbach did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
The demonstrations in Charlottesville that Heimbach helped organize were perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the alt-right, a formation of old and new white supremacist groups emboldened by President Donald Trump, Vatz said.
Vatz, a conservative political observer, criticized Trump for waiting two days after the conclusion of the protest to call out white nationalist groups by name. The president first blamed violence “on many sides.” He then denounced the white nationalist groups, but later defended his original comments.
“One of the ways to understand Donald Trump is that he focuses on consequences, not on principles,” Vatz said. “He sees something and makes a political calculation about the consequences. That’s not the sign of true leadership. You have to be willing to call out groups and people such as Matthew Heimbach, even if they support you.”
For years, Heimbach has drawn media scrutiny as chairman and co-founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a group that civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center has associated with the white nationalist movement.
The SPLC classifies the organization as a hate group and says it “advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems.” Heimbach is a Holocaust denier and “considered by many to be the face of a new generation of white nationalists,” according to the SPLC.
In a “Vice News Tonight” 22-minute documentary titled “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” Heimbach, who grew up in affluent Poolesville, Md., and now lives in rural Indiana, took issue with what he sees as a Jewish power structure.
After the protest was declared an “unlawful assembly” by police, Heimbach told Vice, “If that doesn’t go to show that the radical left, the corporations and the state are all on the same Jewish side, a moment like this proves it.”
Despite Heimbach’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, Vatz doesn’t recall an incident at Towson in which Heimbach was so hostile toward Jewish individuals.
“[But] I think he has clearly caught up on that since then,” said Vatz, who is Jewish.
While Vatz said he never had an unpleasant interaction with Heimbach, he noticed more and more disconcerting political and cultural views from his pupil that made him question his sponsorship of YWC. Vatz pulled his support of the group “six to 10 months after it formed,” citing racist remarks Heimbach made about African-American and Muslim students as the final straw.
“It turned out he was not too impressive of a guy,” Vatz said. “I had no choice but to pull my support for the group. He became more and more of the person my mother said I shouldn’t associate with.”
Shortly after YWC disbanded, Heimbach formed a new group called the White Student Union to conduct nighttime patrols in response to what he described as an uptick in black-on-white crime.
Towson never sanctioned the group, denying its request for approval in part because the group was unable to find a faculty member willing to serve as an advisor. Ray Feldmann, a Towson spokesman who did not mention Heimbach by name, declared that the university stood for diversity and tolerance and denounced the racism and bigotry that descended on Charlottesville.
“Towson University stands by its commitment to provide a diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus for every member of the TU community,” Feldmann said.