History & Politics

White Lies

How I was nearly recruited by a campus extremist.

“Why don’t you sit with us?” asked an unassuming stranger. “We have an extra seat at our table.” I was alone and grateful for the invitation. It was 2011 and I had been nervously looking for a seat in one of Towson University’s largest dining halls, where it seemed like everyone from freshman orientation had made friends and was sitting accordingly. My embarrassment and anxiety compounded as I passed row after row of already-full tables ringing with chatter and laughter. Now I had a seat of my own, and maybe a potential friend.

Across the table, the stranger, a cherubic upperclassman with a black bushy beard and glasses, sat with his smiling girlfriend. They asked what brought me to Maryland from New Jersey, how I liked campus so far, what my plans were for the next four years, taking genuine interest in me as we ate. When I explained that I was moving in with my dad and stepmom, who were both Towson political science professors, they listened attentively.

What I didn’t share were my experiences from four months prior—my mental breakdown, my extended stays in various mental hospitals, my bipolar diagnosis. I omitted that I was taking high doses of strong anti-anxiety medications, and that they weren’t working. I left out that earlier that year, when speaking to my parents, I heard the devil’s voice. I didn’t think it was necessary to mention that they had serious reservations about my ability to function in college, or that I probably had only passed my last high-school classes because my teachers were sympathetic. I wanted to leave my past behind. I was ready to reinvent myself.

Feeling like I was off to a good start, lunch with this couple was the highlight of my day. I felt at ease seeing his wide grin when I described my hobbies—basketball, reading, writing—and I enjoyed talking to his girlfriend, who was warm and welcoming. They seemed like healthy, happy people, and I was grateful to be included.

Halfway through lunch, we transitioned from small talk to him telling me about a club that he wanted to start a chapter of on campus: Youth for Western Civilization. “We need to defend American ideals,” he said. “They’re in danger.” He explained how foreigners were taking over the U.S. economy and that they posed a threat to national security. I then noticed the design on his T-shirt: a flexed arm holding a white hammer, which he enthusiastically stated was going to be the club logo. “Anyway, I need a certain number of signatures to have it legitimized,” he said. “Will you sign and help me get started?”

Something deep in my gut told me that his ideas were misguided, but he seemed like he knew what he was talking about, and I didn’t want him to know that I didn’t. During his pitch, he spoke of the dangers of multiculturalism, a term that I figured one of us must be misunderstanding. Surely it didn’t just mean diversity—he made it sound so dangerous. He seemed nice and spoke with confidence, and I was eager to please. My signature was one of the first for the club.

“Let’s keep in touch,” he said as he shook my hand after lunch. “Add me on Facebook—Matt Heimbach.”

That night, after dinner, I went to my room and opened Facebook, which revealed a different side of the friendly upperclassman. His profile page was full of Confederate flags and political rants. His friends included people who seemed odd, violent, or, in some cases, both, with one even posting about urges to kill people and drink their blood. Why was this seemingly nice guy friends with these kinds of people? Against my better judgment—perhaps out of desperation—I added him as a friend anyway.

Almost immediately, Matt started messaging me about “great opportunities.” When conservative commentator Bay Buchanan spoke on campus, I was one of the first to be invited. I was offered seats at different conventions around the U.S. and the opportunity to travel to Europe. Before college, I had barely left my small, rural hometown, and now I had a chance to see the world. It was tempting, so I told my parents.

“I might have ended up across the Atlantic Ocean with an incipient white nationalist.”

“Why does ‘Western Civilization’ need to be defended?” my dad asked incredulously. It was a weeknight, and we were sitting in his office as he took a break from grading papers. “I don’t think you should go. This sounds like a bad idea.”

I insisted, trying to restate my case with 18-year-old logic: “Europe will be good for me, because it’s fun! It’ll be fun, because it’s good for me!” After all, he had encouraged me to branch out and make friends. But he repeatedly shook his head. “You’re not going,” he said. The case was closed.

Looking back, I realize how this sounds: I had just met Matt, yet I was willing to fly halfway around the world with him just for the opportunity to have a friend. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my dad was right, and that I had been ignoring my own uncomfortable feelings about Matt: the aggressive T-shirt, his intense concern for American ideals, his intolerant views. Seven years later, it is now very clear what picture those details paint, but my naïve, medicated mind did not, perhaps could not, recognize that I was floating into dangerous waters. I was desperately lonely, and Matt was proof that I could make friends. I stuck around only to convince myself (and others) that I was normal, like everyone else. Had I not needed my parents’ permission, I might have ended up across the Atlantic Ocean with an incipient white nationalist.

In the past few years, college campuses have become a hotbed of extremist recruitment, with white supremacist propaganda—flyers, posters, marches, and direct confrontations with students—increasing by 258 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League. “Young college students are perfect targets,” explains Katrina Bell McDonald, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “They’re in intellectually vulnerable states, and they’re in environments in which new ideas and different perspectives are encouraged. When older, articulate people speak, students listen. It takes a critical eye to decipher the ambiguous language they sometimes use. They preach to the desperate. They isolate their targets and indoctrinate them into their ideals.”

The internet has played a major role in breeding racist ideologies, too, with extremist groups using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit to recruit new radicals. Years before the recent rise of white nationalism, the Islamic State, or ISIS, was the pioneer of internet recruitment, using its websites and platforms to lure young jihadists from across the globe. The pre-internet Ku Klux Klan grew out of personal connections and word of mouth, but post-internet white nationalists are now harnessing the web’s ability to mobilize minds, and it seems some young people take these messages to heart. Then-22-year-old Severna Park native Sean Christopher Urbanski, for example, reportedly had ties to the “Alt-Reich” Facebook group before being accused of fatally stabbing Richard Collins III, a young black man, at a University of Maryland bus stop last summer. The web is also used by recruiters to coordinate rallies and events, like those Matt invited me to, which also further energize fledgling supporters. While Matt and I initially met in person, the rest of our correspondence existed in cyberspace, where he attempted to strengthen our bond.

Experts say several factors play roles in indoctrination—instability, lack of social networks, frustration with socioeconomic status—but even people with educations, solid mental health, and secure financial backgrounds are susceptible to recruitment. During Matt’s attempts, I nearly fit the bill for a model recruit: I was alone, unstable, and lacked confidence—plus I was a young white teenage male. But thanks to conversations with my dad, who eagerly supported my growing sense of unease about Matt, I slowly started to pull away. By the end of the semester, I no longer messaged him, but he would still message me—and as he became more comfortable, his sentiments grew darker.

“I hope you have a gun,” Matt said on Facebook one night that fall. “Especially if race riots break out in Baltimore.” He had been warning me about the dangers of a new Black Panther Party, which, he asserted, was calling for a race war against “whites,” especially if Barack Obama lost the 2012 election. I listened to NPR on the drive to campus with my stepmom each morning, but I hadn’t heard anything like this, and I definitely wasn’t interested in buying a weapon. “They allow you to protect yourself,” he insisted. “And as a constitutional member of the unorganized militia, it is your civic duty to own a firearm and be proficient.”

Firearms? Militia? I felt uncomfortable and politely disagreed until we switched topics. Before signing off, I decided to branch out and make some new friends. I had recently learned about the Fall Involvement Fair, which helps students discover activities and organizations around campus, and Matt’s comments inspired me to attend. His messages had started to scare me.

A few days later, I shuffled into Towson’s West Village Commons. Filling the ballroom were aisles and aisles of tables featuring clubs, sports teams, fraternities, and sororities, all led by seemingly confident and bright-eyed students. Amid the youthful buzz, I felt freshly awkward and isolated. It seemed like everyone already knew each other again, and though no one looked at me, all I could feel were eyes on my blushing face. As my thoughts tripped over each other, I heard a familiar voice call my name.

I turned to my right to see Matt’s eager grin. “Hey man, good to see you,” he started. “I’ve got something I wanted to ask you about.” A group of black and Muslim students had started to surround his table, and he seemed unconcerned by the atmosphere’s growing tension over the ideas listed on his posters. Before Matt could ask his question, an angry student interrupted him. “I’ll message you,” he said with a smile. I continued walking around the fair, feeling defeated and more alone than before.

“Hey dude! You like Frisbee?” shouted an unknown voice before I made my way out the double doors. It was the captain of the school’s Ultimate Frisbee team. And, actually, I did.

Ultimate Frisbee practice started the next week, and I was invited to the tryout tournaments. Finally, I felt like I had some potential real friends. As the team finished its first warm-up lap, one player asked the group, “Did you guys hear about that new racist group on campus?” “Yeah, ‘Youth for Western Civilization’—big ol’ bunch of racists,” another player answered before adding sarcastically, “Anyone wanna join with me?” I blushed as everyone laughed; Matt had been my only friend at Towson, and our friendship was a secret that I needed to keep from my new teammates. My willingness to overlook his myopic views and obvious intolerance felt stupid and shameful. I vowed to never talk to him again, and I stopped responding to his Facebook messages.

The next semester, I received a new message—this time from an Ultimate Frisbee teammate who worked for Towson’s student government. “This is just between you and me . . . assuming that’s what you want,” he started. “I was looking through my [student government] binder . . . and under [Youth for Western Civilization], I found your name. Are you in the group?”

It was the end of my freshman year, and I was by then an official Ultimate player. I had more friends now than I had in high school, and I was the most secure I’d ever felt. I explained that I didn’t realize what the club stood for when I signed Matt’s paper. But in order to remove my name from the list, he told me, I had to ask Matt myself.

It was a daunting task—I had just unfriended him on Facebook and had been ignoring his texts—but something I knew I had to do. Never one for confrontation, I ended up sending an impulsive text.

“Can you take me off your club’s list?” I asked. “Ouch,” he responded. “I guess so.”

That was the last time we ever spoke.

“I was alone, unstable, and lacked confidence.”

My sophomore year, I read about his proposed new club, named the White Student Union, in The Towerlight student newspaper and how its members patrolled campus to “protect the community.” Suddenly “White Pride” chalkings started to appear across school grounds, attributed to Matt and members of his club. Before long, Matt was the talk of not only campus but the country, with the subsequent uproar garnering national attention from outlets such as Vice. My classmates spoke out against his organization; we were frustrated and embarrassed that Towson had become home to such apparent bigotry. I felt this weight especially, as the signature I naively scribbled during my first freshman-year lunch helped launch one of the most controversial student groups in campus history.

Five years later, Matt Heimbach is now considered by some to be the next David Duke—the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He resides in Indiana, where he founded the Traditionalist Worker Party, which is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2016, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after shoving a black woman during a Trump rally in Kentucky. In 2017, he led white nationalist protests over the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one innocent bystander dead. Unafraid of hiding his extremism, he has been photographed at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., holding a sign that said: “6 million? More like 271,301.” After a terrorist attack in Belgium, he reportedly tweeted, “Hey Brussels, how’s that multiculturalism working out for you?” Most recently, Matt was arrested on domestic battery charges for a truly bizarre case: He allegedly slept with his wife’s mother and got into a fight with her husband, his stepfather-in-law.

Back at Towson, talk of his White Student Union is long over, and new students often don’t know the would-be club ever existed. Even now, after everything I’ve learned, I sometimes have trouble connecting the grinning, personable Matt I met in the cafeteria with the views that he espouses today. I certainly could not have imagined the upperclassman who invited me to travel Europe being banned from the United Kingdom for his extremist beliefs. All that seemed to matter back then was that he wanted to get to know me.

Since my brush with Matt, I’ve earned a master’s degree in professional writing, started a career in Hunt Valley, and my Frisbee teammates have become lifelong friends. My life has improved tremendously, and today I am far more confident and clear-thinking. Each day, I continue to develop a better idea of who I am and what I stand for—which, it turns out, is the opposite of Matt. I’m reminded of that notion every time his name resurfaces.

Last fall, after he led the Charlottesville protests to keep Confederate statues up, I marched in the streets of Baltimore to have the city take its statues down. This spring, as he was charged with domestic battery, I marched with hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., to protest gun violence. If Matt is outspoken about his intolerance, it is my duty to raise my voice for justice and acceptance, using my uncomfortable past to do right in the present and future. Every time he takes a stand, I plan to take my own.

This article has been edited for clarity from its original print version in the September 2018 issue.