It’s not uncommon for white nationalist groups to fizzle out or self-destruct in a blaze of infighting.
Relinquishing control of their own organization to a black civil rights activist is a new one, though.
So goes the bizarre tale of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a decades-old group that has roots in the American Nazi Party and was recently turned over by longtime commander Jeff Schoep to a black California minister named James Hart Stern.
Far-right extremists and those who study them are equally baffled by what appears to be the spectacular crash-and-burn ending of the NSM as we know it.
“The fact that [Schoep] allowed an organization that’s been an involved part of the white supremacist movement for decades and has this lineage to fall into the hands of a man of color, that’s pretty much going to be unforgivable for those who are on the radical right,” Keegan Hankes, a researcher on extremism with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told TPM.
“It’s just unbelievable that an organization that’s been around this long looks like it’s going to go out this way, Hankes added.
“The NSM will no longer exist as an organization,” declared Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist and short-lived NSM spokesman.
The best explanation for the handoff seems to be that Stern somehow persuaded Schoep that giving him control would relieve the NSM of legal liability in a lawsuit against white nationalist groups that participated in the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As TPM reported, Stern and Schoep are now threatening legal action against each other for legitimate control of the group. Schoep is insisting that the NSM can survive even as he retires from the white nationalist movement for good.
But the NSM’s survival was imperiled even before this leadership spat erupted.
The group’s old-school brand of white nationalism—marked by noisy public rallies and elaborate get-ups—has been eclipsed in recent years by younger radicals’ efforts to mainstream or advance the movement.
Some of these newer groups, like Atomwaffen and the Rise Above Movement, favored more direct violent action. Other figures like Richard Spencer and James Allsup urged white nationalists to try to gain clout by infiltrating the Republican party. They dropped the swastika insignias and use of racial slurs in public, enthusiastically sparring with the media in interviews that whitewashed their views.
But their consensus was that old guard groups like the NSM were relying on a tired playbook that did little to promote white nationalism in the U.S.
The NSM “doesn’t get any respect from anyone in the movement,” said Vegas Tenold, a journalist who embedded with the NSM for his 2018 book “Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America.”
“People call them LARPers—live action role players—because they dress up in these ridiculous Third Reich costumes and they goose-step around,” Tenold told TPM. “They’ve always been really good at getting attention but not really good at doing anything with that attention.”
The SPLC’s Hankes agreed the NSM was seen as “sort of a joke” in the contemporary white nationalist movement.
“The folks who try to rebrand themselves as more outwardly friendly white supremacists—Richard Spencer, Identity Europa and so on—have a lot of distaste for groups like NSM,” Hankes said. “They think it makes it harder to convert people to their cause.”
NSM managed to avoid an identity crisis amidst this generational shift thanks largely to its deep historical roots and the enduring leadership of Schoep. The organization has weathered decades of controversy even as other once-prominent groups like the National Alliance and Aryan Nations petered out. With Schoep as the public face, “the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country” managed to secure sustained media attention even though one former officer told the Associated Press that the total active membership likely hovered at around 40.
As the SPLC documented, the NSM grew out of the original American Nazi Party. Followers of murdered American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell founded the National Socialist American Workers Freedom Movement in 1974, and the group has existed in some form ever since. In 1994, at the age of just 21, Schoep assumed control of the group and rebranded it the National Socialist Movement.
According to the SPLC, the Detroit-based skinhead helped usher in a new era of prominence for the NSM, creating a hate rock music label and new website, and staging the kind of outlandish pro-Hitler rallies for which they’re now known.
Beyond these clownish events, the NSM cropped up in connection with a number of serious incidents over the years, as TPM has documented.
A 2005 march through a black section of Toledo, Ohio sparked a riot that cost the city some $300,000 in damages. White supremacist militia leader JT Ready, who killed himself and four others, including a toddler, in a 2012 rampage, was a longtime member of the NSM. A sergeant with the Missouri National Guard was fired the same year after proudly proclaiming his allegiance to the group.
Taylor Michael Wilson was carrying an NSM business card in his wallet and several weapons when he was arrested on terrorism charges last year for attempting to derail an Amtrak train in Nebraska.
But the NSM, like many white nationalist groups, was hit hard by the backlash to the Charlottesville rally. The daylong outburst of hate that culminated with the death of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer prompted a national reckoning with the threat posed by the white nationalist movement. Tech companies booted groups from social media platforms and web servers, and lawsuits forced them to spend funds they didn’t have to hire attorneys.
One case forced the NSM and other white nationalist groups to enter into consent decrees prohibiting paramilitary activity at any future Charlottesville protest.
Another case in which NSM is a defendant was brought on behalf of 11 Charlottesville residents injured in the melee. It appears headed for trial in late 2019 or early 2020. Though Schoep insisted that the NSM only acted in “self-defense” at the rally, Stern told TPM that the litigation worried Schoep.
Both men agree that Stern managed to assure Schoep that signing over the legal rights would allow him to retire in peace and convince the plaintiffs to relieve the NSM of responsibility in that suit. Once granted ownership, Stern promptly asked the court to hold the NSM liable for their actions in Charlottesville. Schoep said he never signed off on that part.
Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, the group representing the plaintiffs, told TPM the successorship battle was irrelevant to their case.
“This suit is about bringing those defendants to justice—while also creating a deterrent to future violence, establishing a legal precedent against these conspiracies, and drying up financial support for the white supremacist movement,” she said.
In the meantime, Schoep has crowned Burt Colucci the new group commander, and is issuing press releases assuring members that he didn’t willingly relinquish control to a black man. But this series of events has cost the NSM whatever respect it had left in the movement.
On Gab and 4chan, posters mocked Schoep’s intelligence, speculating that the NSM were “possible feds” or otherwise “compromised.”
“The NSM is a fucking pointless, retarded shitshow full of degenerate scum at best, and the king of all FBI honeypots at worst,” one 4chan poster wrote.
Heimbach, whose own white nationalist group imploded over a complicated sex scandal, told TPM that he departed the NSM in December 2018 after only one event because he could tell the organization was unwilling to modernize.
“The NSM has been failing for a long time,” Heimbach said. “Not to put a grandiose self-importance on myself but I think last year was really the last chance for the ship to change course before it just hit the iceberg of practical reality. And it went ahead and hit the iceberg. I think Jeff Schoep abandoned his people behind their backs.”
Other groups like the League of the South and ShieldWall Network are now trying to poach the few disgruntled NSM members who remain, according to the SPLC.
Those members may decide to rally behind Colucci, or just go on to promote hate at some other organization, extremist experts say. (As Tenold quipped: “They paid money for their costumes; what are they gonna do, not wear them?”)
But with the end of Schoep’s reign, the NSM’s tenure as a prominent U.S. neo-Nazi group is over.