Administration

How One White Nationalist Became — and Remains — a Thorn in Texas A&M’s Side

August 21, 2017

David J. Phillip, AP Images
Preston Wiginton, a former student at Texas A&M at College Station, was denied permission to hold a White Lives Matter event there this month.

It’s been a busy week for Preston Wiginton, a 52-year-old former wooden-pallet manufacturer also known as "the strongest skinhead." He has, by his count, given 77 interviews to reporters from around the world. A documentary crew from Italy flew to Texas to film him. When I sat down with Mr. Wiginton at a Starbucks near the Texas State Capitol building in Austin, he had just finished informing a half-dozen or so print and TV reporters that he would postpone the White Lives Matter rally he had planned to hold at Texas A&M University at College Station on September 11.

To be clear, the university had already told him that he couldn’t hold his rally on the campus because of safety concerns, so postponing wasn’t entirely his idea.

During that hastily called news conference, Mr. Wiginton explained that he wants to bring people together. He bemoaned the lack of reasoned dialogue and critical thinking on college campuses. And he got misty-eyed talking about the death of Heather Heyer, the woman killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Va.

“A lot of times when the alt-right says 'Jew,' they mean 'liberal.' It's just that the liberals are disproportionately represented by Jews.”

He also expressed skepticism about the Holocaust, worried aloud about "hordes from Africa" invading the United States, and said he didn’t know whether the white supremacist who drove his car directly into a crowd of counterprotesters was to blame for Ms. Heyer’s death. And he dropped the N-word a couple of times.

As he will sheepishly admit, Mr. Wiginton isn’t a polished public speaker. He doesn’t evince the curled-lip swagger of his fellow traveler, Richard Spencer, whose appearance at Texas A&M last December was arranged by Mr. Wiginton. Nor does he possess the senator-smooth delivery of David Duke, from whom Mr. Wiginton once rented an apartment. And there’s certainly nothing novel about his views: Mr. Wiginton’s arguments are boilerplate white supremacy, the same sort of hand-wringing about preserving European genetic purity you’ll find in online forums for neo-Nazis.

Like many other white nationalists, Mr. Wiginton doesn’t like being called a racist. He prefers "identitarian." And he considers himself "counter-Semitic" rather than "anti-Semitic," a distinction that seems more to do with branding than philosophy. "A lot of times when the alt-right says ‘Jew,’ they mean ‘liberal,’" he explains. "It’s just that the liberals are disproportionately represented by Jews."

What Mr. Wiginton lacks in style and originality, however, he makes up for in persistence. He has been stirring up controversy at Texas A&M for more than a decade, forcing university officials to repeatedly disavow his views and to deal with the public fallout from his events.

He’s been a near-constant thorn in Texas A&M’s side, despite attracting zero support from student groups and having no real connection to the university. He is not, contrary to other news reports, an alum. He enrolled as an undergraduate when he was in his 40s, took classes for a year, and then dropped out so he could fly to Russia to look for a wife and perhaps buy a cattle farm.

He didn’t get a wife or a farm, but he’s been back to Russia more than a dozen times since then, and he admires that country’s aggressive strain of white nationalism. You can watch a YouTube video of Mr. Wiginton in a black cowboy hat, telling a crowd of Russian neo-Nazis that he respects them for their "strong identity." You can also see some in the crowd greet his support with Nazi salutes.

You can watch a YouTube video of Mr. Wiginton in a black cowboy hat, telling a crowd of Russian neo-Nazis that he respects them for their 'strong identity.'

Mr. Wiginton’s events at Texas A&M over the years have failed to inspire the widespread white-identity movement he believes is needed. But last December he did manage to cause a significant ruckus by hosting an event on the College Station campus featuring Mr. Spencer, who is one of the founders of the so-called alt-right movement and one of white supremacy’s most visible spokesmen. Though protesters far outnumbered fans, for Mr. Wiginton the event was a success of sorts. He got to sit onstage in jeans and a blazer while Mr. Spencer mocked detractors and made assertions like "America belongs to white men." He was quoted by CNN. A headline in The Texas Tribune deemed Wiginton the "strongest skinhead," a reference to the fact that in the mid-2000s he won a weightlifting contest at a neo-Nazi shindig called Hammerfest.

He claims that story in particular won him a number of female admirers, and he scrolls through a few photos on his iPhone to prove the point.

These days Mr. Wiginton lives in Austin much of the time, but he holds events two hours away at Texas A&M in part because he has an ax to grind. When he attended the university, he felt as if his ideas were unfairly dismissed by professors. And he is well aware that administrators now hate that he has associated the university’s name with white supremacy. That’s clearly part of his mission. "This is probably petty, but they didn’t treat me very well when I was there," he says.

He was also genuinely hurt when Tony Buzbee, a Texas A&M regent, referred to him recently in an interview as a "lowlife" who has "never accomplished anything positive in his life and never will." While he revels in thumbing his nose at Texas A&M, he also seems to want respect from officials and professors there.

Views on Race

Mr. Wiginton grew up in Sweeny, a small town south of Houston. He says he attended Carnegie Mellon University for a couple of years before dropping out. He was homeless for a while in his 20s. As for where his views on race originated, Mr. Wiginton talks about his disappointment when, in 1986, Ronald Reagan granted a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. He also recalls once, as a young man, noticing a lot of people he believed to be Mexican at the beach.

By 2007, he was posting under the name "ruskybound" on the website Stormfront (slogan: "Every month is White history month"). He also served for a time as a bodyguard for the preteen racist pop-duo Prussian Blue, known more for their happy-face Hitler T-shirts than their mumbled, hateful lyrics.

Mr. Wiginton says he’s matured since then. He stopped posting on Stormfront, at least under that handle, a long time ago. He thinks it was a mistake for white supremacists to march through Charlottesville with tiki torches chanting "Jews will not replace us." That said, he had planned to go to Charlottesville, but had to cancel because of a personal emergency. And he argues that the violence there was the fault of counterprotesters and the police, not the marchers themselves.

Some articles have cited Mr. Wiginton as one of the leaders of the white-supremacist movement in the United States. If he has his hands on the levers of white power, he certainly doesn’t act like it. Mr. Wiginton says he talked to David Duke once during last year’s presidential election. (He told the former Ku Klux Klan leader to stop praising Donald J. Trump; doing so, Mr. Wiginton thought, only helped Democrats.) His relationship with Richard Spencer, while congenial, isn’t exactly close.

And, sure, the event last December generated headlines, but it didn’t net him a loyal following. He isn’t active on social media. And the four or five Texas A&M students who he said contacted him about starting a "European identity" group seem to have lost steam after they couldn’t get a faculty sponsor. They were also too nervous in the wake of Charlottesville, he said, to speak out publicly.

Truth be told, the people who call Mr. Wiginton the most are reporters, and he is more than willing to make time for them. For a guy who claims to be uncomfortable in the spotlight, he sends out a fair number of press releases.

He declines to offer specifics about how he spends his time when he’s not espousing his extreme views on immigration or praising Nazis for their environmentalism. He used to own a company that provided wooden pallets used for shipping heavy loads. These days, he says, he’s more of a consultant. If you need to deliver something from Dallas to Houston, Mr. Wiginton could probably help you out.

On Monday afternoon, Mr. Wiginton expressed his displeasure via text message about the University of Texas’s decision to remove several Confederate monuments in the middle of the night. "What the left is doing today is what the Bolsheviks were doing in 1916," he wrote.

Even so, he has no plans to organize a rally at UT-Austin, and the one at Texas A&M remains on hold, though he promises he will try again. (He’s contacted the ACLU about a possible lawsuit to force Texas A&M to let him hold the event, but he hasn’t heard back from lawyers there.) Mr. Wiginton says he barely slept last week, so he’s planning to take it easy, at least for now.

"Back on it in a few days," he texted.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.