Asked during the 29 September presidential debate if he would condemn white supremacists, Donald Trump responded as though he were being asked to fulfil some tiresome bureaucratic procedure. “Who do you want me to condemn?” he asked, irritated. His Democrat opponent, Joe Biden, suggested the Proud Boys, a far-right gang. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” the president said.
The New York Times reported that within minutes of this statement, the Proud Boys’ chairman Enrique Tarrio called the T-shirt business he owns in Miami to order shirts emblazoned with the logo “Proud Boys standing by”. Google searches for the group spiked, and hundreds joined Proud Boys groups on the instant messaging platform Telegram. “I think he was saying I appreciate you and I appreciate your support,” said the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes. The Proud Boys describe themselves as “Western chauvinists”, by which they mean “men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”. The Anti-Defamation League describes the group as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration”. It adds: “Some members espouse white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups”, though the membership is not exclusively white and the group’s leaders protest any allegations of racism. Beyond a resolute hatred of the left, members are not ideologically homogeneous.
“There’s not an overt manifesto which they prescribe to, different members sit in different places on the far-right spectrum. What really defines the Proud Boys is their activity on the ground, so their proclivity to violence and their consistent presence as a counter-movement to left-wing protests,” Jacob Davey, a senior researcher focusing on the far right at think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told me. Joseph Lowndes, a political science professor at the University of Oregon, described them as an “authoritarian group focused on the glorification of male violence”, more an “overblown street gang” than a well-organised militia. They share with many alt-right groups a profound misogyny; one of their central tenets is “venerating the housewife” and members pledge to give up porn. These are “classic markers of male supremacist ideologies,” Laura Bates, the author of Men Who Hate Women, said.
The Proud Boys are easily spotted at far-right rallies and counter-demonstrations to Black Lives Matter protests: they wear black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts and often sport Proud Boy tattoos and MAGA hats. But the group’s loose organisational structure makes it hard to estimate its overall size; most experts suggest there are several thousand members, spread across the US and a handful of international chapters, including the UK. Some members are high-profile. The political operative and Trump adviser, Roger Stone – whose 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice was recently commuted by the president – was videoed taking the Proud Boys oath. During his trial Stone testified that some Proud Boys had helped him run his social media accounts. Jason Kessler, one of the organisers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, was a Proud Boy. The founder of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson also has links to the group.
The organisation was created in 2016 by McInnes, a grizzled 50-year-old British-born Brooklyn hipster with square-framed glasses, a walrus moustache and a boorish, juvenile sense of humour, who also co-founded the punk-rock magazine Vice. McInnes helped define Vice’s tone and sensibility in the Nineties and early Noughties, when it ran stories such as “the Vice guide to shagging Muslims”, but by 2008 his right-wing views were becoming a financial liability and he was bought out of the title.
McInnes announced the creation of the Proud Boys through his column in Taki’s Magazine, a website sympathetic to the far right, in which he said the group was an extension of the informal men’s meetings he had been holding in New York dive bars with like-minded media colleagues. “The meetings usually consist of drinking, fighting and reading aloud from Pat Buchanan’s Death of the West,” he wrote. McInnes was a prolific blogger, YouTuber and right-wing talk show host with more than a quarter of a million followers on Twitter and Facebook, and he couched his incitement and hate speech in puerile, lads’ mag banter.
In 2017 a New Yorker writer saw McInnes punch a left-wing protester, unprovoked, on his way to the DeploraBall, a pro-Trump black-tie event, before bragging to reporters that his knuckles had been scraped by the protester’s teeth, potentially exposing him to “loser Aids”. McInnes has claimed that “fighting solves everything” and in a video message hosted by Rebel Media he once boasted that Proud Boys “are the only ones fighting” the anti-fascist collective Antifa. “I want you to fight them too,” he continued. “It’s fun. When they go low, go lower. Mace them back, throw bricks at their head. Destroy them. We’ve been doing it a while now and I’ve got to say, it’s really invigorating.”
By late 2018, however, even McInnes found it expedient to distance himself from the Proud Boys. That year, McInnes and the Proud Boys had been banned from Facebook and Twitter. Two days before Mc-Innes’s announcement that he was “disassociating” from the group, the Guardian reported that the FBI had designated the Proud Boys as “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism” and warned that it was contributing to escalating political violence in university campuses and US cities. McInnes’s statement may have been largely symbolic. He suggested that lawyers had advised him it might lessen the sentences of Proud Boys arrested for attacking Antifa protesters outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan. In 2018 two members were sentenced to four years in prison.
The civil rights protests that this summer spread across the US after the police killing of George Floyd have galvanised militant right-wing groups. The Proud Boys were seen at counter-protests and street brawls alongside other right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the Oath Keepers, a militia comprised largely of former military veterans and law enforcement officials.
These armed far-right groups see themselves as essential to restoring “law and order” to US cities, a view encouraged by Trump, the right-wing media and branches of law enforcement. “There’s now a blurred line between actual federal forces and armed vigilante groups,” Joseph Lowndes said, citing the killing by US marshals of Michael Reinoehl, an anti-fascist accused of killing a member of the far-right Patriot Prayer group, which is closely affiliated with the Proud Boys. This was in effect an extrajudicial killing, Lowndes observed, yet the US attorney general, William Barr, celebrated it as a “significant accomplishment to restore law and order” and Trump described it as “retribution”. When the 17-year-old militia member Kyle Rittenhouse shot dead two Black Lives Matter protesters and injured a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August, the Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, suggested he’d acted to “fill the vacuum” left by the police, and a leaked Department of Homeland Security memo urged officials to describe Rittenhouse sympathetically by saying he acted to protect small business owners. Days before the presidential debate, several hundred Proud Boys rallied in Portland, Oregon, and declared their support of Rittenhouse.
“I’m urging my supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump said on the debate stage, hinting darkly at election irregularities. They had already started doing so: earlier that day in Philadelphia Trump supporters tried to gain entry to in-person polling sites, in contravention of the state’s election rules, raising fears of voter intimidation. Jacob Davey told me that the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s monitoring of far-right groups had revealed a push in recent weeks for members to volunteer as independent poll monitors, and increased talk of the Democrats planning to stage a coup or steal the election. “I think that sort of information presents a fertile breeding ground for potential sparks of violence in the coming weeks,” Davey said.
As the president primes his base to believe that the election is rigged and that victory will be decided in the streets, Lowndes is concerned that Trump may incite violence after election day. “That’s what stand back and stand by means,” he said. “It means we may need you for chaos and vigilante street violence after the election.”
Lowndes added that he thought Trump is reasoning that if the vote’s close and he’s unable to win an electoral college victory on election day, he could create enough confusion and chaos that the Supreme Court calls the vote in his favour. “Whether or not there is a remote possibility of this happening is another story, but I’m convinced that the Trump campaign is gaming it out,” he said, “They’re gaming out every possibility to be awarded this victory.”
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid