In a chaotic first TV debate between the two US presidential candidates on September 29, 2020, Trump asked his opponent Biden who exactly he should condemn. “Give me a name,” Trump snarled. Moments before, the clearly overwhelmed moderator of the evening, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, had asked Trump to unequivocally distance himself from white supremacists and right-wing militias – unsuccessfully. “The Proud Boys,” Biden offered as an example. Trump countered: “Proud Boys: stand back and stand by”, adding: “Someone’s gotta do something about Antifa and the Left.”
Even in a presidential election that has already shattered innumerable political norms, Trump’s comment in the debate crossed yet another a new line. Instead of condemning the Proud Boys, a violent and armed far-right group, he appeared to mobilise them – and put these radical-right thugs in an international spotlight. Why?
Trump has already refused on several occasions in recent months to say whether he will recognise the election result in the event of his defeat. On election day, November 3, right-wing militias and Trump supporters aim to “secure” and “observe” the election – groups like the Proud Boys. Trump’s comment in the debate swiftly triggered the media shitstorm it deserved. On Twitter, the term “Proud Boys” soon started trending.
Que: cheers from the Proud Boys’ benches. After the debate, the group posted a logo donning the phrase “Proud Boys: Stand back, stand by” on their Telegram channel. Shortly after, the design was available as a T-shirt from an alt-right online clothing store. But who are the Proud Boys? What danger do they pose and what significance do they have for the US election?
Alt-right fight club
Behind the Proud Boys lies a gang of anti-feminist men with a far-right worldview – or, in their own words: “western chauvinists”. The group – which only “biological men” are allowed to join – was founded in 2016, in the middle of the last US election campaign, by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. McInnes officially left Vice in 2008 due to “creative differences”. In the years that followed, he has been active as a right-wing “political commentator” – for example as a guest author for the far-right Canadian media portal “The Rebel Media” or on Alex Jones’ conspiracy ideology and fake news programme “Infowars”.
In November 2018, McInnes announced that he had resigned from his position as chairman of the Proud Boys and left the group. However, the decision was not entirely voluntary: two days before his announcement, the Guardian reported that the FBI had classified the Proud Boys as an “extremist organisation with ties to white nationalism”. This classification probably played a more important role in McInnes’ decision. His resignation also seemed somewhat half-hearted. The far-right blogger Milo Yiannopoulos was also a member of the group and resigned at the same time – apparently on the advice of his lawyers.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a New York organisation committed to fighting the discrimination and defamation of Jews, describes the Proud Boys as “hardcore white supremacists”. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a leading anti-racist organisation in the USA, calls the group an “alt-right fight club” and classifies the Proud Boys as a hate group – a classification McInnes apparently is not a fan of, attacking the SPLC several times in his videos. In February 2019 – i.e. after he had officially left the Proud Boys – McInnes filed a lawsuit against the organisation because of their designation “hate group”. McInnes claims that his career has taken a hit as a result, suggesting a financial motive for his departure.
Since McInnes’ resignation, the group has plunged into chaos: Jason Lee Van Dyke took over as chairman and resigned only 36 hours later. Since then, Enrique Tarrio has been head of the group. McInnes, however, is still held in high regard by members as father of the movement.
The ideology of the Proud Boys can be described as right-libertarian, misogynist and anti-feminist, anti-Muslim, anti-left, pro-capitalist and pro-Trump. The group is close to the alt-right scene, even though they distance themselves from one another. The archnemesis of the group: “Antifa”. Central to the group’s ideology is the belief that it is primarily white men who are supposedly “under siege” from modernity and migration. Their “western” – read: far-right, misogynist and toxic-masculine – values are under attack. Even though the group is predominantly white, there are also non-white members – who, however, claim to be bullied by their comrades because of their ethnicity. The Proud Boys’ US chairman Enrique Tarrio, for example, has an Afro-Cuban background.
One of the group’s slogans is “The West is Best” and their worldview often regurgitates far-right narratives such as the “Great Replacement”. The “core values” listed on their website include minimal government, closed borders, gun ownership, “anti-political correctness” and – paradoxically – anti-racism. “Venerating the housewife” and “glorifying the entrepreneur” are also listed as “tenets”. The Proud Boys also run an online magazine – albeit with an irregular editorial cycle. The last article was published in April 2020.
In reality, these supposed values are often overshadowed by street violence. The Proud Boys stand out especially at demonstrations, where they intimidate and attack political opponents, such as activists from the Black Lives Matter movement or Antifa protesters.
Merchandise plays an important role for the group, both in terms of outwards recognition and inner identity. Its aesthetics aim to be hip and seductive for young men – a lifestyle brand for the radical-right. To this end, the Proud Boys have their own online store, which stocks designs such as “Fuck Antifa”, “Feminism = Cancer”, “Russian Bot” and crossed-out hammer and sickles. Despite his departure, McInnes is still celebrated as the hero of the group: his face and name are plastered on various Proud Boys merchandise.
At the same time, the aesthetic uniformity of the Proud Boys channels its fascistoid tendencies: the group appears in public as a closed unit clad in black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts and red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. The Fred Perry laurel wreath has become the logo of the Proud Boys. The fashion label, which was founded by the son of a socialist politician and a Jewish businessman, has strongly distanced itself from right-wing extremism in general and the Proud Boys in particular on several occasions. As a result of the Proud Boys hijacking its logo, the brand has temporarily stopped selling its black and yellow polo shirt in North America (see the Guardian).
Organisation and structure
Exact membership numbers for the Proud Boys aren’t available. Their Twitter and Facebook profiles had more than 20,000 fans before the Proud Boys were deplatformed by most social media networks (see Forbes). PayPal, Mailchimp and iTunes have also since banned the Proud Boys. As a result, Telegram has now become been an important medium for the group: there, the Proud Boys have approximately 6,000 subscribers. On the platforms “Gab” and “Minds”, the group has 2000 and 1000 followers respectively.
According to their website, the Proud Boys have regional branches in 44 US states, as well as in Canada, Australia, Israel, Japan, China and various European countries. They recruit men mostly between the ages of 15 and 30. How large these chapters actually are, cannot be verified. For Germany, only a Gmail address is listed on the group’s website for potential recruits to get in touch. The president of the Proud Boys’ chapter in Los Angeles, speaking under anonymity, told the Los Angeles Times in 2018 that his local group had 160 members and 300 pending applicants.
The road to full membership is long: there are four “phases”, from pledging allegiance (“I’m a proud western chauvinist and I refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”) to getting a tattoo and committing to the group’s “masturbation regime” (all heterosexual members are only allowed to masturbate once a month but pornography is banned – see The Daily Beast). As a final step, potential members are allegedly required to start a mass brawl against anti-fascists (see Wired, Southern Poverty Law Center).
The group also includes the paramilitary organisation “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights”, which was founded in California in 2017 by Kyle Chapman (alias: “Based Stickman”). The group is designated the “tactical defense arm” of the Proud Boys. The “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights” attends demonstrations clad in homemade, medieval-looking armour and armed with pepper spray, hammers, batons, daggers and tasers (see Southern Poverty Law Center).
Far-right goon squad
Above all, the Proud Boys maintain a visible – and violent – presence on the streets. In August 2017, members took part in the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, alongside neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the organisers was Jason Kessler, a self-described white supremacist and Proud Boy. The anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer was murdered at the demonstration and 19 other counter-demonstrators were injured after a right-wing extremist deliberately drove his car into a crowd of people.
In 2019, two members of the Proud Boys were sentenced to prison in New York after beating up antifascist demonstrators in October 2018. Prior to the attack, Gavin McInnes had given a speech at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan. Eight other Proud Boys were also involved in the attack and received milder sentences (see BBC).
In June 2020, five Proud Boys attacked a Black Lives Matter demonstrator in Seattle. A video of the attack shows masked and uniformed supporters of the group armed with clubs and pistols. They flee the scene in an unmarked minivan.
At the end of September 2020, several hundred heavily armed supporters of the Proud Boys gathered in the city of Portland in the US state of Oregon. They had registered a demo – rather ambitiously – for 20,000 people with authorities, to protest against “domestic terrorism” – how they describe the current protests against racist police brutality in the USA (see Der Spiegel). It wasn’t their first appearance in Portland: Back in 2018, violent clashes broke out between the radical-right, including uniformed Proud Boys, and anti-fascist demonstrators. The city classified the incident as a riot.
Egged on by Trump
In light of this, it would be highly astonishing under any normal circumstances that an incumbent president not only refuses to distance himself from a violent and armed radical right-wing group, but also calls on them to “stand by”. But nothing about the current presidential election is normal.
In Proud Boys’ Telegram channels, Trump’s comments are met with cheers. Some members interpret his words as an endorsement of their violent strategy. Others report a spike in new potential recruits since the debate (see New York Times). Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys in the USA, writes on the platform “Parler”: “Standing by sir”. Another member, Joe Biggs, writes: “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA…well sir! We’re ready!”
With his comments during the TV debate, Trump has egged on a violent, far-right group, possibly motivating them to take action. Several right-wing militias have already announced that they aim to “protect” polling stations on election day. It is conceivable that the Proud Boys will also dare to employ similar intimidation tactics – even in the event of Trump’s defeat. Because at the moment, the Proud Boys know full and well: they’ve got a buddy in the White House.