Politics

The Proud Boys Are Only Getting More Powerful

Two men in black polo shirts with yellow trim shout at protesters.
Members of the Proud Boys face off against anti-Trump protesters outside a Trump rally in Orlando, Florida, on June 18, 2019. Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Jan. 6 select committee built this case. They pointed out a tweet that Donald Trump sent out in the middle of the night on Dec. 19. And this tweet, the committee said, was a bat signal for organized extremists all over the country. The tweet talked about a big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6 and ended with a flourish: “Be there, will be wild!” Committee member Jamie Raskin said that the tweet “electrified and galvanized … dangerous extremists—the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and other racist and white nationalist groups spoiling for a fight with the government.”

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The committee mapped out how this one message pinged around the internet. Testimony from an anonymous source inside Twitter itself explained how they watched Twitter users light up at the invitation to come to D.C. Then this enthusiasm on Twitter jumped to Reddit and YouTube. “Not only did that Dec. 19 tweet whip all of the far right up into a frenzy about Jan. 6 specifically, but that immediately put them into a mode where they were planning for their last stand for their president, who, by the way, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers see as their boss,” says Andy Campbell, a senior editor at HuffPost and author of the upcoming book We Are Proud Boys.

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Campbell has been thinking about the implications of that Dec. 19 tweet for months now. He’s come to see this group as totally enmeshed in the events of Jan. 6. After all, a Proud Boy was one of the first people to breach the Capitol, smashing a window with a stolen police shield. “The Proud Boys didn’t just have an outsized role on the day, but they may have been the architects,” Campbell says.

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He’s followed along as the government builds a criminal case against the Proud Boys. Federal prosecutors are charging some members with seditious conspiracy. The Department of Justice has even alleged some Proud Boys had a document with them, laying out what kind of chants to start on the day of the riot and whose congressional offices to occupy. But Campbell doesn’t see this as the end of the Proud Boys: “Since Jan. 6, we’ve only seen them ramp up their violent events. They’re everywhere, every single weekend. In fact, with Trump out of office and with Jan. 6 behind us, extremist groups are completely untethered by Trump as their leader and are instead latching on to all sorts of Republican grievances.”

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On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Campbell about why for groups like the Proud Boys, Jan. 6 wasn’t the end, it was the beginning. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: You’ve been covering the Proud Boys since their inception in 2016, when you would notice them at Trump rallies. The Proud Boys stood out because they looked paramilitary. And they weren’t shy. 

Andy Campbell: These guys dressed in makeshift body armor and makeshift weaponry and uniforms, showing up to Trump rallies. And these guys wanted you to know who they were. They wanted to be lionized for the acts of violence they committed, and they wanted to talk to the press. They were like, Yeah, here’s my name. Tell everyone what I did because I’m a badass.

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What do you mean? What were they bragging to you about? 

One of the Proud Boys facing seditious conspiracy charges, Ethan Nordean, punched a guy unconscious in 2018, and it was caught on video. Alex Jones called it “the Punch Heard Around the World.” Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, called Ethan Nordean their greatest achievement. He was given a nickname, Rufio Panman, a reference to the leader of the Lost Boys in the movie Hook, and now that punch and that video of him committing an act of political violence is in every Proud Boys sizzle reel on the internet.

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In the early coverage of the Proud Boys, there was a desire to see them as silly. They would get together for drinks, and there was this kind of element of violence. But then they had an oath that you would take, and they were doing wacky stuff. You kind of get to there when you say one of them got a nickname from Peter Pan. Do you think that was intentional as a way to sort of confuse people?

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You hit the nail right on the head. The Proud Boys were formed on the online talk show of Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice Media. This guy is a just abhorrent, racist misogynist.

And he made a name for himself by packaging misogyny and racism and bigotry into cool stuff for hipsters.

He had a Brooklyn beard is what I remember.

Oh, yeah. He maintains the hipster aesthetic: He’s got the Wayfarer glasses, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and suspenders. He’s constantly got this tongue-in-cheek attitude. But what he’s saying is, Get out there, commit violence for the cause—the cause being Trump and the GOP. And he is very serious when he’s telling his audience to go out there and commit violence. So the Proud Boys, they are trained very well by Gavin McInnes to slather everything they do in irony and in nonseriousness so that when the dust settles they can say one of two things. What we were doing was defending ourselves; this is political demonstration. Or, none of this matters; the fact that we were calling for violence before the violence happened, we were just joking, yadda, yadda. And it’s completely snowed over members of the media and the government. An outgoing Homeland Security officer told the Times after Jan. 6 that they thought the Proud Boys were just a drinking club that gets in fights from time to time. And that is exactly the line that Gavin McInnes and the Proud Boys want you to think.

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I first started thinking about former President Trump’s connections with the Proud Boys a little before the 2020 election. This is that debate Trump was in with President Biden, and he was asked to condemn white nationalist groups. He picked out the Proud Boys and it was the first time to me that I was like, Oh, there’s a connection here, you know?

And that is a testament to two things. One, Trump really, really loves people that love him. And the Proud Boys have very publicly and very violently shown time and time again that they are out there for Trump. In fact, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said prior to Jan. 6 that between that debate and Jan. 6, Trump knew exactly who they were and that he knew exactly what he was saying when he said, “Stand back and stand by.” He was giving them marching orders. Now, whether or not you believe that Trump was giving them marching orders or that Trump can’t put a sentence together, so he’s not really responsible for that moment, it doesn’t matter, because immediately following that statement, the Proud Boys started prepping for civil war.

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How?

Across the country, they were watching TV. I spoke to Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the Proud Boys who is now facing seditious conspiracy charges for Jan. 6, and he said that that he had never gotten so many calls for recruitment, had never seen so much money rolling in until that moment. For the extremists of the world, this was like, oh, my God, the Proud Boys are top dogs. These guys have it.

The select committee talked about this moment this week, and they talked about it not from the perspective of the proud boys or the president or anyone else. They talked about it from the perspective of Twitter because they had someone testify from Twitter—this person was anonymous and their voice was disguised, so we don’t know their gender or who they really are. But this person told the committee that this debate moment was kind of an earthquake on the platform. And it was a moment where Twitter considered having stricter content moderation policy because they could see how engaged people got right after the president called out the Proud Boys directly.

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As reporters covering this beat, we have told people time and time again that there is a direct line between Trump’s rhetoric and the political violence happening out in the street.

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Trump says something and points at someone, and that person or that thing gets attacked. This has been happening over and over. I’m old enough to remember when Trump called a number of top Democrats and reporters the enemy of the people, and then bombs started showing up at their houses. And this moment at the House committee hearing showed that the platforms which were boosting Trump’s speech knew that, and they were amplifying it.

The connections the Proud Boys forged with Trump World ran deep. That was obvious when the Jan. 6 select committee shared a video of Trump adviser Roger Stone reciting the Proud Boys’ “fraternal creed”—saying “I’m a Western Chauvinist. And I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”

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In the months since Jan. 6, the connections between the Proud Boys and the GOP have only gotten stronger. It’s a little like the group has metastasized.

People are always surprised to learn this, but the Proud Boys are embraced and supported and very close to the full gamut of GOP elites next to Trump. After Jan. 6, Ann Coulter writes blog titled “Thank God for the Proud Boys” and reveals that she’s been using them as her security for events for years. Roger Stone used them as his security for four years. And by the time Jan. 6 rolls around, he was in a mass text with the leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, Enrique Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes.

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Was the level of organization before Jan. 6 a surprise to you?

When it happened, we saw that things were going to be bad because we saw these guys getting crazy about Jan. 6 prior to it happening. We saw them gathering their resources. And we were concerned because this is what the Proud Boys do. And if they do one thing well, it’s coalition build. They’re able to bring all sorts of extremist factions together under one banner, so that’s very concerning. But even I didn’t think that they were capable of being the full architects and the planners of a storming of the Capitol by thousands of people.

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They were creating maps of the Capitol and pinpointing locations of police in anticipation of Jan. 6, right?

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Right, and a year after Jan. 6, we learned through evidence that that Enrique had a plan in his hands to storm various buildings on Jan. 6. And that was absolutely wild to me. The Proud Boys have begun to show themselves as not a bumbling, drunken fraternity, but an actual terrorist group. Their leadership has been jailed time and time again over the years for various assault crimes. And every time, their chapters continue to work as normal. They were built to have some sense of autonomy.

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It sounds like cells.

Absolutely. And these cells are very easy to put together and very easy to deny their existence because all it takes to join one of them is to join their Telegram group and or Facebook group.

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Can you explain a little bit the ways that the Proud Boys have begun making themselves essential to the mainstream GOP? I’ve read a little bit about what the Proud Boys are doing in Florida, in particular, which I find interesting because it’s not traditional running for office. Instead, it’s pulling the levers of power from inside the local Republican Party. Can you explain? 

Miami is one of the seats of power for the Proud Boys in general, because it’s where Enrique Tarrio is from and it’s where he met, at a party, Roger Stone. So Miami was a natural place for the Proud Boys to insert themselves into real politics. And so they have a number of people who have taken seats at the Republican Party of Miami–Dade County.

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They’re in the executive committee right? 

Yes, yes.

So they get to make the party platform.

And they already have. Republicans on that committee were questioned about it, and they say, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of characters here. This is an American thing where you have a big difference of different voices.”

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We have a big tent.

Right, big tent. And that speaks to how the Republican Party today, they are big tent. And it’s the reason why at what should be regular conservative political events like MAGA rallies, you’ll see a neo-Nazi standing by a woman who could be your aunt, and they’re protesting together.

You said this interesting thing, which is that no matter what happens now. The Proud Boys have a legacy at this moment because they’ve created a playbook. I wonder if you see evidence of that out there—of other people looking to them and saying, “Oh, they did something interesting here.” 

Absolutely. You have members of other extremist groups using the Proud Boys playbook by showing up to different civic events, committing violence, and then declaring that they are doing this under the auspices of constitutionally protected demonstration.

And we know that this works because a lot of people forget that the organizer of Unite the Right, Jason Kessler, is a member of the Proud Boys. But you don’t often think of the Proud Boys when you think of Unite the Right, despite many members being there, and that’s because they were able to lower their involvement after the fact and present themselves to the GOP, not as Nazis, but as a political force.

The Proud Boys playbook shows how you can go from bumbling street gang to a legitimate political force by gaining these relationships within politics and in by positioning your yourself as something other than an extremist gang.

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