Jurisprudence

The Proud Boys Have Only Become More Central to GOP Politics Since Jan. 6

A Proud Boys member lunging at a man prone in a car with a broken window behind them.
A member of the far-right group Proud Boys and a left-wing counter protester fight in a truck on August 22, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The January 6 Select Committee hearings have been framed as an effort aimed at accountability and posterity. But their findings are at least as important to the future. The Committee’s disclosures that Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson tried to hand-deliver a slate of fake electors to Vice President Pence, that Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs asked Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers to decertify their state’s electors the morning of January 6, and that some Republican Members of Congress sought pardons from then-President Trump for their roles are further signals that co-conspirators in the schemes to thwart the democratic choice for president remain in power. They are not the only ones maintaining and seeking power. Former President Donald Trump is eyeing a return in 2024. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers—militias the Committee has highlighted for their roles as ring leaders for the violence that day—did not see their strength ebb after January 6. On the contrary, violence, first used as a political tool and now partially mainstreamed, has spread.

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The events on January 6 are not past. They are prelude.

As a researcher on violence and democracy around the world, I have studied party-linked militia groups for years. In countries like Iraq, Nigeria, Lebanon, and Colombia, politicians outsource violence to specialists in the trade, just as they hire consultants for robocalls and direct mail. In the past, googling these terms brought up countries just escaping from conflict or descending into it. Now, the United States, where militias have been embraced by GOP leaders at the national, state, and local level (as I discuss in detail below), appears among the early search results.

Trump’s flirtation with militia groups began well before the events recounted on January 6. The Oath Keepers assembled to “protect” the polls after then-candidate Trump’s claims of potential fraud – in 2016. Multiple militia groups mobilized in response to Trump’s statements surrounding his inauguration and in response to his calls for more border security. The Oath Keepers provided security to Trump campaign rallies and events in Texas, Minnesota, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere at regular intervals between 2016 and 2020. After Brad Raffensperger, the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia refused to “find 11,780 votes,” he faced death threats that increased after Trump declared him an “enemy of the people.” The family went into hiding following multiple threats, including the appearance of out-of-state Oath Keepers at their home. Speaker Bowers testified that at least one of the crowd members protesting viciously at his home while his daughter lay inside, dying, wore Three Percenter insignia. On Jan. 5, photographs showed Oath Keepers wearing “All access” passes on lanyards as they escorted Roger Stone to a speech he gave by the Supreme Court. And on January 6, militias not only breached the Capitol; Stone appeared to use Oath Keeper militia members as part of his personal security outfit that morning.

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The January 6 testimony to date has focused on Trump and the ways he has encouraged and instrumentalized militia members. But support for vigilante violence has spread to other parts of the Republican Party. In 2017, the Portland branch of the Republican Party voted to allow militia groups, including members of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, to act as security at their public events; a Colorado county GOP has also hired militia groups for security. In Michigan’s Grand Traverse County, local officials at a zoom-based public meeting were asked to denounce the Proud Boys after the insurrection—instead, the county commission’s vice chair stepped off-screen and returned with his rifle. In Texas, Allen West, then-Chair of the Republican Party, offered an oath to “swear in” militia members at a Stop the Steal rally in November 2020, posed with armed militia members just days after the January 6 riot, and appeared alongside other Republican state politicians at a rally with the leader of the Oath Keepers militia in March after the latter was under investigation for his involvement in the January 6 attack. This winter, a militia-backed recall election ousted the Shasta County, California Board of Supervisors; the new leaders owe their positions to militia support. In Arizona, Mark Finchem, a sitting member of the House, trumpets his membership in the Oath Keeper militia. The chairman of Wyoming’s GOP—engaged in a fierce battle against Liz Cheney, the January 6 Select Committee Vice Chair—is a member of the Oath Keepers.

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The Proud Boys are also infiltrating local Republican parties. In Miami-Dade county, a number of Proud Boys appear to have entered parts of the party hierarchy, bringing their violent intimidation with them. In Nevada, the director of the State’s Republican Party has been accused of recruiting Proud Boys to take part in party leadership votes and intimidate candidates running from the more traditional Republican wing of the party in Clark County (which contains Las Vegas and is by far the largest county in Nevada). The faction’s violent threats forced the Clark County Republicans to hire extra security, hold events in gun-free zones such as schools, and ultimately to cancel multiple meetings due to security fears. Proud Boys accosted Rep. Dan Crenshaw and his staff at the GOP’s convention in Texas this month, chanting a term for him popularized by Tucker Carlson.

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Far from reducing violence, the 2020 election and its aftermath heralded a step-change in the mainstream acceptance of violence as a political tool. The FBI arrested Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley this month after he egged on the January 6 crowd in Washington D.C. with cries of “Come on, let’s go. This is it! This is—this is war, baby”. Kelley met this winter with poll workers in Michigan alongside Michigan State Senate candidate Mike Detmer, who suggested in response to concerns about future election fraud: “be prepared to lock and load… If you ask what we can do, show up armed.” Senate candidate Eric Greitens, already facing domestic violence and sexual assault allegations from different women, now has a video showing the former Navy Seal armed and hunting “RINOS.” He encourages his supporters to do the same, given that there is “no bag or tag limit,” as he states, to killing other human beings.

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Violent groups that get involved in politics in other countries follow a common path that I detailed in my last book. At first, politicians recruit experts in violence and intimidation to use those tools as a campaign tactic. Later, those violent leaders run for office or take political roles directly, cutting out the political middleman. Usually, what they want is power and impunity, so that they can make money from more lucrative criminal activities, though sometimes they simply want power for its own sake. To understand where this can lead: 11 of India’s current national legislators face open cases for murder, 30 have attempted murder charges and 10 serving legislators have been convicted of such serious crimes—a doubling from ten years ago. Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, based in Miami, began amassing a criminal record at the age of twenty—but it’s unclear whether their entrance into Miami politics is at the behest of others or is the beginning of going into business for themselves. In Nevada, it appears more clear that the Proud Boys are still at the first stage, being recruited by unscrupulous political actors who are using their violence to amass more power for themselves.

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Why would a faction of Republicans still in power or running for office at the federal, state, and local level make common cause with violent criminals? Because violence and intimidation are already bolstering their power. Intimidation is being successfully used to silence opposition. Representative Gonzalez was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. After threats to his wife and young children, he decided not to run for reelection.

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When 13 House Republicans voted to support greater funding for highways, bridges, and other infrastructure, their colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene publicized their phone numbers. A number admitted to receiving threats afterward, suggesting that a new tactic for “whipping” future votes and compelling Members of Congress to vote against the wishes of their districts had been discovered. Indeed, Rep. Peter Meier (R-Mich.) wrote about a Republican colleague who voted against certifying the presidential election out of fear for his family’s safety. And Meijer also said some of his colleagues who voted to impeach Trump have since traveled with armed escorts “out of the fear for their safety,” altering their routines, and getting body armor, which he noted is a reimbursable purchase.

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Americans may feel that these incidents of political violence are “high politics” that they can avoid if they steer clear of the political arena. That feeling is widespread in countries I have studied where political violence grows to dangerous levels. It is always a false hope. In the United States, it is already far more dangerous to exercise freedom of speech than in the recent past. Driving cars into civilians used to be a tactic favored by overseas terrorists. It had been recorded just twice in the United States before James Alex Fields Jr. murdered Heather Heyer by driving into a crowd of counter-protestors at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Yet from George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 through September 30, 2021, at least 139 drivers drove their cars into protests across America, injuring 100—sometimes severely—and killing four. Threats against members of Congress have risen tenfold in the five years since Trump became president, white supremacist activity has risen twelvefold in the same period. For Blacks, Asians, women, and others, hate crimes have increased dramatically in the last five years—and mass shooters emboldened by political rhetoric have struck ordinary citizens going about their ordinary lives from El Paso to Buffalo.

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Homicide may seem disconnected from political violence—but in fact, a historical study of homicide from America’s founding discovered that it was tightly correlated with distrust in fellow Americans and in the government. The Pew Foundation has found that trust is at near-historic lows after years of conspiracy mongering. In 2020, murder had the highest one-year jump since 1905 and possibly in recorded U.S. history. Homicide rose all over the country, in cities and rural areas, but increased most sharply in red states. The United States is the only country in the world to have experienced a sharp rise in homicide during the coronavirus, and it rose in the U.S. while nearly every form of non-violent crime fell. Nor is it only adults. Children often enact what their parents only say, acting out the cultural zeitgeist. Between 2016 and 2017, before the mental health challenges caused by the coronavirus and response, physical attacks with a weapon in schools nearly doubled.

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International terrorism expert Arie Perliger has found that in Israel and Germany, domestic terrorists are emboldened when they believe that politicians encourage violence or that authorities will tolerate it from their side of the political spectrum. In the select committee hearings, we heard a Proud Boys leader say that then-President Trump’s comment to “Stand Back and Stand By” tripled their membership. Since the election, the Proud Boys have rallied around anti-critical race theory and covid-masking protests, using mainstream causes to boost their membership; they and other extremist groups became increasingly public at conservative rallies, taking part in nearly half of all armed demonstrations in 2021. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the Oath Keepers, has stated that he expected pardons for those arrested at the January 6 insurrection and money for their legal defense.

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Violence is overwhelmingly concentrated on the right. But once violence has been legitimated as a tool of politics, no one is safe. Violence begets violence—once its use mainstreams, moderates who espouse non-violence appear anemic and unable to offer protection to their side. The middle weakens, while violence eventually takes on a rhythm of reprisal far removed from the original causes.

The full accounting of January 6 is finally being unveiled to the public. But its reverberations continue. Globally, militias commit more political violence than any other group—including governments and insurgents. We might hope the committee’s hearings will be a cause for a national conversation as well as an internal conversation and soul-searching within the GOP. Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise—against all Americans.

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