Note: This article discusses violence and violent rhetoric. Reader discretion, etc.
It was only last Tuesday, which in the 2020 U.S. news world is about a millennia ago. On that day, President Donald Trump, during his debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, told a group called the “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by.”
The actual group, the Proud Boys, swiftly changed their logo to include Trump’s quote, celebrating the moment on their online forums. [News organizations widely criticized the statement as a refusal to condemn white supremacy and violent militias from a President who has, intentionally or not, courted such groups in the past.]
Even Merriam-Webster (yes, the dictionary) weighed in:
Because somebody’s got to stand up for the truth.
A contentious debate moment
The next day, Donald Trump claimed not to know who the Proud Boys are, but told them to “stand down and let law enforcement do their work.”
However, Trump has a previous connection to the proud boys: Roger Stone. Trump commuted Stone’s sentence for lying to Congress (see video below) on July 10th. Stone himself is an associate of the Proud Boys, particularly of Enrique Tarro, the group’s current leader.
Tarrio also heads Florida’s Latinos for Trump.
While Trump himself doesn’t have a direct connection, there is a chain of connections. If he didn’t know who the Proud Boys were before claiming so, well, that was impressively ignorant of him.
Who are the Proud Boys?
If you haven’t encountered or heard of the group in real life, and you aren’t the right (wrong?) kind of Extremely Online, you might have had no idea who the Proud Boys were before Tuesday. In the wake of Trump’s comments, however, the group gained a lot of public attention.
So, who are the Proud Boys? According to the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, they’re a “radicalization vector.” That is, members of the group are likely to get involved with more extremist groups. Therefore, the group can maintain a sort of plausible deniability. In fact, the Proud Boys sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for labeling them as a hate group.
The group was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, who (according to the International Centre) acknowledges himself as a xenophobe. He envisioned the group as a “pro-western fraternity” dedicated to celebrating western culture. Effectively just a drinking club.
However, they have established themselves as more of a fight club, showing up at political rallies and participating in fights (often escalating force) such as confrontations at the protests in Portland. In fact, one prominent member was arrested in Portland on September 30th.
In Summer 2017, amid controversy over the removal of Charlottesville, Virginia’s Confederate monuments, numerous far-right political groups organized a “Unite the Right” rally (here’s a YouTube video reviewing the event).
That is: neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan, et cetera. These protestors marched through the streets of Charlottesville with tiki torches. They shouted slogans such as “blood and soil,” “white lives matter,” “Jews will not replace us, and “you will not replace us.” This rally turned violent (predictably) and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed on August 12th.
McInnes and the Proud Boys were invited to the rally, but declined because, “if we do go, it will look like we’re fighting for Nazis we don’t like.” This is consistent with the Proud Boys’ MO: they seek to distance themselves from more overt “alt-right” groups while maintaining indirect associations with them.
While McInnes and the mainstream “Proud Boys” group didn’t appear at the rally in Charlottesville, their more violent offshoot (the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights) was present.
So although the Proud Boys maintain some plausible deniability by disavowing and distancing themselves from devoted white-nationalist, anti-semitic, and neo-fascist views, the fact is that they’re closely associated with other groups that proudly hold these more overtly violent views. This has led to the Proud Boys being labeled as part of the “alt-lite” by hate-watch groups.
Alt-right? Alt-lite? WTF do all these words mean?
Since 2016 the “alt-right” movement has gained increased public attention as an influential movement in the U.S. The term was coined in 2008 by Richard Spencer, and is effectively a repackaging of white supremacist and ultra-nationalist ideologies.
The movement is a loose association of groups, not an organized whole, and is therefore difficult to reliably define. What unites them is their racist, nationalist ideology and their online activity, including memes.
The alt-lite is, just like the Centre for Counter-Terrorism’s article described, more of a vector for radicalization into the alt-right. “Alt lite” groups, such as the Proud Boys, share a disdain for “feminists and immigrants” but shy away from more overt expressions of white supremacist ideas.
Alt-lite groups often keep their focus on “civic nationalism” rather than “racial nationalism.” The Proud Boys put their own focus on “western values,” avoiding any direct tie to the racial nationalism of, say, the KKK and neo-Nazis.
While individuals such as Jason Kessler, the Unite the Right rally’s organizer, have a past association with the Proud Boys, the group tries to keep its public image free of that association. Kessler was apparently kicked out of the Proud Boys when he became too extreme for them.
2020 makes everything worse
However, this doesn’t change the fact they’re more than happy to show up and exacerbate violent situations.
Summer 2020’s series of protests in American cities, originally sparked by the extrajudicial police killing of George Floyd in May, has resulted in clashes between Proud Boys and right-wing groups in their orbit, and left-wing groups loosely called “antifa” (anti-fascist). This moniker has come to include the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although politicians have condemned violence on both sides of this conflict, it’s very important to note that police have been far more permissive with groups such as the Proud Boys than with antifa and protestors against police brutality. Consider the use of federal troops in American cities earlier this year. Consider Trump’s insistence that U.S. political violence is primarily left-wing. (This is statistically untrue in recent history).
Consider the false equivalencies made by commentators, seeking to be evenhanded, between protests against police brutality (responded to with more police brutality, even in the absence of destructive tactics), and counter-protests (often protected by police groups).