During Tuesday night’s debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump was asked by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News whether he would be “willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and say they need to stand down and not to add to the violence” taking place in cities like Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Trump asked whom he should condemn; Biden suggested the Proud Boys, a far-right street fighting organization that has gained a following both online and in major cities across the country.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing [problem].”
On Wednesday, Trump said he meant the group should “stand down” and let law enforcement do their jobs, then denied knowing who they were at all. But, as Vox’s Fabiola Cineas detailed Tuesday night, the Proud Boys took this moment as a sign of Trump’s support for their group, even producing merchandise bearing the phrase “stand back and stand by”:
One Proud Boys leader, Joe Biggs, wrote on the social media platform Parler, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy,” according to the Daily Beast. Proud Boys national chair Enrique Tarrio, who organized the recent Portland event, wrote “I will stand down sir!!! Standing by sir. So Proud of my guys right now.”
The Proud Boys have already put this "standing by" t-shirt up for sale on their official merch website pic.twitter.com/dAN4EtuBJH— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) September 30, 2020
So who are the Proud Boys? Created by Gavin McInnes, a “provocateur” and one of the original co-founders of Vice Media, who has described himself as “an old punk from Canada” and turned right in 2008 (the same year he left Vice over “creative differences”), the Proud Boys are a strange amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group — one that loves Donald Trump, hates Muslims (and Jews and trans people), but permits nonwhite membership. They’ve provided “security” for former Trump adviser Roger Stone, who allegedly joined the group.
The group has a magazine where members who win fights are celebrated with the slogan “They fucked around. They found out.” And in the age of concerns about “civility” and growing worries about political violence, the Proud Boys — and McInnes, who believes violence is “a really effective way to solve problems” — are more interested in fighting antifa.
As Jared Holt at Right Wing Watch told me back in 2018, “The Proud Boys have been the right wing’s enforcers in the streets against those who dissent against them.” And in 2020, not much has changed.
From Vice Media to “cuckmercials”
In 1994, McInnes, alongside Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi, launched Voice of Montreal, which later became Vice Media. McInnes was already the voice of a particular strain of right-wingerdom within the company, telling the New York Times, “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of.”
In what would become a standard McInnes move, he later attempted to couch his remarks as ironic humor in a letter to Gawker, telling the website that his words were a joke and adding, “It’s unfortunate that people in the know like Gawker are taking it all so seriously. I thought we were on the same page: baby boomer media like The Times is a laughingstock and we should do whatever we can to ridicule it.”
McInnes left Vice Media in 2008. He then moved to what he calls the “New Right,” which he seemed to define as a combination of “Western chauvinism” and social and political libertarianism or perhaps libertinism (for example, he has written extensively on how women want to be “downright abused” and that he had to stop “playing nice” and begin “totally defiling the women I slept with” to get more women to have sex with him).
His shift to the far right also included espousing anti-Muslim sentiments (“the Muslim world is filled with shoeless, toothless, inbred, hill-dwelling, rifle-toting, sodomy-prone men”) and an embrace of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments, including a video he made for the far-right Canadian outlet Rebel Media initially called “10 Things I Hate about Jews” (or as he would later tweet, “10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT THE GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING JEWS!”). He’s also argued that historically, perhaps Jews “were ostracized for a good reason.”
These videos, and some of his others, earned him a host of new fans, including David Duke. And though McInnes has attempted to push aside accusations of racism (which he argues doesn’t exist), he has written for both VDare and American Renaissance, the latter the publication of the “race-realist, white advocacy organization” New Century Foundation.
Much of McInnes’s work, and that of a large swath of what he would call the New Right, is focused on what he views as the “feminization” of culture and politics, from commercials or “cuckmercials” that show “emasculated men” (or too many interracial couples) to politics. In an interview last year with Metro, he said, “There is a real war on masculinity.”
And it’s that search for the renewal of a very specific kind of masculinity — and McInnes’s belief that Western culture is in trouble because of “social justice warriors” and the mainstream media “belittling” white men — that resulted in the Proud Boys.
“Proud of Your Boy”
The Proud Boys were officially launched in September 2016, on the website of Taki’s Magazine, a far-right publication for which white nationalist Richard Spencer once served as executive editor.
It started out as a joke, using the song “Proud of Your Boy” from Disney’s Aladdin musical as the basis for the name of the group and the hashtag #POYB, which appears alongside Proud Boys content on Twitter. Women are not permitted to be Proud Boys, as McInnes explained:
The basic tenet of the group is that they are “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” Like Archie Bunker, they long for the days when “girls were girls and men were men.” This wasn’t controversial even twenty years ago, but being proud of Western culture today is like being a crippled, black, lesbian communist in 1953.
According to the Proud Boys, “We do not discriminate based upon race or sexual orientation/preference. We are not an ‘ism,’ ‘ist,’ or ‘phobic’ that fits the Left’s narrative.”
However, McInnes himself decided he no longer supported marriage equality because he believed it’s part of a secret plan to destroy Christianity, and Facebook pages for Proud Boy chapters in Florida feature Holocaust denial (like a meme implying the number of those who died during the Holocaust was simply invented) and virulently racist rhetoric.
There are four levels of Proud Boy membership. First is to declare yourself to be a Proud Boy (“This means you make your Western chauvinism public and you don’t care who knows it.”) The second level is the swearing-off of masturbation (known online as “nofap” or #NoWanks) combined with a “cereal beat-in” — if you want into the group, you have to get beaten up while successfully reciting the names of five breakfast cereals, because “defending the West against the people who want to shut it down is like remembering cereals as you’re being bombarded with ten fists.”
(As the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer wrote in February 2017, the Proud Boys’ rules are a “mindbender.” But this is real.) The third level is to get a specific Proud Boys tattoo.
But it’s the fourth and newest level that gets the most attention: get into a physical altercation for the “cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa,” McInnes explained in 2017. He added, “People say if someone’s fighting, go get a teacher. No, if someone’s f---ing up your sister, put them in the hospital.”
It’s that violence that the Proud Boys have become best known for, with the group even boasting of a “tactical defensive arm” known as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (or “FOAK”) reportedly with McInnes’s backing. McInnes made a video praising the use of violence this June, saying, “What’s the matter with fighting? Fighting solves everything. The war on fighting is the same as the war on masculinity.”
In parades and rallies across the country, from Berkeley, California, to New York City, members of the Proud Boys have fought with counterprotesters, antifa, and anyone who gets in their way. Jared Holt, of Right Wing Watch, told me that the group “acts as a violent pack of enforcers for the far right.”
And at events for conservative commentator Ann Coulter and right-leaning speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, members of the Proud Boys have even attempted to act as “security,” but those efforts have descended into chaotic violence (although they spun it as a victory):
For his part, McInnes believes the violence of the Proud Boys (in his view, a response to left-leaning violence) is a logical response to how the “left” has responded to right-wing speaking events, writing in June 2017:
The right isn’t violent. The left is. By allowing these sociopaths to shut down free speech with violence you are all but demanding a war. Okay, fine, you got it. It’s official. This is a war.
But McInnes left the Proud Boys in 2018 after the group was involved in a violent clash with anarchists on the streets of Manhattan, following an event in which McInnes portrayed Otoya Yamaguchi, a young far-right extremist who assassinated the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party. McInnes even had a fake katana (a type of Japanese sword), which he was filmed swinging at counterprotesters. Ten members of the group were eventually charged following the violent melee, with two ultimately sentenced to serve four-year terms in prison in October 2019.
In a since-deleted video, McInnes said, “I am officially disassociating myself from the Proud Boys. In all capacities, forever, I quit,” adding, “I’m told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” referring to the Proud Boys who were facing legal problems.
The group also faced allegations that the FBI had classified the organization as “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism,” but in a statement to me made on background by a law enforcement official, I was told that “the FBI doesn’t designate groups.”
The Proud Boys’ embrace of violence — and Trump
While McInnes no longer technically leads the group, his inspiration remains visible, particularly in the violence embraced by the organization. At rallies in Portland and Seattle, the group — alongside right-wing militia organizations like Patriot Prayer — have taken part in events that have frequently turned violent.
Like Patriot Prayer, another multiracial far-right group that has embraced street fighting as a political tactic, the Proud Boys often rely on the actions of their opposition to draw attention to themselves and their cause. In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting in November 2019, Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the Proud Boys hold events purely to attract counterprotesters, with the understanding that provoking any counterprotesters can feed a “victimization narrative.” “So when antifa throw stuff at them ... Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer are able to say, ‘See, they are trying to silence us and stop our freedom of speech,’” he said.
The group has also effectively parlayed its anti-liberalism into MAGA-centric politics, intersecting with right-leaning politicians like Rep. Matt Gaetz. And Trump’s mention of the group and the resulting media attention might provide the group with its largest narrative boost of all. Enrique Tarrio, who serves as chair of the Proud Boys, shared in a since-deleted tweet that he was “extremely PROUD” of Trump, and that “stand back and stand by” is what the Proud Boys have “ALWAYS” done.
Tarrio, who briefly ran for Congress against Rep. Donna Shalala earlier this year, attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (but allegedly left before the murder of Heather Heyer). He got involved with the Proud Boys after volunteering at an event for the far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017, and became a fourth-degree Proud Boy after punching a purported member of antifa in the face in June 2018.
He is also the Florida state director for a “Latinos for Trump” organization. In an email on Thursday, the Trump campaign told me that Tarrio and his “Latinos for Trump” group is not associated with the campaign or the family. The campaign also provided cease and desist orders sent to the group in 2019 demanding the group “immediately cease and desist all activities suggesting that it is affiliated, authorized, endorsed, and/or sponsored by the Campaign.”
Him telling the ProudBoys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done.— Enrique Tarrio (@enrique_tarrio) September 30, 2020
I’m am extremely PROUD of my Presidents performance tonight.
The point of the Proud Boys is reflective anti-leftism, in which “leftism” is defined as “whatever they don’t like.” While they purport to speak for free speech and Western values, their overarching goal is to use violence as a political solution, with “the left” as the amorphous enemy they purport to fight — by any means necessary.
Update, October 2: This piece was updated to clarify Rep. Matt Gaetz’s relationship with the Proud Boys.