Why the Proud Boys’ Violence Is ‘the New Normal’ for the GOP

·23 min read
proud-boys-book - Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post/Getty Images
proud-boys-book - Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post/Getty Images

It almost seemed like they came out of nowhere: burly, bearded white men in their forties in tactical vests, streaming in and out of the Capitol shouting expletives and violent threats targeted at government officials. In the first few days after the terrifying events of Jan. 6, 2021, many Americans watched the footage from the attempted insurrection with horror, wondering how it could possibly have happened or who could have orchestrated the attacks on the Capitol. Those in the anti-fascist community, however, as well as journalists on the ground covering the events leading up to Jan. 6, had a pretty good idea: it was the Proud Boys.

Named ironically after a cut song from the Aladdin musical, the Proud Boys was founded by Gavin McInnes in 2016, ostensibly as a sort of hipster antidote to what he viewed as the rising feminization and political correctness of Western culture. With its weird, idiosyncratic rules and initiation rites, such as getting punched while naming breakfast cereals or abstaining from masturbation, it was widely covered as a sort of all-male “drinking club.” This designation largely allowed it to escape notice among members of the media and law enforcement for what it was: an increasingly dangerous extremist organization intent on sowing violence and right-wing dominance throughout the United States.

More from Rolling Stone

Despite numerous high-profile violent incidents and arrests across the country — at protests in Portland, Oregon, for instance, or at a 2018 Metropolitan Club event where McInes was a speaker that culminated in his ostensible resignation from the group — the Proud Boys were for the most part not considered a major threat by law enforcement or the public at large. One person who did view them as a threat, however, as Huffington Post senior editor Andy Campbell, who had been covering them since 2017 when he first spotted them at Trump rallies: “That turned out to be a good bet, because of course now they are orbiting every act of political violence in America today.”

With group leaders like Enrique Tarrio indicted in federal court for conspiracy related to the Capitol breach, as well as Mcinnes sparking his own arrest rumors after disappearing from a live stream at his home a few weeks ago, many view the future of the Proud Boys as up in the air. But not Campbell, who says the media has paid the price for underestimating the Proud Boys before. Within their relatively short lifespan, the group has had an irrevocable effect on American politics: “Even if they changed their name tomorrow, or they dissolved, you still have this temperature that’s so high within political activism,” he says, discussing the upcoming release of his book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism. “We are already seeing the effects of the justification and normalization of political violence play out in the streets, and the Proud Boys’ playbook is such a huge part of that.”

What got you interested in reporting on the Proud Boys in the first place?

Basically I was the field guy for HuffPost’s crime reporting, and that put me at mass shootings a lot and also at the center of any political violence. And we were covering increasing acts of violence at Trump rallies leading up to Trump’s inauguration and the Proud Boys stood out immediately as a more concerning group than the others. Unlike some of the weird and vitriolic extremist groups that started showing up at Trump rallies who hid their identities and didn’t want to talk to the press, the Proud Boys were proud of who they were. They wanted to intimidate, they wanted to create chaos, and attack Trump’s opponents. And they wanted you to know them as individuals for doing that. They talked to the press, they gave their names, they lionized one another for acts of political violence. And so we saw them immediately as a super concerning group and started covering them right from the beginning.

They promoted themselves as a drinking club, which is actually still the line that they are giving to journalists to this day. You make the case that the media was duped by this classification. Do you think this was ever true, or that people were ever drawn to it for this reason? Or was it always just extremist at its core?

Well, the rhetoric behind the Proud Boys has always been extremist at its core. The promise that Gavin McGinness gave to his audience on his online podcast was, “Join me in this misogynist, anti-immigrant bigoted procession, and I will make sure that you are able to put violence to your anger.” So while Gavin McGinness brought his audience to bars and had these ritualistic affairs that he likens to the Knight of Columbus and other fraternal organizations, the end goal was always to get out there and add their fists to whatever Gavin McInnes’s grievance was, or the GOP’s grievance was. Certainly the argument that they’re just a group of drinking buddies who get out of line from time to time has worked because not only did it bamboozle the media, it bamboozled law enforcement agencies. The quote that I always come back to is, an outgoing [Department of Homeland Security] official told the Times following January 6th, “We thought that they were just a group of drinking buddies who got a little punchy from time to time.” That shows just how long, despite their orbit around all of these acts of political violence over the years, it shows just how well they were able to position that violence as political speech, or a drinking club. That continues to this day. Some media and law enforcement have no idea what to do with these guys.

The Proud Boys have sort of moved away from the punk downtown NYC culture aesthetic, but how much did they use that at the beginning to sort of hide in plain sight?

Gavin McInnes created these guys in his own image and his own image is a false one, which is that he is this strong, testosterone-fueled everyman who rejects feminism and the so-called feminization of men. You’ve got the Fred Perry polos that were brought over from the UK and the football hooliganism over there where it’s sort of this brushed-up look of extremism. That image that he originally created was super strict. He wanted them to look good for the cameras and he wanted them to look good when they were fighting. But that image has sort of morphed over the years because you have so many people in the Proud Boys and so many different ideologies gathering under this anti-immigrant bigoted banner. It’s not just slicked back Fred Perrys: you have people in camo and Gators and, and Proud Boys Nazis. Meanwhile, Fred Perry has removed all sales of the black-and-yellow polos from North America in response to the Proud Boys to try and get them to stop, and they’re creating their own merchandise and selling it to each other. So it definitely looks like the next iteration of the Proud Boys is a bastardized version of the original, but they attempt to keep the flavors of the original in their imagery and the way that they look, a lot of them now are just sort of these beer-belly dads hanging out outside Drag Queen Story Hours, which doesn’t always look the way I think Gavin originally wanted them to look.

You spend a lot of time tracing Gavin’s role in the group in his early work, spreading transphobia, Islamophobia, and racism in mainstream publications like Vice and Thought Catalog. Did you talk to a lot of his media friends from that period? How much do you think publications like Vice or Thought Catalog bear responsibility for his influence?

It’s interesting — Vice, I would argue is, is doing some of the better work at countering the Proud Boys, probably because their co-founder is the leader of the Proud Boys. Vice certainly wants to position itself as far away as possible from what Gavin helped built, which was this awful, misogynist rag. They want to distance themselves from that as a newsroom. They aren’t always successful or perfect at implementing that distance. Vice only got rid of Gavin McInnes’s works, which is basically a guide to date rape, when I called them for the book. They also told me that there is no connection between Gavin McInnes and the newsroom. And I had been wondering for a long time, whether there was some sort of NDA or some sort of agreement that they had with Gavin that allowed him to keep his works up there because it was so clearly against their new terms as a newsroom.

But do you think that Vice gave him a front, or allowed to grow him his influence more than he otherwise would have?

Certainly. The early digital media landscape did a lot to help all kinds of extremist leaders and talking heads, air to breathe and to grow. The fact that Gavin was able to publish the date rape primer in the pages of Vice shows, what the media landscape was in the early aughts and going into 2013, 2014, where there was this horrible misogynist rhetoric that was seen as hip at the time. And Gavin was friends with all sorts of comedians and, and other big names in that space. I think what happened is, is between 2008 and 2014 or so, the public opinion decided, “Hey, maybe this violent misogynist isn’t good for us. And we should start pushing away from that,” [while] others like Gavin McGinnis doubled down, created a victim storyline for themselves, and said, “This is what I’m going to base my identity off of going forward.”

Did you talk to or reach out to people like David Cross or Sarah Silverman, some of the mainstream comedians who were associated with Gavin in the early years?

Yes. Nobody that I spoke to wanted to lend their names to it. I won’t get into specifics, but certain people in Gavin’s early life didn’t want to lend their name to somebody who’s been so hurtful. And I understood that. But you know, there are people from Gavin’s early life who don’t want to have to answer for what he’s done. And I think that they’ve kind of silently removed themselves from the situation.

Do you think they should have?

That’s a good question. I think that that community has an overarching responsibility to help people understand what happened and why, and help people understand that they’ve moved on from that. Do any individuals have any responsibility for Gavin McInnes other than himself? I don’t know that I can say that, but I do believe that there is a gap of understanding that people have moved on and that they’ve distanced themselves from that early time. We’re still hungover from that violent misogyny, and a lot of those people are profiting off of it. You look at somebody like Joe Rogan, who is standing right on that line between total fucking extremist and, “I’ve moved on, I’ve grown up.” He is constantly giving new platforms to extremist leaders and other bigots, and then throwing his hands up at the end and saying, “I’m not responsible for what they say on my show,” which is of course totally untrue.

Can you explain what the fuck is going on with Gavin now? Was he arrested or not?

I don’t wanna say that I have any sort of insider knowledge on exactly what happened there because I was in France for two weeks, but it wouldn’t be surprising to me to learn that that [his arrest on livestream] was totally faked. Certainly Gavin still advises the Proud Boys as we’ve seen: on his show, he’s worn Proud Boys colors, tried to assist in propaganda for the January 6th defendants. So he’s certainly still involved and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just trying to get extra eyes on his product, using the attention given to Trump’s FBI raid. Certainly, these guys’ bread and butter is to create victimization and silencing narratives for themselves. So I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he faked it. Some people are contending that he is just taking a vacation right now, and none of that would be a surprise to me.

On the other side, I am quite surprised that that guy hasn’t been arrested yet. The data that that guy has on his phone would be totally useful to the Justice Department in its investigation of January 6th. I have absolutely no doubt that he was in contact with Proud Boys around that time. Certainly when I spoke to Roger Stone, he says that he’s in ongoing conversations with Gavin McInnes. And so the machine that Gavin McInnes created and then pretended to leave after the 2018 attack on the GOP Metropolitan Club is still there.

Why do you think he hasn’t been arrested yet?

You know, that’s a really good question. The law enforcement as it pertains to the Proud Boys has been totally ineffective at both identifying the threat and then responding to it over the years. It was activists, not law enforcement who put together the dossiers on hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants and helped law enforcement find them. It was activists, not law enforcement who put together a case against the architects of Unite the Right. Consistently we’re seeing that it is activists, not law enforcement, doing all of the leg work here, and given the DHS quote [above] I don’t have any evidence that they are on the front lines of the response to the Proud Boys. The fact that they haven’t gotten Gavin yet isn’t super surprising to me, but it’s totally baffling.

Why do you think guys like Enrique Tarrio and Gavin McInnes, who are incredibly combative with the press, are willing to talk to reporters in the first place?

Well, part of it is ego. I mean, for so long they have lied and used lies to sanitize their image and positioned their violence as protected speech that they have fully convinced themselves that what they are doing is right. Certainly they see themselves as foot soldiers for the GOP grievance machine. So they believe that they had and do have the support of GOP officials. They have the support of law enforcement. They have law enforcement within their ranks. They have support from Fox News and a slew of right-wing media. They are trying to position themselves, and position what they do as, as something that should be accepted and legal and celebrated by the right wing. And they’ve had a lot of success with that. So I think the reason why they’re willing to talk to us is because we are their only potential for pushing their rhetoric to the masses. Now, they constantly shoot themselves in the foot. I mean, the messages that the DOJ got surrounding their movements before January 6th show that they were just totally free wheeling with their information and they appeared to have no idea, despite multiple instances of this, that the FBI and other law enforcement were sitting there watching their chats, and certainly us reporters have been watching their chats for years. But I think that even sitting in jail right now, Enrique Tarrio believes that he’s untouchable.

You did interviews with people like Tarrio and Jason Lee Van Dyke [who was kicked out of the Proud Boys in 2018 and later revealed to have attempted to join the neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen], but as far as I can tell you, you don’t directly quote them. Why is that?

There’s some direct quotes. I wouldn’t say that’s gone completely, but these guys are liars as a rule. One of the quotes that I got from Tarrio that’s not in the book is that after January 6th, they decided, “Hey, we’re going to lay a bit lower. We’re going to stop talking to the media.” Tarrio told me if media keeps asking who’s the new leader, who’s leading the organization, [he’s] just gonna lie. The concept that any extremist groups use lies to obfuscate themselves and sanitize themselves — early on in my reporting on the Proud Boys, I stopped quoting them directly because when you take them at their word, you are promoting lies. It’s just that simple.

It’s a conversation that comes up whenever we talk about reporting on extremism — how do you strike this balance between talking to these people, getting their insights, doing your reporting, getting your story and not directly platforming them?

[You have to put] their words in context. When you say, “Okay, this is how Enrique Tarrio characterizes an event,” and then putting at the end of that sentence, “by the way, he is a liar and is a proven liar and continues to lie and lies under oath,” that is seen by a lot of national media as an inherent bias that goes against the rules of the classic newsroom. We in the digital media space have tried to push past that by showing, “Look, we can’t give context that readers need, without showing that these guys are inherently bad.”

You make the case that Tarrio was kind of key to the success of the Proud Boys. What do you see as his status now?

Enrique took what Gavin McInnes built and iterated on it by saying, “We need to get into local politics. We need to try to take small seats, whether they’re school board seats, or congressional seats, and we need to give our support to candidates who agree with our rhetoric and our violent positions.” Enrique’s success is is that he created a model for the Proud Boys where they don’t need national leadership. In fact, the only thing that national leadership has ever done for the rest of the gang is to sort of rein them in when the optics look bad. Now that Enrique’s in jail and a number of leaders are in jail, the machine that they’ve created is still working as planned. The local chapters are showing up at Drag Queen Story Hours and abortion rallies, and basically anywhere where the concept of transness is being discussed, and they are throwing their support behind candidates. They are trying to do exactly what Enrique wanted them to do, which is to create justification for themselves by creating a political base that is pro-Proud Boy.

Do you see a direct line between Trump shouting the Proud Boys out in a presidential debate and the events of January 6th? Do you think they would’ve been as emboldened if not for that?

Certainly as soon as Trump said, “stand back, stand by,” there were Proud Boys all over the country who believed that they had been giving marching orders, whether or not Trump meant it, whether or not you think Trump can even put together a freaking thought correctly. Enrique claims, and I’m not sure if this is true, that he got more recruiting calls after that than he ever had before, that their merchandise was flying off of the shelves. And meanwhile, the, Proud Boys’ leadership was literally calling for civil war. They were gearing up for it, and saw January 6th as their last stand. So certainly they were more ramped up than they would’ve been, absolutely. I mean, I am constantly surprised even to this day at just how embedded they were in the planning of Jan. 6th. As I was turning in the final draft of my book, the 1776 Returns document comes out. And all of a sudden we realized that not only did they have an outsized role in the execution of January 6th, but they may have had an outsized role in the planning of it too.

What role did the events of January 6th have on the organization or the strength of the group as a whole? And what more can we expect to hear about the Proud Boys from the hearings?

The planning of January 6th just shows how easy it is for boneheaded thugs to put together an insurrection. This is what happened at Unite the Right. It’s what’s happened at so many Proud Boys rallies over the years: you have a social media apparatus backed by a slew of right wing YouTubers and other loud mouths who will push this rhetoric forward. And you don’t really have to do much, but say, “Hey, let’s all show up here at this time and give our last stand for our president,” and people show up. It’s freaking crazy. Now that they’re leadership is in jail, we assumed that this may be another end of the Proud Boys. After a bunch of their leaders went to jail in 2018, I wrote a headline: “The Proud Boys are imploding.” They’ve shown their resiliency in the face of that, because they’re working on a local level now. And so now, untethered by Gavin McInnes’ and Enrique Tarrio’s rhetoric, they are responding to Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric, Trump’s rhetoric on Truth Social, as marching orders. In June, following the overturn of Roe, they showed up at a Drag Queen story hour in Nevada, and one of the Proud Boys brought a gun and sent children screaming and fleeing in all directions. In the days leading up to that, you had Fox News doing a dozen stories and hits on Drag Queen story hours and how terrible they are for our children. These events have been going on for decades, with no harassment from our far-right street gangs, but because they were given marching orders, they believe that whatever the GOP is grieving about, we’re going to go out there and be the pointed end of that grievance machine.

Before, the Proud Boys and other extremists would show up to MAGA rallies and to BLM rallies and commit violence. But now it seems that any facet of civic American life can be targeted so long as the GOP is pissed about it that day. With the Boston Children’s Hospital thing [a string of violent threats against the Boston Children’s Hospital thanks to transphobic rhetoric from accounts like Libs of TikTok], you have a gamut of people who believe that they are foot soldiers showing up to every civic event and bringing a violent air to it. I’m really worried going into this election and next that that’s the new normal.

You end this book by saying the Proud Boys’ future looks as bright as ever. Why do you think that?

It’s the local chapters, but it’s also the playbook that they’ve created endures. The idea of bringing political violence as a justified response to the things I personally am mad at, is part of the Proud Boys’ playbook. Even if they changed their name tomorrow, or they dissolved, you still have this temperature that’s so high within political activism that you’re going to have far-right extremists take their place in the field for you. We are already seeing the effects of the justification and normalization of political violence play out in the streets, and the Proud Boys’ playbook is such a huge part of that.

You write a little bit about Proud Boys groupies. Women are not allowed to be direct members, but what role do you think women have in enabling this violent misogynistic organization?

Women in this story are so interesting. There’s so much more reporting to be done on the women involved in this entire environment. One of the things that I learned in talking with anti-fascists and everyday researchers and activists is women are disproportionately involved. It is amazing to see just how many women have taken it upon themselves with no promise of kudos or anything, to sort of fight back against this extremist threat in their communities. But on the other side, I think that the women involved in the Proud Boys movement and the women who were hangers-on, they really felt like being attached to a Proud Boy was to be attached to this new era of patriotism and strength on the right. So I think that their involvement really highlights what the swath of everyday Americans who support the Proud Boys, how they feel about them and why. All the money that the Proud Boys raise after their arrests and their events, a lot of that money comes from regular people, not big donors. So there is a section of the American public who view what they’re doing as patriotic. And I think that the women tying themselves to this movement are a sort of microcosm of the wider picture there.

You just got married to somebody [Vice reporter Tess Owen] who also covers extremism. How often do you guys talk about this at home, and how do you draw these boundaries to protect yourselves in your personal lives?

Mentally, we take great, um, strides to turn it off, in terms of removing ourselves from this world when we’re off work. If it’s at the end of the day or on the weekends, we make sure to ask each other, “Hey, I want to talk about this work thing. Are you in a space right now where you want to talk about it?” Often the answer is no, but they [the Proud Boys] they certainly know about us. Gavin put two and two together while I was writing the book because me and Tess were, for a time, the only ones reaching out to Gavin. And so he started sending emails, like, “Hey, Tess, when is Andy gonna have the balls to put a ring on it?” I don’t think he even knew that I had already put a ring on it. I think that he was acknowledging that he knew that we knew each other. More recently, he sent an email congratulating us on our wedding. And of course that is inherently just a veiled threat that says to me, “I know who your wife is.” Over the years, it’s been super telling — it’s not me, a white guy, who gets the majority of the threats. When there is a woman or a person of color involved, somebody who they think that they can intimidate, that’s who they latch on too. So me and Tess have taken steps for our security. I think that them doing anything to a reporter would be seen as a really bad optics game, so I’m not super concerned for myself, [and] both of us have been ingrained in this world for so long. We both have conversations about how in God’s name, do we branch our careers out to not have to be involved in this world for a while? Maybe we’ll cover puppies, but it’s definitely a conversation we’re having.

Best of Rolling Stone

Click here to read the full article.