The Proud Boys Are Standing By
Dr. Julia R. DeCook is an Assistant Professor of Advocacy and Social Change in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago.
During the first U.S. presidential debate that took place on September 29, President Trump was asked to disavow white supremacists and instead told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” News coverage and social media conversations exploded in response to this, and multiple outlets scrambled to not only interview experts about the Proud Boys organization, but went a step further and interviewed Proud Boys members themselves. The response to Trump’s comments, particularly with media organizations making the fatal mistake of interviewing actual members, highlights the ways that the belief of “sunlight” being the best disinfectant can often result in inadvertently amplifying the message and ideology of white supremacists and other extremists.
Here is Trump refusing to condemn white supremacy, the greatest domestic terror threat facing America according to the FBI.
Instead, he told the white supremacist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Proud Boys are celebrating this.#Debates2020pic.twitter.com/sYuPLjniLE
— Rantt Media (@RanttMedia) September 30, 2020
But what are the Proud Boys, and what drives their ideology? Proud Boys, and groups like them, are a persistent presence in many major U.S. cities, with chapters existing in other countries around the world. Proclaiming themselves to be “western chauvinists” who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” they market themselves as a sort of fraternity-esque drinking club (men only, no women allowed). However, their actions indicate that all of this is merely a façade to make the organization more palatable to outsiders: members of various Proud Boys chapters across the U.S. but particularly in the West Coast regularly engage in street brawls and violent attacks.
The organization has a fraught and often confusing public image – founded by former VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes (who, we should note is Canadian), McInnes stepped back from the organization following the fallout and public backlash after the violent Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally where a counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was brutally murdered by a white supremacist. Vehemently denying that the organization was alt-right, McInnes and other Proud Boys members attempted to re-brand and control their public image. In 2018, after the FBI classified the Proud Boys as having “ties to white nationalism,” McInnes publicly left the group.
The classification occurred after an appearance in October 2018 by McInnes in New York City, which seemingly compelled a number of Proud Boys members to engage in street brawls with counter-protestors at the event. At the beginning of his appearance, McInnes re-enacted the violent assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, the head of the Japanese socialist party, by Otoya Yamaguchi, a Japanese ultranationalist. Playing the part of Otoya Yamaguchi, McInnes engaged in this theatrical display as a message that the “only good leftist is a dead one.”
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In fact, the reason for the constant presence of Proud Boys at protests can be linked to not only the organization’s ethos of violence, but also that one of their “levels” can only be attained by engaging in a street brawl with “Antifa.” They view themselves not just as keepers of white supremacy, but its frontline foot soldiers, and a faction of the Proud Boys called the “Fraternal Order of the Alt Knights (FOAK)” supports this claim further.
Trump’s ordering of the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” (which he later walked back on Fox News claiming he didn’t know who the Proud Boys were), further emboldens the organization and others like them to continue with their violent attacks. Proud Boys celebrated Trump’s comments as an endorsement of their actions and tactics in “fighting” against what they view as threats to not just the U.S., but to “Western civilization” and white American identity.
In my own work on the Proud Boys, I noted how much of Proud Boys recruitment and mobilization strategies centers around this need to preserve whiteness, their view of “American” culture, and to stamp out who they have named as the enemy – “Antifa,” leftists, and in effect, all progressives. Fueled by conspiracy theories and paranoia about the suppression of men, the threat of socialism, and the potential extinction of the white race, Proud Boys and other far right groups not only have a different set of beliefs, but rather completely different ontologies for making sense of the world.
In addition to how conspiracy theories fuel their recruitment and organizing, what should be included in coverage of this current coverage of the Proud Boys is the increasing number of discoveries that members of law enforcement are members of the organization. Of course, white supremacists have long infiltrated law enforcement and other sectors of public life, but the comments of “stand back and stand by” take on a whole new meaning when textured with the realization that Trump was not only speaking to the Proud Boys, but amplifying his administration’s own actions and to embolden those who are in positions of power to make a far right white ethnostate a reality: stamp out all political dissent; attempting to classify “Antifa” as a terrorist organization; and fan the flames of white moral panic with disinformation about socialism, “leftists,” and “Antifa” members causing destruction in their towns and communities.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
McInnes may have left the organization and been banned from all major social media platforms, but Proud Boys and organizations like them still have a strong social media presence that allows for the continual spread of far-right extremism. Facebook repeatedly failed to control the growing number of far-right militia pages, particularly among the “Boogaloo” circuit, resulting in two protestors being killed in Kenosha by a budding white supremacist. Far right militas, Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, neo-Nazi accelerationists, and others like them are determined and more than willing to use violence in order to advance their goals and to bring about (a street-level) civil war.
Trump’s messaging to them, to “stand back and stand by,” will more than likely lead to a violent election day with attempts by members of these far-right groups to intimidate voters, shut down polling stations, and prevent any outcome not favorable to Trump – whom they see as not only their dear political leader, but a sort of messiah, an emblem of masculinity, and their savior from the growing dread of “socialism.”
These concerns are not unwarranted or blown out of proportion: the FBI and Department of Justice are preparing for the possibility of a violent Election Day in 2020. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University also released an online resource containing fact sheets for all 50 U.S. states explaining laws about private militias and what to do if armed individuals are seen at polling places or voter registration drives. With groups like QAnon, emboldened white supremacists, and Trump’s explicit endorsement of them with his statement during the debate and his continued refusal to disavow them, he has not only emboldened them, but laid the groundwork to justify a mass uprising in the event of a close election that results in his loss.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.