The violent mob of Donald Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol building on Wednesday in a bid to stop Congress certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s election win included members of a number of far-right fringe groups, notably QAnon and the Proud Boys, according to local media reports.
The outgoing president was explictly invited to condemn both collectives during the election campaign and declined to so, apparently reluctant to risk even the votes of dangerous extremists.
The former is a cult-like group that believes a covert operative is working at the heart of government to root out Satanic paedophiles running the Democratic Party, a mutation of the earlier “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, and is a relatively recent phenomenon but the latter is somewhat more established.
Mr Trump’s refusal to condemn the Proud Boys during his chaotic first televised presidential debate with Mr Biden on 29 September at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, is likely to be remembered as one of the defining moments of his disastrous one-term presidency.
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, moderating the encounter, asked the president if he would disown them but Mr Trump instead them with the message: “Stand back and stand by”.
The Proud Boys are an all-male gang known for violence at public rallies and a misogynistic, racist philosophy. A right-wing group that sprung up after Mr Trump was elected, it has evolved from pseudo-intellectual hipster origins into a more thuggish, openly extremist group that calls for violence increasingly openly.
The central figure in the Proud Boys’ history is Gavin McInnes, one of the co-founders of VICE magazine. Having left VICE in 2008, he has for years expounded extreme views on whiteness, masculinity and political culture in general – in particular that political correctness is crushing American masculinity and that the West and Western men in particular are manifestly superior beings.
Mr McInnes routinely defends his inflammatory, racist, misogynistic and homophobic musings as “ironic” or as mere acts of trolling. However, as detailed by extremism monitors at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, he has openly associated with far-right figures and written for white supremacist publications like American Renaissance, in which he described himself as a “race realist” and railed against the left for denying innate differences between racial groups.
“We do not discriminate based upon race or sexual orientation/preference,” reads a 2017 guide to the group on its website, Proud Boy Magazine. We are not an ‘ism’, ‘ist’, or ‘phobic’ that fits the Left’s narrative. We truly believe that the West Is The Best and welcome those who believe in the same tenets as us.”
Mr McInnes quit the group in 2018, but not before both he and hit were banned from mainstream social media platforms, as well as PayPal.
The group practices initiation rituals via which members progress to different “degrees”. Among the rites of passage to gain admission is the recitation of a shibboleth: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologise for creating the modern world.” Another is reciting the names of five breakfast cereals while being flogged, along with taking a pledge to stop masturbating.
While they often claim to be a “defensive” force guarding against extremist political correct leftists and Muslims, Proud Boys are a regular presence at right-wing, pro-Trump, and anti-left protests and rallies. They can be recognised by their uniform of black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo shirts – now discontinued because of their association with the group – and openly carrying weapons, from baseball bats to assault-style firearms.
They often pick fights with left-wing protesters and then claim to have been “defending” the rest of the crowd or surrounding city, and regularly present themselves as police allies or a backup for law enforcement. (Several police officers around the US have been investigated or fired for associating with or possibly joining the group.)
While some of their most notorious appearances have been at other groups’ rallies – including one in Portland at the end of August that descended into a brawl – the Proud Boys also host rallies of their own in response to specific events, as they did in Portland a few days before the first Trump-Biden debate, in that case to mark the killing of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a right-wing protester who was killed by left-wing gunman Michael Reinoehl in early September.
They predicted an enormous turnout, leading the governor of Oregon to pre-emptively declared a state of emergency in anticipation of civil unrest. However, the crowd in fact turned out to be relatively thin. And despite the fact the group’s members turned out heavily armed and calling for a violent crackdown on left-wing protesters, with one attendee kicking a journalist in the head, there were no confrontations with the police.
In the hours after Mr Trump told them to “stand back and stand by” at the debate, the Proud Boys openly celebrated. Researchers who study the behaviour of American extremist groups made clear that however Mr Trump and his mainstream allies might try to parse his supposedly offhand words, the group will hear them as permission to act.
On the evening of 5 January, the night prior to the MAGA riots that shocked the world, the group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested in DC and charged with destruction of property for stealing a Black Lives Matter banner from a Washington church and burning it.
His being taken into custody would prove to be a prelude to far worse scenes to come.