Guilty verdicts for seditious conspiracy were handed down to key members of the Proud Boys on May 4 for actions related to the Capitol insurrection, marking a significant milestone in the 21st-century struggle in democratic societies against far-right extremism and political violence.
The conspiracy convictions of four of the group’s leaders—and a fifth member for other serious felonies—brings to a close one phase of a sordid chapter in American history. The Proud Boys trial was the last of three sedition cases the government brought over the events of Jan. 6, 2021; in two other trials, members of the Oath Keepers militia were also convicted and sentenced.
A New York Times article summarized the impact of the ruling: “From the outset, the trial provided a unique and disturbing glimpse into the Proud Boys’ culture, as a trove of internal group chats and recordings revealed a toxic stew of machismo, homophobia and misogyny often accompanied by sophomoric humor and rampant alcohol use. The jury heard members of the group engaging in casual anti-Semitism and, in some cases, promoting outright Nazi sympathy.”
Alas, the story of the Proud Boys and their influence in American political life is far from over. Despite the likelihood that some of its key national leaders face many years in prison, the organization itself survives, and its operations continue in local communities.
According to Andy Campbell, author of We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism, the group is “still mobilizing at a rapid pace across the country.”
They have also adjusted their strategy. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, head of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, said the Proud Boys have evolved as an organization. “They’re just now moving into other types of protests. So they’ve been protesting at children’s readings, drag readings and libraries, and protesting anti-racist education, and just kind of opportunistically jumping on other types of protests that are happening across the country.”
The turn toward anti-LGBTQ activism expands the group’s mission beyond Trumpian “stop the steal” efforts and focuses its violent tactics on policing the borders of traditional masculinity. This is consistent, of course, with the group’s roots. Its aggressively anti-feminist founder, Gavin McInnes—a freelance provocateur, podcast host and one of the co-founders of Vice Media—has long railed against the decline of white male authority and cultural centrality, and started the Proud Boys in part to “defend the West against the people who want to shut it down.”
In a blog post a few months before Trump’s election in 2016, McInnes wrote that the group exploded so quickly because of “how completely finished young American men are with apology culture. They tried being ashamed of themselves and accepting blame for slavery, the wage gap, ableism and some f**- bashing that went on two generations ago, but it didn’t work. So they’re going with their gut and indulging in the natural pride that comes from being part of the greatest culture in the world.”
Part of the Western male chauvinism that McInnes touts is accompanied, not surprisingly, by deep and often vicious misogyny. This is consistent with a large and growing body of research and literature that examines the ways in which far-right ideology contains a dangerous mix of racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-trans bigotry.
McInnes, who is no longer the group’s official leader but whose influence (according to many sources) continues behind the scenes, has a long history of anti-woman statements. He sometimes makes such comments with a nod and a wink, which gives him a kind of plausible deniability—like a comedian who insists that “it’s just a joke” when his humor doesn’t land well.
McInnes has repeatedly made degrading comments about women’s sexuality and has often used the c-word. He jokes about rape constantly. He has a particular animus for feminist women, whom he regularly blames for “taking masculinity away from men.”
The evolution of the Proud Boys into right-wing culture warriors is part of an adaptive strategy that mirrors broader trends on the far right, as Amanda Marcotte wrote in Salon. “The group’s original identity as a secular dudes’ drinking club is giving way to a more overtly Christian nationalist bent. No doubt the hyper-masculine braggadocio that always defined the Proud Boys still plays a central role, and has even gotten worse in many ways.”
According to a report she cited from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), the Proud Boys and other far-right groups are now more likely to show up armed at protests, or provoke physical confrontations, than they were last year. But notably, Marcotte said, “Layered on top of the tough-guy cosplay is a religious right agenda.”
A key theme in Campbell’s book is the group’s impact on political discourse and behavior in the United States (and beyond). Much in the same way that former president Donald Trump’s use of violent rhetoric has (to many) made it seem more acceptable, the Proud Boys’ casual and consistent use of violent intimidation as a political tactic is increasingly seen as an unremarkable feature of the political landscape.
Campbell wrote: “The Proud Boys bring in aggressive energy wherever they go that could turn grandma’s bingo night into the Thunderdome within minutes. Getting regular people to go along with violence is one of the many sobering characteristics of the Trump era that the Proud Boys helped to normalize.”
He continued: “…the Proud Boys’ greatest impact was not in their ability to make big violent events happen—though they certainly did plenty of that—but in their successful normalization of political violence and bigoted rhetoric (that they) pulled from the fringes of the far right and into the mainstream. They are the reason why you can expect now, at any given American protest, not just cardboard signs and sit-ins, but men covered in football pads and makeshift armor, wielding the Stars and Stripes as weapons and beating any protester who dares try to confront them.”
Alarmingly, few Republican Party officials or media figures have dared to criticize them for the threat they pose to democratic norms and democracy itself. Donald Trump, when asked by moderator Chris Wallace during a 2020 presidential debate with Joe Biden if he would condemn white supremacist and militia groups, infamously said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”—which observers contend resulted in a surge of new recruits for the violent organization. In another infamous public statement a year after the Insurrection, the Republican National Committee called the Jan. 6 riot “legitimate political discourse.”
One Republican who has been vocal in his criticism of Trump and his far-right supporters is global movie icon and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger, whose Austrian father was a member of the Nazi party during World War II, has released a number of viral videos that speak directly to young white men who are drawn to organizations like the Proud Boys.
“My father and so many millions of other men were sucked into a hate system,” he said, “through lies and deceits. So we have seen where that leads. I have seen first-hand how broken those men were.”
So what can be done about the disturbing emergence of the Proud Boys as a reactionary force determined to block social progress? The first step is hiding in plain sight: Recognize that gender is at the heart of it—and then seek to understand why.
In his book Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism, the sociologist Michael Kimmel wrote that young men who are attracted to far-right groups like the Proud Boys typically long to belong to a brotherhood and want to be seen—by their peers and others—as men.
“These young men feel entitled to a sense of belonging and community,” he wrote, “of holding unchallenged moral authority over women and children, and of feeling that they count in the world and that their lives matter. Experiencing threats to the lives they feel they deserve leads these young men to feel ashamed and humiliated. And it is this aggrieved entitlement—entitlement thwarted and frustrated—that leads some men to search for a way to redeem themselves as men, to restore and retrieve that sense of manhood that has been lost. Joining up is a form of masculine compensation, an alternate route to proving manhood.
“It’s within the gendered connection between humiliation and violence where we will find the key to understanding how some young men get into extremist politics and, therefore, how we, as policymakers, civil and community leaders, parents, religious leaders, and citizens, can provide a route they can use to get out.”
This analysis of extremism also contains insights about mainstream politics. If liberals, progressives and moderates want to chip away at the large majorities of white men that vote for far-right Republican candidates at the local, state, and federal level, they will need to find ways to listen and talk to these men, including the young ones, and not reflexively dismiss them as toxic and irredeemable.
That reflexive dismissal is a sure path to even more animosity, social division and violence in our teetering democracy.
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