The president’s recent invocation of The Proud Boys at the presidential debate is an escalation in the erosion of democratic norms by appealing directly to a violent street politics group. This escalation is notable because it represents Trump’s most explicit connection between himself and violent far-right groups. This blog post will address the history of The Proud Boys, Trump’s history with violent far-right groups, and the impacts of his statement regarding them in the debate.
Proud of Your Boy
Since their inception as a “pro-Western fraternal organization,” The Proud Boys have escalated in violence and neo-fascist ideology. Founded in 2016 by the former co-founder of Vice Magazine Gavin McInnes, The Proud Boys general conservative socio-cultural values with an emphasis on reclaiming western values which they view as under assault. The first three degrees of membership include declarations of ideology, hazing, and tattoos but the fourth degree involves violent altercations for the cause. This has been contested by the founder but in practice the fourth degree is violent.
The Proud Boys view the loosely defined Antifa movement as political enemies as well as Islam. McInnes and other Proud Boys have a long history of Islamophobic rhetoric. Beyond their rhetoric, however, The Proud Boys were associated with violent assaults since their inception.
Most prominently, a former Proud Boy helped organize the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville which left one woman dead, however, their activities began to escalate afterward–particularly regarding violence against Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters. Such violence has resulted in the creation of a subgroup of Proud Boys who have participated known as the “Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights.”
Innuendos, Tacit Support, and Ambivalence
Since the Republican primaries, President Trump has appealed to the sociocultural issues of the far right. However, explicitly giving orders to a group represents a departure from his more vague relationships with these groups. President Trump’s rhetoric regarding Islam, undocumented immigrants, and political correctness garnered him an endorsement from myriad far-right subgroups.
With the endorsement of more heinous ones such as David Duke and Richard Spencer, Trump’s record is somewhat mixed. Trump claimed to lack knowledge of Duke but condemned Spencer’s neo-nazi ideology. By claiming ignorance or silently accepting support, Trump was able to placate both his far-right and center-right constituents
A key flashpoint for Trump’s relationship with the far-right was the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Following the violence, President Trump notoriously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides.” While this language was vague, Trump has historically retweeted content from radical right twitter accounts. From the video of a woman yelling “White Power” to users associated with the white genocide conspiracy theory, Trump has tacitly supported radical right ideology while giving vague criticism to its more overt forms.
This “If By Whiskey” fallacy continues even further to the extreme QAnon conspiracy movement. However, these statements of support often claimed a lack of knowledge or ambivalent sentiments, never hard stances or commands. When Trump addressed The Proud Boys explicitly and directed them to “stand by” for violence against Antifa, he showed his most direct support for far-right ideology and street violence since taking office.
The Aftermath: Republican Outrage and an Impotent Condemnation
In the weeks following Trump’s statement, the nation has had to reckon with the normalization of street politics. Since the debate The Proud Boys received an outpouring of coverage and over a million mentions on twitter. The group has even begun selling shirts with Trump’s quote on them.
This media coverage compounded with Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power and allegations of illegitimate elections. This resulted in several high-ranking Republicans speaking out against Trump’s declaration. This pressure resulted in the president attempting to walk back the statement and even condemn The Proud Boys.
Conclusion: Towards a Darker Path
The Proud Boys statement is an unprecedented escalation of authoritarianism. While the attacks on mail-in voting, refusal to commit to peaceful transition of power, and use of federal troops against peaceful protesters are worrisome, they are all using the tools of his office to erode democracy. The Proud Boys are a street politics group which means they focus on violent political intimidation and operate outside of the federalist systems of oversight in the US.
Trump commanding The Proud Boys to be prepared for violence against protesters and dissidents validates paramilitary action in the political process. The Proud Boys statement transcends the typical authoritarian (but within a democratic framework) behavior of the radical right, and dips into the overtly anti-democratic realm of the extreme right. The impacts of this shift towards the extreme right will be felt in the event that Trump does not concede if he loses the election. If that happens, liberal democracy in the US enters uncharted waters.