During a critical moment at Tuesday night’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump was asked by the moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace if he was “willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down.”
Trump, after initially agreeing, said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about ‘antifa‘ and the left.”
The term “Proud Boys” immediately began trending on Twitter, with people asking why the president of the United States could not denounce white nationalism when presented with the grand opportunity. Some will say a white president denouncing white supremacy is oxymoronic, given the prolonged, often state-sponsored violence against Black people since the country’s formation. Therefore, Trump’s mention of the group is less an indictment on him than a restatement of where America has usually situated itself on race.
Nonetheless, the Proud Boys represent the more extreme ends in the recurrent enforcement of America’s white supremacy. On the surface, the group could be roughly explained best as a live-action, yet similarly cartoonish group, similar to Marvel’s fictional terrorist organization, Hydra. But who are they really? And are the Proud Boys really white nationalists? I mean, aren’t some of their members brown?
Who are the Proud Boys again?
Proud Boys, as a far-right, neo-fascist “fraternity,” was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, in conjunction with a far-right publication formerly run by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. The name is derived via a children’s talent show McInnes supposedly attended, from the song “Proud of Your Boy” from the 2011 Disney stage show version of Aladdin. The eponymous character begs for his mother’s forgiveness amid his mischievousness.
During the run-up of President Donald Trump’s election, McInnes became a galvanizing, white-leaning demagogue. The group’s identity, according to McInnes, imbues “libertarian politics, Father Knows Best gender roles, closed borders, Islamophobia, and something he calls ‘Western chauvinism.'” The latter includes notions of gender stereotyping, hetero-normative orthodoxy, notions of contextual strength vs. weakness, and female subservience.
Members have been wearing black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, with freshly quaffed hairdos, an unofficial uniform. In a recent statement, the British fashion brand has asked the group not to wear its iconic shirts.
McInnes, Vice Media’s co-founder, is often accused of sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism. The British-Canadian was banned from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in 2018 for promoting violent extremist groups and hate speech. But McInnes quit Proud Boys, in an effort to re-center his own public voice and disentangle himself from the violence attached to the group. In June 2020, McInnes’ YouTube account was suspended for violation of the platform’s hate speech policies, noting his content was “glorifying [and] inciting violence against another person or group of people.”
Several civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, have condemned the Proud Boys, classifying them as a hate group. Keegan Hankes, a researcher from Southern Poverty Law Center, said the group had “been open and very consistent about using violence as a tool.”
Like McInnes, Twitter also suspended the Proud Boys in August 2018, with a Facebook ban arriving in October 2018. However, the group’s ranks continue to grow, becoming more visible and publicly emboldened to execute what they believe is justified violence.
And they are fighting. The Proud Boys’ in-house hooligan muscle was made infamous with attacks in Portland, Oregon.
The Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), formed as the “tactical defense arm” of the Proud Boys, according to SPLC, has become “an accelerant for violence at right-wing rallies.” Repeat felon Kyle Chapman organized FOAK after a melee with counter-protesters in Berkeley, California, to “protect and defend our right-wing brethren” through “street activism, preparation, defense, and confrontation.” The Proud Boys contend that FOAK is the “logical step” in the growth of their “pro-Western” movement.
Yikes. But are the Proud Boys white nationalists specifically?
Whether the Proud Boys are a white nationalist or white supremacy group has been debated since the group’s inception. But yes, they are.
The group embraces a substantial “America-first nationalism that is less pro-white than it is anti-Muslim, anti-illegal immigrant, and anti-Black Lives Matter.” Indeed the group has a membership that includes those of Black, Hispanic, and Asian backgrounds. This fact would be the core argument against the Proud Boys being termed a “white nationalist” group, which goes along with its also-problematic rebranding to center on the coded language of “Western values.”
“Proud Boys is a multi-racial fraternity with thousands of members worldwide,” a lawyer for McInnis asserted in 2018. “The only requirements for membership are that a person must be biologically male and believe that the West is the best.”
However, the group’s website includes a list of core values as tenets: “Minimal Government, Maximum Freedom, Anti Political Correctness, Anti-Drug War, Closed Borders, Anti-Racial Guilt, Anti-Racism, Pro-Free Speech (1st Amendment), Pro-Gun Rights (2nd Amendment), Glorifying the Entrepreneur, Venerating the Housewife, Reinstating a Spirit of Western Chauvinism.”
The impossible notion of couching “anti-racism” together with “anti-racial guilt” is informative, in the implicit suggestion that Proud Boys do not hate non-whites as long as they (whites) aren’t guilted into taking ownership of their privilege or past sins of racialized violence. In other words, per their ideology, “others” can join as long as they fully adhere to white-centered, libertarian ideals of freedom, and inherent superiority.
If that core ideology, stamped with Trump’s public co-sign, is not white nationalism or some gradient, there is no white nationalism.
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