During the raucous debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Tuesday, Trump was invited to condemn white supremacist groups, specifically the Proud Boys, a brotherhood of self-described “Western chauvinists” who had mustered the previous weekend in Portland, Oregon (the pictures in this article were taken there). Trump failed to do so. Later it was reported that this was because he didn’t know who they were. But the Proud Boys certainly know all about him.
The group is known for its extreme Islamophobia, street brawls and odd-ball initiation rituals. It was formed in Trump’s hometown of New York in 2016 during the election campaign, apparently inspired in part by the president’s own extreme rhetoric. “Donald Trump’s Muslim ban is exactly what we need right now”, is the title of one of the many videos produced by the Canadian hard-right provocateur and founder of Vice magazine, Gavin McInnes, who set up the Proud Boys.
One of the group’s first gatherings reportedly took place at a pro-Trump art exhibition – entitled #DaddyWillSaveUs – where McInnes displayed photos of himself posing as a white slave (part of his shtick is to claim that white slavery was far more widespread than those who obsess about enslaved blacks realise). The president’s signature red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps are almost as common at the group’s rallies as their informal uniform: a black Fred Perry polo, trimmed with yellow.
McInnes and other Proud Boys’ leaders insist that the chauvinism the organisation espouses is on the right side of social acceptability. They deny being racist and point to a minority of non-white members as evidence. They claim they are dedicated merely to beating back the self-flagellating “PC brigade” through their celebration of Western culture.
To be initiated into the lowest ranks of the Proud Boys, would-be members have only to recite a simple creed: “I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologise for creating the modern world.” Things get stranger after that. Initiates into the group’s second-degree membership class must forswear masturbation and permit themselves to be beaten up by fellow Proud Boys for as long as it takes them to recite slowly the names of five breakfast cereals. This is believed to demonstrate the soldierly virtue of “adrenaline control”. Qualification for “third degree” membership involves getting a Proud Boy tattoo.
McInnes says he conceived the group as a drinking club for right-wing men – a place, as he once described it, to revel in “drinking, fighting and reading aloud from Pat Buchanan’s ‘Death of the West’ [a polemic by one of America’s leading nativist thinkers]”. He took his creation’s name from “Proud of Your Boy”, a song written for the Disney film “Aladdin”, which he first heard at his daughter’s school music recital (possibly not realising it had been composed by a gay Jew).
Yet in the febrile, hard-right environment that has flourished under Trump, the group has become increasingly prominent and violent. It has provided bodyguards for extreme right-wing speakers, such as the alt-right poseur Milo Yiannopoulos. One of its members also organised a notorious neo-Nazi march through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, that led to the death of a counter-protester and to Trump’s infamous claim that there were “fine people on both sides” (McInnes says he subsequently expelled the organiser). Increasingly, members of the Proud Boys have been linked to more unambiguously white-supremacist groups, especially in the Pacific north-west, a region long troubled by clashes between hard-right racists and hard-left Antifa anarchists.
The FBI is reported to have designated the Proud Boys as an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism”. After the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks extremist groups, labelled them a “hate group”, their accounts were banned from Twitter, iTunes and other digital platforms.
Perhaps it is true that Trump knew little or nothing of this when he was asked to disavow them during the debate. Perhaps, as some of his aides later suggested, he accidentally mangled the wording in response to that demand, when he declared: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”
But there is no doubt that Trump, who has often seemed reluctant to disown any of his supporters, has delighted the group’s members. “I think he was saying that if Antifa starts burning down cities again, go in and fight them,” McInnes was reported to have responded. “I think he was saying I appreciate you and appreciate your support.”
In an effort to distance itself from the group, Fred Perry, a British clothing company, no longer sells its black-and-yellow polo shirts, which the Proud Boys adopted, in America. Now the Proud Boys have a new T-shirt of their own design. It reads: “PROUD BOYS STANDING BY”.•
PHOTOGRAPHS: JD BARNES