Leaders of the far-right Proud Boys group say their members will make frequent appearances at Donald Trump’s future campaign rallies, after videos of Proud Boys marching in uniform outside Trump’s Orlando campaign kickoff went viral.
“Our numbers have grown, so you’ll probably see more of us,” Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio told The Daily Beast.
Dozens of Proud Boys and their associates tried to reach anti-Trump protests in Orlando on Tuesday, but were stopped by an impromptu barricade set up by police. On the way, they chanted their support for Proud Boy and former Trump associate Roger Stone, and praised former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet—a Proud Boy favorite because his regime murdered left-wing activists by throwing them from helicopters.
The episode was the latest instance of the Proud Boys getting involved in high-profile flare-ups. Though this one, unlike others in the past, did not result in violence. Two prominent Proud Boys are currently facing assault charges in Oregon after allegedly attacking a man who taunted them about participation in right-wing rallies, and several Proud Boys were arrested last year after a fight following a speech where Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes dressed up as a right-wing assassin.
The all-male group once had a paramilitary wing, and offers its highest honor—the “fourth degree”—to members who got in a fight for the cause. The Proud Boys have also served as a gateway to more extreme groups, with one former member organizing the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and others participating in it.
Although the Proud Boys were founded during the 2016 presidential race, they started gaining attention through clashes at political events in 2017—and through bizarre masturbation strictures, which limited Proud Boys to masturbating once a month and have since been loosened. Proud Boys “elder” Luke Rohfling said the Trump remains popular with members of the group, and his rallies have increasingly become a draw as a result.
“Most of our guys like Trump, we’re probably going to keep going to them,” Rohfling said.
The Proud Boys claim to have grown by thousands of members since 2016, meaning they’ll be a much more visible presence during the 2020 campaign.
“Every Trump rally that’s ever been since he became president, there’s at least one Proud Boy sitting there,” Tarrio said.
Sometimes, that Proud Boy is Tarrio himself. In February, Tarrio caused a media stir after he was seated just a few rows behind the president at a rally. Tarrio says other Trump rally-goers are receptive to Proud Boys, many of whom arrive at the events in their black-and-gold polo shirt uniforms.
“Most of them know who we are, so usually we’ll get a big cheer,” Tarrio said.
But the Proud Boys’ heightened visibility at Trump rallies could pose headaches for Republicans as the party grapples with how intertwined it has become with far-right movements.
Trump’s kickoff rally was attended by a number of prominent Republicans, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rick Scott (R-FL), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Spokespersons for DeSantis, Rubio, and Graham did not return a request for comment on whether they would support Proud Boys’ presence at future events.
Asked if Scott or his office supported the presence of the Proud Boys at future political events, a spokesperson for the senator answered that “no, Senator Scott stands strongly against any form of violence, racial injustice or discrimination.”
The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment. But it reportedly knows of the Proud Boys’ presence at rallies, with a GOP operative telling New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel that, “They don’t care. Staff are to treat it like a coalition they can’t talk about.”
Rather than go into the Orlando rally, most of the Proud Boys preferred to “tailgate” outside, according to Tarrio. After police stopped them from entering the anti-Trump demonstration, most of the Proud Boys went to a bar, although a smaller group tried and failed to confront the Trump protesters. Tarrio claims Proud Boys from Australia and the United Kingdom flew in for the Trump rally.
“We spent most of our time at the bar,” said Tarrio, who bragged that the Proud Boys completely emptied two nearby bars of their Bud Light supplies.
Trump’s rallies have historically drawn the far right, both as individuals and groups. In April 2016, a Trump speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania drew nearly a dozen members of Keystone United, a racist skinhead organization with a history of attacks on African Americans.
Other white supremacists have led attacks at Trump rallies. Matthew Heimbach, former leader of the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party, pleaded guilty to shoving a black woman at a Louisville, Kentucky Trump rally in 2016. Heimbach later led bloody brawls with his group, which imploded when he beat his wife and a group spokesperson after an intra-familial love triangle went bad in 2018. Both Heimbach and Tarrio attended Unite the Right in Charlottesville.
Tuesday’s rally saw members of other far-right groups in attendance, including members of the III% United Patriots, a militia group, HuffPost reported. Three Percenter groups, a loosely affiliated set of militias, have routinely mingled with overt white supremacist groups, and sometimes attemped to intimidate people of color. In 2018, a Georgia chapter appeared to threaten the life of Stacey Abrams, a black woman running for governor. A trio of Three Percenters from Kansas were convicted this year of plotting mass murder against Muslims and Somali immigrants.
Also in attendance on Tuesday were believers in the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory and members of Bikers for Trump. Trump has previously implied that the Bikers for Trump could intimidate his enemies.
Jacob Engels, a Stone protégé who’s close with the Proud Boys, says the Proud Boys will show up at Trump campaign rallies in part because they’ve been kicked off of so many social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. With their social media presence reduced, according to Engels, the Proud Boys are recruiting at high-profile events like Trump campaign stops.
“You’re going to have cameras, you’re going to have really your target audience for potential recruits for their group, so it makes sense,” Engels said.