Republicans Are Adopting the Proud Boys
Before and after the Manhattan brawl, GOP figures defended and promoted the far-right group. It’s a valuable and dangerous bridge between fascism and mainstream politics.
Nine members of the far-right Proud Boys group and three protesters are facing riot and assault charges after a street brawl between them Friday night in New York.
The fight wasn’t a random clash, though: The Proud Boys were in Manhattan thanks to an invite from the Metropolitan Republican Club.
In a speech at the club, which was vandalized before the event, Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes waved a sword at anti-fascist protesters and celebrated the assassination of a socialist Japanese politician. McInnes, a Vice co-founder who left the company in 2008, dressed up as the Japanese assassin who killed the politician, complete with glasses that made his eyes into a racist caricature of a Japanese person’s eyes.
It was a bizarre event to host at the GOP’s Manhattan clubhouse, but the Metropolitan Republican Club defended McInnes and the Proud Boys after the fight. In a statement released Sunday, the club said McInnes’ speech “was certainly not inciting violence.”
The Republican club’s role hosting the event highlights how the Proud Boys have managed to insinuate themselves with mainstream Republicans, even as they increasingly make the news for their violence. But the New York Republicans aren’t alone—the Proud Boys have already managed to make their way into other mainstream GOP campaign events and conservative media.
Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Devin Nunes have posed for pictures with Proud Boys on the campaign trail. Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson posed in a Fox green room with two Proud Boys and Republican operative Roger Stone earlier this year.
Stone has himself taken steps to be initiated into the Proud Boys and made headlines in March, when he used the Proud Boys as a security force at the Dorchester Conference, a Republican event in Oregon. By then, the Proud Boys were already notorious in Oregon for a series of bloody Portland brawls. But Dorchester board member and former Oregon legislator Patrick Sheehan defended the Proud Boys’ attendance, telling Willamette Week that Stone “was worried about getting killed… He gets death threats constantly.”
Stone told The Daily Beast that the Proud Boys were a volunteer force.
Stone said via email he never “hired” the Proud Boys, only that individual members have volunteered to provide security because of the “large number of death threats I have received and they many potentially violent and physical attacks on me in public spaces when I travel.”
Stone said the Proud Boys also acted as his security force at the Mother of All Rallies, a right-wing event in D.C. this year. He said he’d been in touch with individual Proud Boys for more than a year, and that he tried talking some out of attending the first Unite the Right rally. “I urged a number of individual proudboys [sic] I know NOT to go to Charlottesville because of the stated views of some of the online organizers,” he said.
Fascist skinhead groups have wreaked havoc in the U.S. for decades, but scholars of fascism have noted that those groups pose limited political threats—unless a mainstream political party embraces them.
“The skinheads, for example, would become functional equivalents of Hitler’s SA and Mussolini’s squadristi only if they aroused support instead of revulsion,” historian Robert Paxton writes in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism. “If important elements of the conservative elite begin to cultivate or even tolerate them as weapons against some internal enemy, such as immigrants, we are approaching Stage Two” of what he identifies as fascist insurgency.
The Proud Boys, which have a paramilitary wing, have already proved willing to act as strongmen for Stone, and GOP stalwarts like the Metropolitan Republican Club have already proved willing to host the group.
The Proud Boys didn’t start out with such a focus on political violence. While members of the group have always been “beaten in” while shouting the names of cereal brands—an initiation McInnes claims show they can keep their heads in a fight—the rules initially imposed by McInnes focused more on the Proud Boys’ reactionary “drinking club” lifestyle than baiting antifa at rallies.
But as clashes between pro-Trump protesters and left-wing “antifa” grabbed headlines in the summer of 2017, McInnes sought to play up violence as a part of the Proud Boy ethos. He invited notorious right-wing rally fighter Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman to start a paramilitary wing of the Proud Boys, a now-defunct group called the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights.
McInnes also made a new achievement for Proud Boys: the “fourth degree,” designated for Proud Boys who had endured a “major struggle for the cause.” McInnes eventually had to issue a clarification that 4th degrees could only be given for actions taken in self-defense, writing he was worried that the new level was leading Proud Boys into “senseless violence.”
Despite the clarification, Proud Boy rhetoric also grew more belligerent, adopting mottoes like “Fuck around and find out” and “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” Both lines are references to punching out antifa members in self-defense. But Proud Boys have also embraced references and clothing with references to “helicopter rides,” an allusion to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime executing opponents by throwing them out of helicopters to fall to their deaths.
Several Proud Boys have since carved out their own social-media fame with viral-ready clashes against antifa protesters, becoming right-wing celebrities in their own right and booking appearances on far-right outlets like Infowars.
That attention has drawn even more would-be fighters to Proud Boy events, according to Keegan Hankes, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. At this point, the violence surrounding the Proud Boy has become the group’s “life blood,” according to Hankes.
“Their DNA has totally mutated in the last year-and-a-half, and I think a lot of it has been because of the repeated recurrences of violence,” Hankes said.
The frequent clashes between Proud Boys and left-wing protesters apparently haven’t damaged the Proud Boy brand enough to keep the group from gaining new members. While other groups further to the Proud Boys’ right have fractured, the Proud Boys appear to be growing, with members from United Kingdom and Australia posting beat-in videos on YouTube.
“Gavin, smartly, is holding by his fingernails to legitimacy,” Hankes said. “He knows that the second they cross over into being recognized as extreme as they are in reality, it’s all decline from there.”
Part of that ploy for legitimacy is disavowing the most extreme white-supremacist events, like Unite the Right. The event was organized by former Proud Boy Jason Kessler, and attended by other Proud Boys. Kessler even promoted the event in a friendly appearance on McInnes’ show.
McInnes disavowed the event shortly beforehand, and warned Proud Boys against attending in their uniforms. “Just don’t fucking wear your Fred Perry, or decide to belt: ‘Proud of Your Boy,’” he said, in reference to the Fred Perry polo shirts the group wears, and the show tune its members have adopted.
But violence has erupted outside other, more conventionally Republican events, including a February 2017 event hosted by New York University’s College Republicans club. Police arrested 11 people in brawls outside the NYU building. Among them was Proud Boy Salvatore Cipolla, who attacked a journalist who was covering the event. Cipolla attended Unite the Right later that year. During an on-camera interview at Unite the Right, Cipolla identified as a Proud Boy and showed off a Proud Boy tattoo.
Days after the event, he said that he was no longer affiliated with Mcinnes’ group. “Just so everyone is clear I am no longer a proud boy,” he tweeted. Although the reasons for his departure were unclear, he had violated McInnes’ rule against identifying as a Proud Boy at Unite the Right.
Jason Lee Van Dyke, a Proud Boy who also acts as the group’s lawyer said the group has found welcome with a populist, pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party.
“I think some Republicans appreciate the Proud Boys because they understand what we actually stand for: love of country, small government, freedom, and fun,” he said. Van Dyke was suspended from his college over a firearms offense after which campus police found an anti-Semitic race-war book in his dorm. (After the publication of this article, Van Dyke told The Daily Beast the book was for a political theory class.) He was recently arrested for allegedly filing a false police report about the theft of his guns.
“Republicans like President Trump campaigned on those values. However, the big government/neoconservative wing of the Republican Party has different values, and therefore, a different perspective.”
The rift between Trumpist and traditional conservatives recently engulfed the Metropolitan Republican Club, where McInnes spoke on Friday. In early 2017, the New York Post reported that the club’s “never Trump” leadership was attempting to “purge” the club’s pro-Trump, far-right elements.
That older, anti-Trump faction appears to have lost—at the Metropolitan Republican Club and elsewhere in the U.S., as more extreme-right elements take hold of the GOP.
The Metropolitan Republican Club recently hosted open Islamophobe Pamela Geller. A State of the Union watch party at the club in January descended into alt-right chaos, the Observer reported.
But the Proud Boys’ supporters in the GOP say there’s nothing untoward about the group—at least not more so than mainstream Republicans.
“For the record, I reject the charge that the group are white supremacists or bigots,” Stone said. “I would not associate with such people.”