How to Understand the Proud Boys

Shane Burley
4 min readJun 16, 2023

On August 17th, 2019, the Proud Boys staged a rally against “domestic terrorism” in Portland, Oregon, allegedly in response to a p rior scuffle between far-right media personality Andy Ngo and counter-demonstrators who were opposing the Proud Boys and the Christian nationalist group Patriot Prayer. Despite the ironies of one of the most violent domestic far-right groups in the U.S. posing themselves as enemies of terrorism, this was standard fare for Portland: since 2016, Portland’s city center has been the site of a series of high-profile and violent clashes. The summer of 2018 was marred by incredibly bloody fights where Proud Boys led gang-style assaults on demonstrators, leading to serious injuries, recorded in videos that had become infamous. Patriot Prayer’s leader Joey Gibson built his brand, and even a failed Senate run, on this spectacle, staging political rallies in liberal cities to provoke a reaction (he’s not from Portland). Hundreds of Proud Boys had flown in from around the country for the August 17 rally, and were lined up in a deep block with weapons and tactical gear, protected by the Portland Police, who eventually escorted them across a bridge and to safety from counter-demonstrators. Throughout these rallies in Portland, law enforcement seemed unable, or unwilling, to intervene against the Proud Boys, and instead focused on attacking antifascists with projectile munitions.

This is where I first met Andy Campbell, a Huffington Post reporter who is part of the small cohort of journalists and researchers who primarily cover the far-right. Campbell is one of the most dependable writers on the beat, which was a niche field until the Trump era dramatically expanded coverage.

In his new book We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism, Campbell crafts a comprehensive and absolutely compelling history of one of the most dangerous far-right movements in the 21st Century. Chronicling the group from its founding by far-right personality Gavin McInnes, Campbell identifies brutal violence as a central reason for the group’s existence. The book explains how the Proud Boys intended from their outset to return violence to politics and act as enforcers for a quickly morphing right-wing political.

Throughout the book, Campbell profiles key characters, like Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean, who knocked out a masked antifascist in a video that played on repeat across far-right social media and turned Rufio into a hero figure. The Proud Boys gain leverage through the antics of a self-appointed leadership caste, whose constant stunts, threats, and bullying makes them stars that attract a flood of new member applications. This is part of the paradox that Campbell discusses throughout the book: it is the most unhinged, chaotic and, frankly, illegal behavior that seems to attract wave after wave of new recruits, but it is also what makes the organization constantly teetering on the edge of collapse.

What may be most pertinent in We Are Proud Boys is the fact that unlike alt-right groups like American Identity Movement or neo-Nazis like the Traditionalist Workers Party, the Proud Boys successfully made inroads with the GOP, acting as the street level enforcers of this new political brand. As the party shifts further into MAGA territory, particularly with figures like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene or Paul Gosar, the more they cultivate powerful political affinity. Conspiracy theories about antifa help bind this alliance together, presenting a manufactured boogeyman that can justify the Proud Boys’ violence. Police neutrality helped give them protection from street conflict, online celebrity and monetization funded their activities, and while legal consequences have been severe in some cases, there are many more who have participated in Proud Boy related crimes that will never be prosecuted.

Campbell takes us through the Proud Boys’ rise and ingratiation within conservative circles, without which the January 6th insurrection may not have been possible. The post-January 6th Proud Boys have been thrown into turmoil, following the police swarming the home of Nordean, the archetype for Proud Boy leadership, shattering the illusion that had permeated some far-right circles that their “righteous cause” came without consequences. But, as Campbell illustrates, their dissolution is not likely. The Proud Boys have proven tenacious enough to survive other potential death sentences and have continued to ride the wave of a mutating right-wing culture.

Campbell’s book is centered on the Proud Boys, but the story he tells is bigger, perhaps even global in scale. We are shifting from a period in which the battle between political forces was built on “soft power,” negotiated through a democratic system, however foggy a mirage it was. As crisis pervades our climate, economy, and political system, right-wing politics is pressing up on the limits on what real elections can practically deliver, particularly at the street level, where the kind of working-class instability that used to feed the political left is being channeled into national populism and racist resentment. Now “hard power” could be necessary to claim victories by force. McInnes was fond of saying “violence solves everything.”

The Proud Boys remain one of the primary fascist threats in the U.S., but they are merely one local force in a confederation of far-right enforcers who are looking to re-establish street violence as the method they use to keep our whoever doesn’t fit their mold of what an American should be. Everything that defines the Proud Boys, their approach, their seething rage and entitlement to attack, has become part of our status quo. The only question is how will it be stopped?

Originally published at https://maiseh-review.ghost.io on June 16, 2023.

--

--

Shane Burley

Filmmaker and author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. His work is featured at Jacobin, In These Times, Salon, Truthout, etc. @Shane_Burley1