Andy Campbell doesn’t mince words in his terrific new book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism. Early in the text, he explicitly and correctly identifies these street brawlers as a fundamentally fascist organization.
“They’ve been extremely successful at marketing themselves to the right as an innocent organization of downtrodden Trump supporters,” he writes in the introduction. “But in reality, the Proud Boys have been on a yearslong fascist march through the country, attacking their political opponents in the street, destroying property, and committing mutinous crimes, all in the name of Trump and [founder Gavin] McInnes.”
He concludes the introduction with an appropriate warning: “Simply put, they’re one of the most dangerous and influential extremist groups in America, thriving during a time when federal law enforcement agencies deem far-right extremism as one of the country’s top threats.”
Campbell, who has covered the Proud Boys as a HuffPost reporter since they began hitting the protest scene in 2017, of course, substantiates this characterization over the course of the book. It features a deep and revelatory history of the group as the brainchild of McInnes and his increasingly radicalized and hateful right-wing cadre; the ascendant career of Jan. 6 insurrectionist Ethan Nordean, and the central role played by the Proud Boys in the attack on the Capitol; their bizarre initiation ceremonies, reflective of a deeply twisted and misogynist sexual ethos; their disturbingly close and friendly relationship with law enforcement authorities; and their endless stream of organized attacks on liberal centers like Portland, the Bay Area, New York City, and Seattle, which now have morphed into localized attacks on school boards and city councils in suburban and rural areas across the country.
We Are Proud Boys vividly illustrates how these latter attacks are not merely loosely assembled gangs of thugs bused in for violence, but were meticulously planned events. A document (published this week in The Guardian) written in anticipation of a planned Jan. 10 march on New York City—published the day before the Jan. 6 insurrection, and subsequently canceled after numerous would-be participants were arrested—shows both the depth of their calculations for planned violence, as well as their self-conception as a paramilitary force whose entire purpose is to defend both Trump and his political agenda with violence.
“These guys see themselves as super soldiers, like some sort of military outfit,” Campbell told the Guardian. “On one level it’s funny, as nothing is in fact going to pan out the way they say it will. But on another level, it’s alarming because it shows how much thought they put into this stuff.”
The document also illustrates how the Proud Boys’ decentralized structure has enabled their post-insurrection strategy emphasizing smaller local events revolving around a variety of right-wing causes—including “critical race theory” hysteria and “groomer” rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ community. Its author is Randy Ireland, president of the New York-based Hell’s Gate Bridge Chapter, and was circulated through Telegram to at least nine other chapters.
“Chapter leaders like Randy can create their own events, run independently of each other,” Campbell said. “Enrique Tarrio and other leaders are in prison, but these guys are going to continue what they are doing.”
This structure enabled their strategic and tactical shift after early 2021. “In a short time, they created a rubric by which any group could feasibly go from street-level fight gang to the neofascist enforcement arm of an entire political party,” Campbell writes.
The Proud Boys were always about bringing the violence, and that was what they did on Jan. 6. From the assault on the police barricades to the first breach of the Capitol to the search for members of Congress to “bring to justice,” they played their role to a T. And in the ensuing months, that has been their role even in small-town America.
The centrality of this ethos of eliminationist violence—its celebration and cultivation, the training and preparation for it, the essential role it played in organizing events designed to provide opportunities for it directed against their concocted enemies—is what not only distinguishes the Proud Boys from ordinary street gangs and brawlers, but defines them unmistakably as neofascists—that is, a modern iteration of fascist organizing replicating its essential elements. As historian Robert O. Paxton puts it, a central “mobilizing passion” of fascism is “the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success.”
McInnes, Campbell explains, always put this ethos front and center of the Proud Boys’ raison d’etre: “Fighting solves everything,” he told his talk-show audience during its early stages of formation. “We need more violence from the Trump people.” He celebrated it on his show: “Remember violence? Remember how fun it was? Remember fighting? There’s no happier man than a guy that just won a fight.”
There are other components to the Proud Boys culture that confirm this identity, all reflecting the essential aspects of fascism as it has been identified by scholars and analysts over the past century, when the phenomenon first emerged:
- Its palingenetic agenda: The belief that their violence will bring about a phoenix-like rebirth of the nation harkening back to a mythological golden era. Oxford Brookes professor Roger Griffin defines fascism as "palingenetic ultranationalistic populism," that is, a “modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy.”
\The primary symbol of this mythological core is the red Make America Great Again ballcaps that are part of the Proud Boy uniform, and the centrality of the Donald Trump slogan to their belief system. It’s also embedded in the organization’s initiation oath as “Western chauvinists” to “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
- Their contempt for weakness. Paxton describes this as another key “mobilizing passion,” namely, “the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.” Sociologist Harald Ofstad sees this as fascism’s most essential trait: “Its core is that the strong shall rule over the weak, and that the weak are contemptible because they let themselves be ruled. Nazism did not emerge in Germany in the 1930s and it did not disappear in 1945. It is an expression of deeply set emotions which are still there, within ourselves and in our environment.” McInnes often expressed it in simple terms: “It’s fun to punch these kids because they’ve never been punched before.”
- Its misogynistic treatment of women and hatred of feminism, coupled with a twisted version of male sexuality. Hitler and Mussolini both were ardent in their sexism: "The Nazi Revolution will be an entirely male event" was one of Hitler's most repeated phrases. The Proud Boys’ insistence on male-only camaraderie, combined with a puritanical approach to masturbation and pornography and a bizarre quasi-mystical approach to sex replicate the original fascist ethos. McInnes, Campbell notes, “was convinced that if men stopped jerking off to porn, they’d stay attracted to their wives and girlfriends, enjoy better sex lives and heightened testosterone, and become better fighters.”
- Its authoritarianism, or what Stanley Payne calls fascism’s “specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective.” For the Proud Boys, Donald Trump constitutes this “glorious leader,” and their fealty to him is unqualified—or at least it was in the years leading up to January 6. That loyalty, Campbell notes, became intense after Trump heralded the Proud Boys—“Stand back, and stand by”—during his sole debate with Joe Biden.
- Its cult of heroism. As Umberto Eco put it, in a fascist society, “everybody is educated to be a hero.” Proud Boys, like all far-right extremists, conceive of themselves as heroes dedicated to saving the world—the kind of heroism that consequently justifies any kind of action, particularly the violent kind. Moreover, because one cannot be a hero without having an identifiable enemy, and these enemies in fact define what kind of hero one is, they set about reifying and concocting their enemies out of whatever cultural strands serve their purpose: for the Proud Boys, this is Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other supposedly “Marxist” elements. This mindset fuels their self-conception as “super-soldiers,” as Campbell describes it.
Finally, the entire project of fascism is to overthrow liberal democracy by turning its own liberalities into weapons—free speech into advocating an agenda of suppression, for instance—and threatening its cooperative ethos with violence and intimidation, all in order to displace it with authoritarian right-wing rule by a strongman dictator. In this regard, the Proud Boys now play a role functionally identical to the historical paramilitary street-fighting forces that have always played central roles in the rise of fascists to power, particularly in Germany and Italy.
In Germany, they were called Sturmabteilung (“Storm Detachment”), or SA, but were better known as the Brownshirts. In Italy, they wore black clothing and thus were known as Blackshirts or “Squadristi.” Their official name there was Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale. (MVSN, "Voluntary Socialist Militia for National Security.")
These thugs historically have served multiple functions: intimidating and threatening leftists with violence; creating public propaganda depicting those leftists as the sources of the violence; and establishing a common cause with the mainstream elements (primarily businesses, corporate owners, and landowners) threatened by leftist causes.
German propaganda was especially adroit at promoting images of brave Brownshirts being victimized by violent leftists. The Nazi marching song—the “Horst Wessel Lied”—was a celebration of a young Brownshirt who had been killed by leftists. This appeal was central to the Nazis' ongoing campaign to portray themselves as the sole effective defenders of mainstream society against the threat of an evil, nefarious left that was part of a global communist conspiracy.
The Proud Boys likewise have made much of the violence directed at them by local antifascists, sensationally demonizing the people who turn up to protest their urban incursions by hyping their existence into a national threat. And in identical fashion, they have responded by depicting them as nonhumans—“Communists” or “Marxists” or “pedophiles” or a dozen other epithets that elicit eliminationist disgust, fit only for hurling from helicopters.
The self-righteous belief in their own heroic mythology led them to besiege the Capitol on January 6 and assault even the police officers they previously saw as their allies. And even though they failed in their attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power that had long been the hallmark of American democratic stability, their fervent belief in this mythos ensured that they would not stop. They would never give up. And they have not.
Campbell emphasizes that the Proud Boys—like all neofascist entities—are the spear tip of the right’s ongoing war on democracy, and he explores their multifarious connections to the Republican Party, who have become their partners in most regards. And their future at least appears promising.
“As it stands today, we’re looking at a hardened national movement of violent men, banded together over bigoted and ultranationalist causes, and now, with years of experience under their belt, leading other groups of violent men into battle,” he writes near the conclusion. “They are revered and normalized by sections of the political right, they’re running for office, they have cops in their ranks and standing in their defense, and they have a supportive network of media personalities to boost them and deflect for them.”
Anyone trying to understand how and why American democracy is under attack owes it to themselves to read We Are Proud Boys. Campbell has written the definitive text on the organization to date, and the lessons and warnings it contains are well worth heeding.