On the surface at least, one of the more mystifying aspects of far-right street gangs like the Proud Boys who espouse a fundamentally white-nationalist ethos is their ability to attract recruits and supporters who are nonwhite—a small number, to be sure, but often as intense as the most rabid of the extremists. The Proud Boys’ national chairman, Enrique Tarrio, is the leading example—a Cuban-African man.
The question was raised this week again by a story from Will Carless at USA Today reporting that a significant portion of the Proud Boys’ fundraising in recent months has come from the Chinese immigrant community. Carless wonders: “Why would people from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and members of the Chinese American community, donate to an organization with deep ties to white supremacists, whose members flash white power signals and post racist memes on social media?”
There is an explanation, albeit one that is simultaneously simple and complex, wrapped up in a single word: authoritarianism.
Using data provided by the whistleblower site Distributed Denial of Secrets, Carless found that donations from the Chinese diaspora comprised more than 80% of the $106,107 raised so far to defray medical costs for Proud Boys who were injured during their mid-December attacks on downtown Washington, D.C., as part of the “Stop the Steal” protests.
The flood of donations began immediately after that Dec. 12 protest. It’s possible that the Chinese community was alerted by coverage from the Epoch Times, a newspaper operated by the anti-Communist Falun Gong cult which in the past few years has become unabashed supporters of Donald Trump and the conspiracy theories on which his fans subsist.
The most interesting aspect of this is the rationalizations offered by the donors. When Carless reached out to them, only a few responded, some of them hostile. One who did answer gave only a one-sentence response: "Very simple, in a time of social chaos, they have courage to stand up for supporting law and order.”
Others explained their thinking by leaving messages on GoFundMe at the time they made their donations.
"The Proud Boys are protecting the innocent people," said Donald Wang, a Queens, New York, resident who donated $50. "A lot of people in my community support them."
"You are the true heroes and patriots!" wrote a donor named Janice Wang after donating $100.
"Thank you for your courage to fight for our freedom!!" wrote a donor named Ao Liu after donating $30.
"Thank you, proud boys. You are my heroes," wrote a donor named Nancy Chang, who sent $300 the day before members of the Proud Boys helped storm the U.S. Capitol.
Having covered the Proud Boys from their beginnings, I can attest that this kind of Manichean and heroism-centric worldview is the essence of what attracts people to proto-fascist groups like the Proud Boys, and what continues to bind them together even after the unpleasant reality of their violent and ugly nature begins to sink in.
Every Proud Boy I have ever interviewed—notably, including the few people of color and transgender activists who marched with them—explained their involvement and motivations in similar terms: They see themselves as patriotic “real” Americans, saving the nation from godless Marxists and anarchists, standing up to the “oppression” of Black Lives Matter and gender expression and cultural shaming for racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
The term for this kind of thinking is authoritarianism. We usually think of it in terms of political systems, particularly as top-down impositions of dictatorial rule by tyrannical dictators. However, it is in reality a phenomenon only made possible by the large armies of authoritarian followers who support and empower these dictators—people who want heavy-handed authoritarian rule by glorified, instinct-led national leaders who naturally rise to that position by dint of their superiority in mind and character, and whose edicts naturally are de facto virtuous and effective.
As Matthew MacWilliams explained it in Politico a few years ago:
Authoritarianism is best understood not as a policy preference, the way we talk about lower taxes or strong defense, but rather as a worldview that can be “activated” in the right historical moment by anyone with a big enough megaphone who is willing to play on voters’ fears and insecurities.
When activated by fear, authoritarian-leaning Americans are predisposed to trade civil liberties for strongman solutions to secure law and order; and they are ready to strip civil liberties from those defined as the “other”—a far cry from the image of America as a country built on a shared commitment to liberty and democratic governance.
Authoritarianism is a common phenomenon arising from basic human conditions—particularly a desire for security and the fear that accompanies it—that appear in all cultures and societies. Thus it cuts across all racial, ethnic, and other identity lines, and attracts people from every walk of life.
Members of the Asian-American community attested to this to Carless, noting that Trump himself drew pockets of support from conservative members of their community, including those who adhere to old social norms. So naturally, the Proud Boys’ ethos revolving around masculinity and “traditional” Western culture taps into a powerful vein of sympathy.
"The Proud Boys are a very attractive place for men of any ethnic background who are part of a toxic masculinity," said Jennifer Ho, president of the Association for Asian American Studies. "Because what they share is a fundamental belief in their maleness—a fundamental belief that U.S. society has gone off the rails."
"This isn't a surprise for us," said Kaiser Kuo, host and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast, which discusses current affairs in China. "I know these people, I know what they're all about. Even this recent wave of anti-Asian hate crime, which you would think might have shaken them out of their admiration for these racists and crypto-fascists like the Proud Boys—it's actually only reinforced their beliefs."