The Proud Boys: Circling the drain or just rebranding?

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The Proud Boys are a far-right white supremacist paramilitary group that was organized and came to national prominence in 2016, the year Donald Trump launched his first presidential campaign. The Boys rapidly became known for their virulent — and often violent — racism, antisemitism and homophobia, as well as their cultish following of Trump, which led them to becoming major players in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.

However, after Jan. 6, many in the Proud Boys hierarchy were arrested and prosecuted for their participation in the riot. Four of the group’s top leaders, including local Philadelphia Proud Boys leader Zachary Rehl, as well as Enrique Tarrio, Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs were convicted of the serious charge of seditious conspiracy for helping to plan and execute the riot, facing possible decades of prison time. Also, many more of the group’s members have been convicted and jailed on lesser charges, with more still pending.

Possibly as a result of these convictions, in the last year the number of events and rallies held by the Proud Boys has diminished by almost half. This has led some in the progressive movement to speculate: could the Proud Boys have peaked? Or is this just a sign of a change in tactics?

Both could be true.

Since Jan. 6, the Proud Boys has reconfigured themselves into a loose affiliation of largely autonomous state chapters, with the hot spots of activity largely centered in northwestern and southern states. Given the negative publicity derived from the Jan. 6 convictions, and the earlier Unite the Right rally incident (at which, in 2017, a Proud Boys member ran down and killed a counter-protester), the group has been trying to rebrand somewhat, to diminish its reputation for violence.

One way they have attempted to ingratiate themselves in their communities has been by participating in charity work, which is a tactic long used by extremist groups to drum up local support and lure in prospective recruits. In February 2023, Proud Boys delivered food and water supplies to residents of East Palestine, Ohio following the train derailment there. Proud Boys of Long Island and upstate New York held toy drives for children’s hospitals for the last couple of years.

The effort to improve their optics may also have been the logic behind the Proud Boys’ pivot away from overt white nationalism and an increased focus on anti-LGBTQ+ activism. The shift towards anti-LGBTQ+ activism took place is mid-2022, coinciding with the Republican Party’s amping up its pushback against decades of LGBTQ+ progress. The far-right coalesced around conspiracy theories claiming that anyone who exposed children to LGBTQ-inclusive educational programming — which includes drag queen story hours, family-friendly Pride events, or children’s books featuring same-sex parents — was on a sinister queer agenda and trying to “groom” kids. By taking up the Republicans’ antigay banner, the Proud Boys could move away from the perception of being a group of violent, dangerous racists and paint themselves as protectors of children.

Another strategy has been to make common cause with other far-right organizations; such alliances would be seen as helping the Boys insinuate themselves into mainstream Republican politics. The most fruitful alliance has been with Moms for Liberty (M4L) and their friends. M4L is another far-right group with a virulently homophobic agenda, pushing against an LGBTQ+ presence in schools, libraries and pushing an antigay agenda at school board and city council meetings across the country. And they often show up to protest Pride events and drag queen storytimes at public libraries. Proud Boys members often accompany M4L members and supporters to meetings to bolster their support. They often attend these meetings dressed in non-militia street clothes, but also, sometimes, they come armed.

However, M4L, for their part, have also been experiencing their own optics problems, and as such has recently shown a reluctance to be seen as affiliated with the Proud Boys. Last November, the national M4L leadership announced that it has removed two Kentucky chapter chairs from leadership positions after the women posed in photos with members of the Proud Boys.

The two women, who had led local chapters in Boone and Campbell counties near the Ohio border, appeared in photos with several men dressed in yellow and black Proud Boys clothing at a Nov. 4 rally in Frankfort, the Kentucky capital. The photos, posted on Facebook by another attendee, show the women smiling in Moms for Liberty clothing, as one helps to hold up a flag that reads, “Appalachian Proud Boys Kentucky.” In a post on X, M4L explained that the former chapter chairs were removed because they “demonstrated a lack of judgement and misalignment with our core values. Moms for Liberty is in no way affiliated with the Proud Boys and does not condone involvement with the organization. We repudiate hate and violence.”

For all its efforts to rebrand themselves, the Proud Boys have not been able (or willing) to shake their violent reputation. A December report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project — who keep data tracking the Proud Boys (including non-uniformed activity) — noted that despite the decrease in the group’s activity, they remain one of the most violent and active extremist organizations in the U.S. 

But the Boys’ attempts to rebrand may have unintended consequences. To prospective recruits in alt-right circles in 2016 and 2017, when the Proud Boys were just getting off the ground, they may have looked like edgy, racist frat bros who drank beer and got into fights. But as the group evolved, the younger, more extreme radicals are likely to become disaffected, and form their own groups. This development has already begun. Other more extreme groups and movements have cropped up in recent years, and have been successful in drawing in younger members. Explicitly antisemitic and hardcore neo-Nazi groups such as Blood Tribe, Goyim Defense League, NSC-131 and many others, have formed in recent years, making themselves increasingly visible by holding rallies around the country, positioning themselves as both allies, and possible replacements, of the Proud Boys.

These new groups tend to have similar origin stories. For example:

Blood Tribe is a growing neo-Nazi group whose members are followers of Christopher Pohlhaus, whose white supremacist beliefs include elements of Esoteric Hitlerism (which exalts Hitler as a deity). Blood Tribe presents itself as a hardcore white supremacist group and rejects white supremacists who call for softer “optics.” Their members emphasize hyper-masculinity; the group does not allow female members. Blood Tribe sees themselves as both the last remaining bulwark against enemies of the white race and the only path to a white ethnostate. The group was organized in 2021.

The Goyim Defense League is a loose network of individuals connected by their virulent antisemitism. The group includes five or six primary organizers/public figures, dozens of supporters and thousands of online followers. GDL operates GoyimTV, a video platform that streams antisemitic content. GDL espouses vitriolic antisemitism and white supremacist themes via the internet, through propaganda distributions and in street actions. GDL was formed late 2022.

These are but two of the groups formed recently in the original mold of the Proud Boys. The list of violent right-wing extremist groups that are organizing goes on to a distressing extent, including groups with such names as the Order of the Black Sun, Aryan Freedom Network, and the Active Clubs, a loose affiliation of autonomous groups with a shared white supremacist ideology.

So, are the Proud Boys circling the drain, or simply rebranding? It could be either, or both. Regardless of the fate of the Proud Boys as an organized entity, the violent right-wing extremist movement that spawned them is losing none of its appeal, and none of its threat to American democracy.

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