The Proud Boys call themselves a patriotic drinking club of Western chauvinists. But Andy Campbell, the guest in this episode of the Wider Angle podcast, argues that we need to look at the facts and data instead, pointing to the acts of frightful political violence behind this anti-immigrant, ultranationalist, anti-LGBTQ, misogynistic extremist group. Campbell is a senior editor and reporter at HuffPost and the author of “We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism.”
Campbell shares his observations about the group, founded by Gavin McInnes in 2016, the year Campbell visited and reported from several political rallies in support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. He witnessed many examples of what at the time seemed “off” and “bewildering” behavior by the Proud Boys. While most of the other groups preferred anonymity, from the start the Proud Boys “were concerning because they wanted to talk to the press, they had nicknames for each other lionizing their violence, they wanted to be celebrated as the guys fighting in the street for Trump.” They would emerge not only as the leaders of street gangs but would also reach mainstream audiences, acting as “patriotic freedom fighters.” Along the way, they gained esteem in Republican political circles and were endorsed by some politicians. Campbell argues that what sets the Proud Boys apart as an explicit threat is that “ability to [form a] coalition” — with the media, law enforcement and various GOP members — as well as their knack for fast mobilization of “extremists from all factions under their banner.”
Because of “the crisis now of normalized political violence as some justified option in politics,” Campbell warns that it is dangerous to think of groups like the Proud Boys as “an outlier” or a fleeting moment in modern U.S. history. In fact, he points out, they are mobilizing faster than ever in acting upon right-wing grievances. He believes “the spirit of the Proud Boys won’t go away even if they happen to change their name or dissolve tomorrow.” Campbell does not shy from calling out the right-wing pundits or conservative media for downplaying or misrepresenting the threat. But he also points to the responsibility of the broader press “reporting on modern extremism” in general. When downplaying the available data, Campbell says, either out of “ignorance or negligence,” such coverage of right-wing extremists can become a means of their propaganda instead.
Five members of the Proud Boys, including ex-leader Enrique Tarrio, are on trial for their role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Campbell praises the importance of local community resistance, antifascist resistance and citizen efforts like those in Portland, Oregon, which has been the site of massive clashes.
Listen to the conversation to get the wider angle about the urgency of recognizing the damage that has already been done by far-right groups like the Proud Boys in normalizing violence in American politics. Campbell emphasizes their ongoing danger and “the extremist playbook” they created for the digital age. The episode is available wherever you listen to podcasts, or on YouTube here.
“Wider Angle” is produced and hosted by Riada Asimovic Akyol.