Resolute Square

The Proud Boys Will Continue to Mainstream Hate

"The Proud Boys have become a conduit for the infusion of extremist energies into American public life and the Republican party," writes Ruth Ben-Ghiat. And they're not going away.
Credit: Becker1999/Wikimedia Commons
Published:September 6, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

17 years for Joe Biggs. 15 years for Zachary Rehl. 18 years for Ethan Nordean. And now 22 years for Enrique Tarrio. Could the lengthy prison sentences given to leaders of the far-right Proud Boys for their involvement in the Jan. 6 coup attempt curb the group's influence? After all, Tarrio was the group's former leader, and Biggs a successor, while Rehl and Nordean organized the Philadelphia and Seattle-area groups. While the prospect of long spells behind bars could deter some from violent actions, the Proud Boys as a whole are not going to disappear anytime soon.

That's because the Proud Boys have become a conduit for the infusion of extremist energies into American public life and the Republican party. While they will need to rebuild their leadership, collectively the Proud Boys will likely play a larger role in Republican politics at the local level as well as acting as a de facto paramilitary wing of the Republican party.

A Proud Boy supporter at a Second Amendment rally in Salem, Oregon, May 1, 2021. Paula Bronstein/AP Photo.

The landscape of hate groups in the United States is changing. A 2022 report found that while the total number of hate groups is declining—older groups such as the Ku Klux Klan are not as popular—some groups are seeing a surge in membership. The Proud Boys is one. "They remain one of the most active —and most violent—far-right groups in the country," says Sam Jones of the Armed Conflict Event & Data Location Project.

Because the Proud Boys’ organizational structure is less hierarchical than many other such groups, "decapitation," as the counter-terrorism approach of targeting leaders is called, affects them less (in contrast, the Oath Keepers have declined in strength a bit after its leader Stewart Rhodes received an 18-year prison sentence for seditious conspiracy). The Proud Boys, which were founded just seven years ago, have also been able to pivot to new targets, such as LGBTQ people, more easily than older groups.

Yet the true secret of the Proud Boys' success is their relationships with Republican politicians and operatives, from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. "What's happening now is there are softer barriers between the mainstream Republican party and the fringe far right,” Michael Edison Hayden, a Senior Investigative Reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me in 2022. "Radicalization through the Internet has eroded those barriers, to the point that after Jan. 6 one could argue that they've broken down altogether."

GOP politicians who share the Proud Boys’ white supremacist views have found them to be useful tools for radicalization (attending rallies, including as security, is good for recruitment), and subversion of all sorts, although a scheme by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) to reportedly deploy Proud Boys to block certification of the results of the 2020 election in Arizona did not bear fruit.

It's telling that former president Donald Trump singled out this group and not others as his foot soldiers during a 2020 presidential debate. His comment, "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by," caused a surge in membership and cemented the group’s devotion to him, just as it was intended to do.

Today's playbook for far-right insurrections, activated by Trump in the United States and by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, requires a civilian army of thugs at the ready. Trump cultivated the Proud Boys, and on Jan. 6, when "stand by" became "fight like hell," they were on the front lines.

In the wake of the failed coup, some Proud Boys have moved into politics: in 2022, at least half a dozen Proud Boys had seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee. The Proud Boys will likely increase their presence in Republican politics at the local level as the fusion of the GOP with the most extremist elements of American society continues. In the meantime, their leaders will be locked up for a very long time.