Proud Boys don't live in the real world – much less want to change it

Far from having an intellectual organising principle, they are simply a product of the social media age we live in

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The sentences have been handed down. They are not slaps on the wrist. The leaders of the Proud Boys, main players in the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol building to prevent certification of the presidential election result will be going to prison for quite a while.

On September 5, Enrique Tarrio, leader of the group, was given the stiffest sentence: 22 years in prison. The charge was seditious conspiracy for plotting to keep former president Donald Trump in power through the violence that day. Three other members of the group received sentences of between 10 and 18 years. A fifth was convicted of other violent offences on the day.

But what are they going to prison for? What is their ideology, their political theory beyond slavish devotion to Mr Trump?

Essentially the Proud Boys are “antis”. Their ideology is to be against things. At least that’s the impression you get from reading about them in a recent analysis in Sentinel, a magazine published by the Combatting Terrorism Centre at West Point, the US military university.

The group is anti: feminism, immigration, Muslim, Jews and many civil liberties. Reading about them you are reminded of Marlon Brando’s line in the classic film about a motorcycle gang, The Wild One: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” Brando answers: “Whaddaya got?”

But the group is not so innocent. A significant part of their ideology is violence: the threat and the execution of violence against those they hate; a justification of armed force as the main tool for taking and maintaining political power.

What they are “pro” is a racially defined nationalism and authoritarian leadership, in their case Mr Trump.

Donald Trump gets ready to throw a football to the crowd during a visit to in Ames, Iowa, last week before an NCAA college football game. AP Photo
An objective fact – Trump lost the 2020 election – has no meaning to them. The subjective internet reality – Trump won – is what guides their behaviour

In their belief in violence, the superiority of the American nation as they define it, and zealous lionising of Mr Trump, the group is similar to any number of militant movements that have arisen over the past 100 or so years. But what they lack is any kind of intellectual organising principle.

They are a product of our time: the age of social media and short, hot-takes.

The group was founded by Gavin McInnes, an internet-age media mogul. While still in his twenties, with two colleagues, he set up Vice, an alternative weekly in Montreal, Canada in the 1990s. Riding the various waves of internet bubbles and busts Vice relocated to New York and became a phenomenally successful brand, if not always a successful business.

Outrage, boundary-breaking bad manners and lad culture all figured in Vice’s growth. McInnes, however, could not keep his white supremacist views to himself and that added a dollop of controversy. He eventually left the company and put his worldview out on the new platforms created on the web: podcast, columns in online magazines and a YouTube show.

In 2016, he announced formation of the Proud Boys in Taki’s Magazine, a webzine founded by long-time gadfly journalist Taki Theodoracopulos.

Theodoracopulos spent decades in mainstream magazines by blending articles about the rich and famous and their fabulous lifestyles, in which he was an active participant, with off-hand comments in support of the military junta which overthrew democracy in Greece in 1967 and ruled there for close to seven years.

Readers of the Spectator in Britain and Vanity Fair in the US didn’t take him very seriously. But in the internet age, his brand of neo-fascism became more acceptable in polite company, and McInnes launching the Proud Boys in Taki’s Magazine seemed perfect.

And also not very serious. McInnes took the name “Proud Boys” from the Disney musical Aladdin. The song is called Proud of Your Boy:

Proud of your boy

I'll make you proud of your boy

Believe me, bad as I've been, ma

You're in for a pleasant surprise

A still from the movie Aladdin. The Proud Boys got their name from the Disney musical. AP Photo

Ironic use of a Disney song is not really much of an origin story for a political theory.

But internet irony does explain why the Proud Boys were able to organise so quickly. The group’s membership represents something unique to the 21st century: their view of reality has been formed entirely by internet media. In some ways they cannot distinguish between the real world they experience and what they’ve been told about it online.

An objective fact – Mr Trump lost the 2020 election – has no meaning to them. The subjective internet reality – Mr Trump won – is what guides their behaviour.

As Tarrio and the others have been led out of the courtroom, they have been defiant. One cried: “Trump won!”

Perhaps the defiance is based on a belief that Mr Trump will win next year’s presidential election and issue pardons. A not-unreasonable hope. Mr Trump’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has hinted he will pardon the men, calling their sentences excessive.

“They just walked into the Capitol,” he said. “If they were Black Lives Matter, they would not have been prosecuted.”

But the Proud Boys should be prepared to live with disappointment. As they will be in prison, that’s five votes Mr Trump (or Mr DeSantis or whoever the Republicans nominate) won’t get next year. But that is the point: I don’t think five votes will make much difference to the outcome.

There is objective reality and internet reality. Voting, and going to prison for trying to undermine voting, happens in the former.

Published: September 12, 2023, 5:00 AM