The Proud Boys are one of the most dangerous organizations in the Western world because they reframe their extremism as an assertion of their masculinity. It is through this masculine lens that they covertly radicalize Western men. Rigid gender norms posit that fighting back when the whole world is perceived to be against you is natural; to do anything else, in their minds, would be un-masculine. This is how Proud Boys advance a fascist agenda while using crypto-fascist strategies of denial and post hoc distancing to obscure their intent.
To understand the Proud Boys, it is important to understand one of the primary stages of their recruitment, “taking the redpill.” The redpill is the gateway into the conspiratorial thinking which drives the majority of far-right violent extremism. Through the redpill, Proud Boys choose a new reality that frees them from personal responsibility—a reality where they frame themselves as victims.
“Taking the redpill” is a reference to The Matrix, in which the main character takes a literal red pill in order to learn the truth about his society. In this context, the redpill refers to men awakening to the reality of male subjugation by women under feminism. The redpill dovetails with the fear that white men will lose their standing in a world they cannot dominate and lose their women to Black or brown men. This fear is known by another term in extremist circles—white genocide. White genocide or “The Great Replacement” is the concept that changing racial demographics are leading to white extinction. This erasure is believed to be facilitated by a Jewish cabal pushing immigration of non-white individuals in order to further emasculate white men.
The redpill feeds into other conspiratorial thinking which situates Black and brown bodies as an existential threat. This is why it is common for conspiracies such as 9/11 trutherism, QAnon, Pizzagate, the Kalergi Plan and, most recently, COVID-19 disinformation to circulate in Proud Boys’ rhetorical spaces.
An incident in Vancouver, British Columbia most saliently highlights the hostile ideology of the Proud Boys in practice—extremism not only espoused but acted upon. On November 12, 2017, Proud Boys descended on a bar in Vancouver. After prior confrontations, they were told by the bar owners not to return, as their presence “had annoyed patrons.” They showed up in defiance of the bar owners’ request in distinctive identifying apparel—black and yellow Fred Perry polo t-shirts. The night the Proud Boys chose to target the bar, a fundraiser was being held for Women Against Violence Against Women. Their presence was a deliberate provocation. That evening, two Proud Boys members were attacked in the bathroom by four unnamed individuals. Proud Boys later framed themselves as victims and used the incident to recruit more members while harassing the female bar staff online and over the phone. Their actions can be interpreted as an attempt to maximize the suffering of an already traumatized community and to garner sympathy for recruitment purposes.
The Proud Boys as a Multi-Racial White Supremacist Organization
The concept of a multi-racial organization with white supremacist goals merits further explanation. In the United States, there is no unifying cultural identity of whiteness. Amidst this cultural vacuum, Proud Boys present a paradigm built on culturally normative sadism coupled with aggrieved male entitlement. This paradigm is how Proud Boys form a kinship around the most destructive undercurrents of American society—undercurrents that violently entered collective consciousness. Today in the United States, a white police officer can kill a Black man by putting a knee to his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The public can then attack the victim’s character, diminish the Black community’s suffering, and allow narratives of police victimhood to dominate the debate around police brutality. Meanwhile, protesters, journalists, and the elderly have been teargassed and brutalized by militarized police forces in the streets.
The Proud Boys remain difficult to properly classify because Americans are desensitized and uniquely indifferent to the ways in which the white supremacist structure presents itself in American society. They have grown accustomed to pronounced levels of cruelty. This normative American cruelty is evident in Proud Boys’ behavior and dress at rallies. The Proud Boys nativist worldview has been exported to European countries. Anti-immigrant narratives are salient, promoted through Breitbart co-founder Steve Bannon, who hopes to establish a stronghold within European populist movements.
Proud Boys are known to hold or coattend demonstrations wearing shirts that display their lack of empathy. For example, they have worn shirts that say “I Can Breathe” to hijack Eric Garner’s last words before dying in another example of police brutality. Other apparel has included statements like “Feminist Tears” and “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong.”
According to founding members, the Proud Boys were “explicitly alt-right” at their inception. External pressure following the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and gang assaults in the New York Ten incident made Proud Boys more mindful of public optics. On the encrypted app Telegram, a typical Proud Boy member encounters fascist, conspiratorial, and antisemitic content that dehumanizes their perceived opposition. The conspiratorial content they voluntarily expose themselves to (and are primed for through the redpill) have justified murder and intimidation campaigns in Islamberg, New York and countless other shows of force. These instances are detailed in the author’s incident map, a visual repository for over 130 known events Proud Boys have organized, coattended, or targeted.
“Thought Leaders” like Gavin McInnes, Stefan Molyneux, and others facilitate the process of taking the redpill. These men entwine Islamophobic, misogynistic, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ narratives with calls for radical male empowerment and radical self-improvement. Women have had a feminist movement to articulate and transcend their oppression. Proud Boys posit that men have had no concurrent movement. In this gendered vacuum, Proud Boys present a toxic gendered paradigm wherein men are encouraged to aggressively perform their masculinity to correct perceived injustices. It is through this paradigm that a man can initially embrace self-empowerment without realizing they’ve taken the redpill accompanying it. After “taking” it, members are encouraged to turn any issue or criticism against them into evidence of their own oppression while discounting the humanity of others. The radicalization process is akin to grooming, in which potential recruits are brought in unaware of the hidden intent and enticed by the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood. A camaraderie and brotherhood around defending the West primes many Proud Boys to follow a white supremacist trajectory, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or country. Proud Boys don’t have to start as white nationalists to be courted by them.
The first step in the courting process involves taking the redpill—awakening to perceived gendered subjugation. From there, members are repeatedly exposed to memes, videos, podcasts, and other content that systematically desensitizes them to targeted violence. During the post-redpill desensitization process, they go through various training programs to earn their degrees and further develop kinship with their brothers.
The first degree requires an initiate to state the Proud Boys’ fraternity creed. The second degree requires the initiate to be punched until he can name five breakfast cereals. Once the initiate succeeds, he is an official member. The third degree involves the new member getting a tattoo with Proud Boys phrases or symbols. Finally, the fourth degree requires the member to engage in violence on the group’s behalf. Some members have chosen to earn their fourth degree by implementing targeted violence against members of the Muslim community, as Proud Boy Geoff Young did at an Anti-Sharia rally on June 10, 2017.
Members’ repeated exposure to un-sanitized hatred, misogyny, racism, and antisemitism is how many Proud Boys edge further into extremism. Some Proud Boys become radicalized to the extent that violence against others becomes a legitimate, celebrated option. The longer members marinate in Proud Boys chats, the more the terminological distinctions (e.g. civic nationalists, ethno-nationalists, alt-light, alt-right) dissolve. This is why many members go on to join more overtly alt-right groups and even clandestine terrorist organizations. Regardless of their trajectory into and out of the movement, misogyny remains a salient factor.
Poor media literacy makes Americans uniquely susceptible to embracing the religious fervor of QAnon, while the grievances of the alt-right mobilize younger, transnational audiences. Both advance a fascist agenda and provide pathways for Proud Boys’ violent extremism, defined by Khalifa Ihler as the, “violent denial of diversity.”
Aggrieved entitlement cannot be separated from far-right movements. To understand misogyny’s role in the global far-right we can look to Gamergate, a controversy surrounding the ethical treatment of women in gaming. Gamergate was the seminal event where the various male grievance groups in the manosphere coalesced. Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian, and Zoe Quinn— vocal critics of the gaming industry—called for change and were met with an extreme harassment campaign of death, rape, and bomb threats so severe that it pushed Sarkeesian into hiding. In 2015, Wu described this strategy. “The problem with Gamergate,” Wu wrote, “is you can’t satirize these people. I can’t stress this enough: the wider point here is the gamification of the harassment of women.” Post hoc distancing for the misogynistic harassment campaigns would later become a common far-right strategy. Gamergate highlights misogyny not as an outlier but as a catalyst for uniting the disparate elements of the far-right.
Proud Boys do not want freedom, in the traditional American sense. They do not seek freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion. They want the ability to force women to be subservient to men. They want the “freedom” to invert the redpill paradigm, which, in their view, positions them as subservient to women. As the Khalifa Ihler hate map highlights, the Proud Boys desire the freedom to impose their will on others without constraints. This is fascism—a preoccupation with the domination or murder of others who the group feels are beneath them. This extremist ideology is a Canadian import that cross-pollinated in America and is now being sent to Europe in its repackaged form—an assertion of one’s masculinity. In 2018, the Proud Boys were briefly recognized as an extremist organization. In 2020, American and European lawmakers should reinstate that classification and conduct an audit of law enforcement, members of congress, and members of parliament who share in the group’s willingness to undermine global democracy.
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Samantha Kutner received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in communication studies from the University of Nevada, Reno. She studies violent extremism and the gender dynamics of radicalization. Her research has been published in the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism Studies in the Hague and referenced in Rolling Stone, Truth or Fiction, Miami New Times, The Daily Beast, and Nation of Change. As an independent consultant, Samantha provides training presentations informed by her ethnographic research with Proud Boys and Antifascists. To learn more about Samantha, her research, and Glitterpill, visit proudboyswhisperer.com and follow her on Twitter: @ashkenaz89.