During opening statements in the seditious conspiracy trial of Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, his defense attorney claimed that the Proud Boys are merely a “drinking club” and added that it is simply untrue that the organization is racist, sexist, or homophobic. But Tarrio and his fellow Proud Boys are all of those things. Indeed, the Proud Boys are a fascist street gang whose members stand accused of conspiring to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6, 2021. Multiple Proud Boys have been charged with leading and participating in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Some have already pleaded guilty. On one social media account, Tarrio himself cheered on the January 6th attack, telling his men and others not to leave the Capitol. According to court filings, Tarrio even boasted in an encrypted chat: “Make no mistake… We did this.”
None of this will stop the Proud Boys, or their lawyers, from trying to soften the group’s public image. Nor should anyone be fooled. As we discuss extremists and the ideas that mobilize them, bad faith actors cannot be allowed to control the narratives around dangerous and violent goals, ideologies, or actions. No one – including elected officials, government agencies, reporters, or researchers – should take their self-serving descriptions at face value. This article highlights several of the numerous instances of domestic terrorists attempting to promote and rehabilitate their own public image since the Jan. 6th attack, and argues that it is important to reject these bad-faith arguments and call out the groups’ propaganda efforts.
Media Coverage of Extremist Groups Impacts How the Public Perceives Them
The Proud Boys’ seditious conspiracy trial comes on the heels of other significant media coverage of domestic extremism. In recent months, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol released its final report and supporting materials. As the two-year anniversary of the attack came and went, Oath Keepers founder and president Stewart Rhodes, alongside several of his key lieutenants, were convicted of conspiring to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power. These events have led to new scrutiny of extremist groups and how to best combat them.
In a media landscape where reader attention is hard to get and even harder to keep, reporters covering extremism must explain complex narratives and ideologies into digestible, compelling sound bites and blurbs. But the words that national and local news outlets, government officials, and researchers use matter, whether they are covering the attack on the U.S. Capitol or analyzing the white supremacist mass shooting at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Years of problematic analysis and public coverage on the far-right ecosystem were directly responsible for the rise of groups like the Proud Boys. In that same vein, government blind spots in the buildup to Jan. 6th have underscored the real-world implications of underestimating the seriousness of this threat going forward.
Two key considerations should be kept in mind as we analyze extremist groups and individuals. First, extremists lie: they use coded language, dog whistles, memefication, and trolling to intentionally obfuscate their viewpoints and motivations. We saw this most recently when Proud Boys member Jeremy Bertino admitted at trial that he lied to the Jan. 6th Committee in his deposition. Second, they are effective propagandists who frequently employ strategic messaging to radicalize and recruit; this messaging is frequently facilitated by social media platforms and traditional media outlets. Extremists intentionally seek out media attention for their own benefit, recognizing that there is a net positive in contaminating the broader information ecosystem. As a result, researchers and reporters must interrogate their messages to avoid reiterating the groups’ slogans or characterizations of themselves, lest we spread their propaganda for them. Critically engaging with what extremists say and do – rather than taking them at their word – is paramount in preventing extremists and their beliefs from becoming accepted by mainstream audiences. This starts with calling these groups what they are and refusing to platform violent extremists and their conspiratorial narratives.
The Proud Boys Are Fascists, Not a “Drinking Club”
In his February 2022 deposition before the Jan. 6th Committee, Tarrio repeatedly attempted to launder familiar talking points concerning the Proud Boys’ plan for the January 6th attack and their broader belief system. Foreshadowing his defense strategy at his federal trial, Tarrio whitewashed the Proud Boys’ reputation in his deposition, claiming “we’re usually a very happy bunch. Just, like, [our] focus is on hanging out, drinking with the boys.” Indeed, members of the group regularly characterize themselves as a patriotic boys’ club that is focused on drinking, as if their occasional street brawls with antifa or Black Lives Matter activists happen almost by chance.
However, ample evidence has demonstrated that the Proud Boys actively seek out violence and reject multiracial democracy. At their core, the Proud Boys are fascists, full stop. While they attempt to cultivate a softer public-facing image in order to evade accusations of fascism, time and time again, the Proud Boys’ actions align with fascistic principles. The organization’s activities on Jan. 6th, in which they conspired to subvert the democratic process, led to their designation as a terrorist entity in both Canada and New Zealand. But the Jan. 6th attack was merely one instance of the Proud Boys’ use of political violence in furtherance of their goals, as the group has continued to mobilize against their perceived enemies in the two years since the Capitol storming.
And while the Proud Boys – and many who research, study, and report on them – often characterize the group as “Western chauvinists,” this phrase is rarely scrutinized. When asked how he would define Western chauvinism, Tarrio told the Jan. 6th Committee that “‘chauvinism’ just means extreme patriotism,” which he described as “loving this country and its many, many diverse hues.” The Proud Boys have repeatedly claimed their organization cannot be white supremacist merely because they have members of color among their ranks and leadership, including Tarrio, who is Afro-Cuban. But make no mistake: this narrative is deliberately misleading. The group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, has frequently espoused white supremacist narratives and since their inception, the Proud Boys have consistently sought to stoke racial tensions. Tarrio was arrested prior to the January 6th attack for burning a D.C. church’s Black Lives Matter banner, an act designed to deliberately provoke the Proud Boys’ perceived enemies.
As described in the Jan. 6th Committee’s opening hearing, the Proud Boys use violence against political enemies and promote white supremacy. Their private communications and overt acts – before, during, and after January 6 – make this point abundantly clear; even as they attempt to distance themselves from this reality, the group functions as a permeable barrier to overly neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. The group has aligned itself with various neo-Nazi networks, “White Lives Matter” campaigns, and groups like NSC-131 and Rise Above Movement. The Proud Boys are a chapter-based group, and several of its largest, most influential factions openly adhere to neo-Nazism or white supremacist beliefs. Therefore, we should not simply repeat the Proud Boys messages or simply regurgitate claims that the group is nothing more than “Western chauvinists.” To do so only facilitates the mainstreaming of the organization and its fundamentally dangerous ideology.
The Oath Keepers Are Anti-Government Extremists, Not Patriots
Just as the Proud Boys attempt to hide their fascist agenda, the Oath Keepers seek to reframe their virulent anti-government extremism through a lens of twisted “patriotism.” In his deposition before the Jan. 6th Committee, now-convicted seditionist Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes tried to strategically frame his organization in a way that is at-odds with reality. For example, Rhodes testified that he views himself merely as “a constitutionalist” and that his purportedly nonpartisan group attracted individuals of every political walk of life “because they stand on the common ground of the Constitution.” Rhodes has long attempted to situate his group as one composed of constitutionalists who oppose government tyranny. But the Oath Keepers, well beyond jingoism, portray their enemies as de facto traitors and legitimate targets for political violence. The Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol was a natural consequence of their warped worldview. The Oath Keepers sought to forcefully obstruct the peaceful transfer of power, believing that then President-elect Joe Biden and his supporters were the real traitors. Rhodes’ “constitutionalists” therefore turned against the American principles they claimed they wanted to protect.
The Oath Keepers’ ideology has also evolved in recent years. The group was once preoccupied with a seemingly inevitable conflict with the federal government, but its members have increasingly focused on a broad range of actors on the political left – from antifa to Black Lives Matter to anyone viewed as a “cultural Marxist.” Any one of these parties could be deemed valid targets in the supposedly imminent civil war. In this vein, the Oath Keepers’ own rhetoricin the lead-up to the Jan. 6th attack shows a group fixated on an impending battle for the fate of the country. For instance, Stewart Rhodes claimed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by the “Communist Chinese and their domestic enemy allies,” including the “illegitimate puppet, Joe Biden.” In Rhodes’ view, the entire American left is nothing more than an extension of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While Rhodes’ claims are obviously unsubstantiated, that doesn’t make them any less dangerous; at least several of his fellow Oath Keepers joined him in conspiring against their own government in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
That said, there can still be value in listening to what extremists have to say. Their public appearances, social media posts, and private communications can help us understand what motivates them and what actions they may take next. But their words must always be placed in proper context, especially as they attempt to rehabilitate their reputation and avoid harsh sentencing in the wake of the Jan. 6th attack. As terrorism relies heavily upon propaganda of the deed, those who study and report on them should also evaluate extremists based on their actions – especially when those deeds contradict their stated goals. After all, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6th are not merely drinking buddies, patriots, or constitutionalists. They are violent extremists who reject American democracy and have no issue with taking up arms against perceived enemies. We must recognize them for what they are, rather than what they call themselves. We cannot afford them the power to tell their version of history.