Proud Boys leader may be on trial — but his thugs are still on the street causing trouble

In the wake of Jan. 6, vanguard of American fascism has "reformed" — now they're Christian nationalist warriors

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 21, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

After five Oath Keepers were convicted last month of crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, the leaders of the Proud Boys should be sweating. Jury selection began this week in the trial of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four of his top lieutenants on various charges, including seditious conspiracy, quite similar to those that Oath Keepers head Stewart Rhodes and his followers faced. The evidence seems similar too, as CNN reports: It's largely based on "the defendants' own words in texts and social media posts, as well as recorded planning meetings and videos from the riot." Even their defense strategies are the same. Just as the Oath Keepers tried to spin their extensive conspiracy leading up to the Capitol assault as little more than fantasy roleplay, Tarrio and other Proud Boys are arguing they had no pre-existing plans to storm the Capitol, and that any messages suggesting otherwise were just kidding around. 

Every jury is different, and it's wise not to make assumptions about how any criminal trial will go. But it's worth noting that the jury in the Oath Keepers trial spent very little time deliberating before coming back with guilty verdicts on seditious conspiracy for Rhodes and his right hand man, Kelly Meggs, as well as convictions on various other charges for all five defendants. The "just kidding" defense is harder to pull off when the event you seemed to be planning — in this case, the Capitol insurrection — happened in broad daylight and on live TV, with extensive documentary evidence that your followers did exactly what you told them to do. 

But while things don't look so hot for Tarrio and the other indicted leaders, the Proud Boys as an organization aren't going away. Arguably they've only grown stronger in the nearly two years since the insurrection, in terms of recruiting new members, attracting attention, and amassing political power. 

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"Their leadership might be sitting behind bars, but the Proud Boys are still mobilizing at a rapid pace across the country," Andy Campbell, HuffPost reporter and author of "We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism," told Salon. "They're out there to fight for GOP grievances, and today, that grievance is the LGBTQ community."

In the Proud Boys' first few years, after the group was formed by right-wing shock jock and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016, they focused mainly on a Trump-inspired message of "Western chauvinism," which claimed not to advocate racism or white supremacy but certainly had a great deal in common with those things. In the post-Jan. 6 era, however, the group has evolved a bit away from being full-on Trumpist shock troops and toward being a Christian nationalist organization devoted to amplifying the culture war and making it more confrontational, and even violent.

Since the beginning of last summer, "the biggest focus for the Proud Boys ... has been anti-LGBTQ activism, a hard pivot from its actions in the first half of the year," Tess Owen, the Vice reporter who covers right-wing radicals, explained in a recent analysis. "Proud Boys in at least 11 different states showed up to venues such as libraries and restaurants to intimidate drag shows."

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), "Far-right militias and militant social movements like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front have increased their engagement in anti-LGBT+ demonstrations by over three times this year."

As Owen explains, this is very much by design: After Jan. 6, partly at Tarrio's urging, "the group switched tactics. Local chapters burrowed into their communities, and forged alliances with other right-wing activists around whatever the culture war issue du jour was."

The Proud Boys love to talk smack about movements like antifa and Black Lives Matter, but it also seems they've learned quite a bit about the tactical effectiveness of "leaderless organizing" from their political opponents. Leftist activists, including those groups and others, created the model for diffuse, highly local organizations that rely on social media to build coalitions and set goals. But groups on the right, especially the Proud Boys, have adopted them and excelled at them. That crowd-sourced model of activism does create chaos at times, as leftists will attest. Proud Boys cycled through many focal points, including anti-abortion activism, before settling on anti-LGBTQ organizing. But there's no doubt that these tactics have created a pathway for the group to survive and even thrive, even as a number of leaders face potential prison sentences.

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One result of all this is that the group's original identity as a secular dudes' drinking club is giving way to a more overtly Christian nationalist bent. No doubt the hyper-masculine braggadacio that always defined the Proud Boys still plays a central role, and has even gotten worse in many ways. ACLED points out that Proud Boys are now more likely to show up armed at protests, or provoke physical confrontations, than they were last year. But layered on top of the tough-guy cosplay is a religious right agenda, and more overt Jesus talk than they previously employed. 

The Proud Boys love to hate antifa and Black Lives Matter, but they've definitely learned a lot about "leaderless organizing" from their left-wing opponents.

As Campbell told Salon, the shift in organizing strategies doesn't mean the Proud Boys have no leaders. But instead of taking direct orders from people with official titles, he said, "you can expect to see this band of extremists anywhere Trump or Tucker Carlson point their finger." That's what experts in political violence call "stochastic terrorism," when movement generals use media and other forms of public communication to make their wishes known without explicitly issuing orders. This allows the top dogs to direct violence while evading legal culpability for doing so. 

In any case, the Proud Boys may not be as leaderless as all that. McInnes claimed to leave the group in 2018, but as Daily Beast reporter Will Sommer noted in October, while covering a Proud Boys convention in Las Vegas, McInnes still seems to hold considerable influence "over the secretive quasi-paramilitary group." Sommer recorded McInnes issuing edicts about who was expelled from the group and who could remain; Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center told the Washington Post in October that he "remains intimately involved in their internal matters."

On a recent episode of the podcast "Posting Through It," Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor and author of "White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America," drew a distinction between federal law enforcement responses to extremist groups now and in the recent past. 

"In the '90s," she notes, the neo-Nazi group Stormfront was broken up after "the FBI, ATF, everybody came after them" and there was broad consensus, including among law enforcement, that "white identity movements were really terrible." But both before and after Jan. 6, she said, there hasn't been anywhere near the same focus on disrupting far-right groups, even as some of their ringleaders have been arrested. 

"I think we live in dangerous times," she concluded. "And I'm really not sure the feds or the Justice Department really grasps how bad this is right now." 

It's true that the diffuse nature of Proud Boys organizing makes it much more difficult for law enforcement to break up radical organizations than it was in the '90s. As Butler points out, and as evidence in the trial will likely show social media and other online communications have made it easier for extremists to find each other without a formal organization, and even without ever being in the same room. But as the attacks on drag shows and other LGBTQ spaces and events demonstrate, the danger posed by hate groups has not diminished. Putting the Proud Boy commanders on trial for their role in the Capitol insurrection is an important first step. But if we really intend to defeat 21st-century fascism, law enforcement must become much more nimble and creative to deal with the way these groups organize in the social media age. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Analysis Capitol Riot Enrique Tarrio Gavin Mcinnes Jan. 6 Proud Boys