Quiet, Boys: Where Are the Proud Boys?

They're standing back and standing by.
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Donald Trump has spent years talking a big game about crowd sizes. His 2016 rallies could draw tens of thousands of people, numbers he often inflated by an additional several thousand when boasting of them after the fact; his administration heralded its arrival in 2017 by trotting out press secretary Sean Spicer to loudly and falsely claim that his Trump inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s.

Over the years, Trump revealed that, for him, crowds were more than ego-affirmation: they were also potential tools. These crowds were often composed of devotees to his cause, conspiracy theorists, keyboard warriors, militia members, and the street gang the Proud Boys. These people were willing to go further than simply voting for Trump: they would act in his name to fight those he regarded as his enemies. Trump used a 2020 debate stage to instruct the Proud Boys and others to “stand back and stand by;” on January 6, the Proud Boys spearheaded the assault on the Capitol.

Where are they now? Trump is back, but what struck me as I covered his New York criminal trial was how few people were willing to show up to support him. Day after day, Trump would falsely claim to reporters that security concerns were preventing crowds of his supporters from assembling. I was there day in and day out, freely walking through the empty park outside the courthouse where those crowds could have gathered.

Even on the day of the verdict itself, when a crowd of Trump supporters had appeared across from the courthouse and opposite a large group of anti-Trump protestors, the kind of street-fighting auxiliaries that mobilized throughout his administration to intimidate and brawl with Trump’s opponents were nowhere to be found.

I started to do some digging to understand why. I found that on several Telegram channels, local Proud Boys chapters specifically instructed their members to hold back and to do nothing as the verdict was announced. In one case, a group instructed its members to “let this play out through November.”

One Proud Boys Telegram channel said that the group would not be “planning any rallies, or any other reactions that the government would love.”

“Trump is, of course, getting railroaded but we will not be walking into any honey pots over this,” the message reads.

As another example — here’s what a North Carolina Proud Boys group told its members on Telegram the day after the verdict:

That surprised me. Experts and others — including a federal prosecutor — have said that the group viewed itself as “Trump’s army.” Here he was, guilty and speaking of revenge. Where were the troops?

The messages and lack of response shed light on the state of the Proud Boys more than three years after January 6. Through a series of prosecutions, federal law enforcement effectively decapitated the Proud Boys’ leadership. It’s left an organization that is vulnerable, unclear in its organization, more prone acting at the local level, far weaker than it was at the end of the Trump administration, but still resilient and capable of inflicting harm. And, as Reuters recently reported, the group is still recruiting and ready to reassume its role as an “unofficial protection force” of Trump’s.

“It’s amazing that they even still exist given what happened on January 6th and the aftermath of that,” Heidi Beirich, Chief Strategy Officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told TPM. “And yet they’re shadows of their former selves in terms of what they look like in 2020 and 2021.”

The Proud Boys no longer have the top-down leadership structure (as prone to infighting and accusations of betrayal as it was) that existed when it was helmed by the now-imprisoned Enrique Tarrio. The group now largely exists in the form of separate chapters scattered across the country.

It’s unclear whether the different chapters coordinate, but they’ve latched onto a string of causes since 2021 that largely pattern on to the culture war issues that animate the GOP base.

Proud Boys have scuffled outside a New York City drag story hour hosted by New York Attorney General Letitia James, and crashed a similar event in California. One North Carolina chapter appeared at a local school board to protest a vote on a transgender student athlete policy; a Texas chapter earlier this year attached itself to a “Take Our Border Back” convoy aimed at supporting Texas’ attempt to usurp border authority from the federal government.

Seeking Trump

The Proud Boys were able to draw their claim to be something more than a street gang from their ties to Trump. It’s what allowed them, during his administration, to brawl with leftist protestors that Trump also scapegoated; it’s the cover for violence that empowered them to take on the Capitol Police on January 6.

There are signs that some of that is returning. As Reuters reported, members of a Proud Boys New Jersey chapter already showed up at a Trump rally in the state to provide “security.”

But the chapters’ official pronouncements suggest that it’s waiting before it begins to try to act on a larger scale.

Amy Cooter, Director of Research at Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, told TPM that the group is taking a “wait and see” approach before the November election. If elected, Trump would regain the power to pardon those Proud Boys that were prosecuted for attacking the Capitol on January 6. Trump himself has said that he would consider issuing “full pardons with an apology,” maintaining a constant demand that they be “let go.”

Cooter said that the group was waiting for those pardons to come through in part to see “how much official legitimization they have through Trump.”

Julie Farnam was assistant director of intelligence for the Capitol Police on January 6. Farnam told TPM that Trump took the Proud Boys and “legitimized them and courted them as a voting bloc.”

The Proud Boys were able to do that partly because they had a foil in the form of protestors opposed to Trump’s agenda — Antifa, Black Lives Matter supporters. That “empowered” the Proud Boys, because their battles against Trump’s supposed enemies in the streets were met with some degree of approval from various Trump allies.

It’s less clear that anything similar is happening in 2024. Gavin McInnes, the group’s founder and former leader, appeared at a pro-Gaza protest in late April, bringing back some of the memories of violence between Proud Boys and leftist protestors in 2020.

McInnes’ appearance didn’t seem to accomplish anything apart from reminding people that he exists and that the Proud Boys were capable of brawling with protestors during the last administration.

Samantha Kutner, a researcher who has spent years speaking with current and former Proud Boys members, told TPM that the group has evolved since January 6 into a fractured collection of “autonomous” chapters focused on a common goal of wreaking as much havoc as possible.

It would be difficult to predict where the group might choose to flex its muscles, she said, but the main ingredients — grievance and association with Trump — remained.

“The anger and the sense of martyrdom and victimhood and this belief that Trump is their president and he’s going to fight corruption, when he’s the epitome of corruption, is still very, very strong,” she said.

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Notable Replies

  1. Gavin McInnes. Didn’t he play the captain on “The Love Boat.” How many times do these people have to be rounded up and identified until they are of no use to their terroristic aims? If you wanna round up somebody and prosecute them for buying a gun as a prohibited person, focus on these bad actors. A certain part of me wants them to get their much-ballyhooed Civil War started. It might be easier to neutralize this threat after that.

  2. Avatar for LHC LHC says:

    Really well-researched and well-written story.

  3. Avatar for grack grack says:

    For accuracy and brevity.

  4. Avatar for xcopy xcopy says:

    It’s almost is if watching the DOJ actually do it job of investigating and charging people with domestic terrorism and sedition had a chilling affect on people wanting to openly engage in domestic terrorism and seditious behavior.


  5. Great reporting as usual from Josh K. I’ll just note, as others have said up thread, that the way you defeat these fuckers is to investigate, indict, and convict them. Pour encourager les autres.

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