While Proud Boys celebrated Donald Trump’s recognition of the nationalist gang from Tuesday’s debate, current and former members of the group, analysts and law enforcement warn that the president’s remarks, and his unwillingness to condemn white supremacist violence, risks emboldening similar groups.
Proud Boys-related social media channels have also seen a surge in new users and interactions this week.
The president invoked the group’s name during the first presidential debate on 29 September after debate moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly asked the president to denounce white supremacism.
Mr Trump, asking for a name to reference, went with Proud Boys, after his Democratic rival Joe Biden suggested it.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Dante Nero, a former member of the hate group, told CBS News that the president’s remarks “embolden” its membership, while Joe Biggs, a Proud Boys organiser from Florida, echoed other members who were encouraged by the president’s recognition, he told the Los Angeles Times.
“There’s a war coming,” one Proud Boys supporter said on Tiktok. “If Biden wins, we’re coming, and we’re coming strong.”
The same day of the debate, the FBI issued an intelligence report warning that far-right groups and white supremacists pose a “violent extremist threat” to the US, marking the time between Election Day and the 2021 inauguration as a “potential flashpoint” for violence.
According to the report obtained by The Nation, “Boogaloo adherents likely will expand influence” within the Dallas area, where the document emerged, “due to the presence of existing anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, the sentiment of perceived government overreach, heightened tensions due to Covid-19-related state and local restrictions, and violence or criminal activity at lawful protests … that led to violence at otherwise peaceful and lawful protests.”
Proud Boys members have spent the last several days promoting its interracial membership and dismissing, and mocking, attempts to portray the group as promoting or harbouring white supremacist ideologies.
Extremism analysts have argued that the group has advanced white nationalist views, while the debate over its membership’s ideologies has skirted the president's refusal to distance himself from the group or flatly condemn white supremacism and other far-right violence.
The Anti-Defamation League said that the group is among an “unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism.”
“While the group can be described as violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and misogynistic, its members represent a range of ethnic backgrounds, and its leaders vehemently protest any allegations of racism,” the organisation said.
On Wednesday, the president told reporters: "I don't know who the Proud Boys are … Whoever they are, they need to stand down."
By then, the group had anticipated blowback, arguing that the about-face was merely keeping up appearances.
"Don't be surprised if he makes a statement on us in the upcoming days to appease the masses," Mr Biggs wrote online on Tuesday. “But he knows we are the good guys.”
The social media platform Telegram saw a spike in “300 to 500 new users just in the past day,” according to Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University who tracks hate groups online, in an interview with Talking Points Memo.
She added on Twitter: “Some confusion [and] hair splitting today on the morning shows about whether the Proud Boys are ‘White Supremacists’. Reminder that there are many ways to hate and Proud Boys are anti-Muslim, misogynist, [and] advocate political violence against their ‘enemies’, defined over-broadly.”
Ms Squire said “Proud Boys are definitely – by their words and actions – a ‘hate group’, so let’s maybe use that terminology rather than getting in the mud debating over how many of their members are what demographic.”
The self-described “western chauvinist” Proud Boys, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a hate group, was established by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016.
Though the group has claimed it represents an “anti-white guilt agenda” against “political correctness" as well as the “alt-right” label, the group’s founder and members have embraced white nationalism and espoused fascist views, including anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric, often turning to violence.
It’s among several contemporary right-wing groups with multi-racial membership, aligning along ideological lines promoting far-right nationalism.
The Proud Boys are among a “fascistic, right-wing political bloc” galvanised by the president and encouraged by his supporters, according to SPLC senior research analyst Cassie Miller.
“They work symbiotically with right-wing media and a power structure – helmed by Trump – that is eager to clamp down on protesters and enact political revenge on progressive constituencies like Portland,” wrote Ms Miller, arguing that the group and similarly motivated far-right groups are among political cudgels used as administration’s street-level election campaign.
Last year, two Proud Boys members were convicted of assault and riot charges in connection with attacks against antifascist demonstrators in New York City in 2018.
In 2020, members of the Proud Boys participated in violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing groups in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere.
On the right-wing social media app Parler, Proud Boys members celebrated their recognition on the debate stage.
Within moments of mention, the group incorporated the message into its branding, circulating images with “Proud Boys, Standing By” in yellow on black T-shirts.
“Standing down and standing by, sir," Proud Boys accounts said on Parler and Telegram.
“Trump basically said to go f*** them up!” Proud Boys organiser Joe Biggs said on Parler. “This makes me so happy.”
Accounts also have circulated a meme illustrating the president wearing a Fred Perry shirt – a part of the group’s unofficial uniform – and a peaked cap bearing the Proud Boys logo, with the text “standing by for your orders general, sir."
Another meme includes a photo of Proud Boys members prepared to fight, next to an incorrect version of the president’s remarks at his debate that more acutely resembles a call to arms: “Proud Boys can stand back and stand by, because someone has to take care of antifa and these people.”
“Although I am excited about our mention on the debate stage … I am not taking this as a direct endorsement from the President,” organiser Enrique Tarrio wrote on Telegram.
“Him telling the ProudBoys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done,” Tarrio added.
On Parler, Mr Tarrio said: “Standing by, sir.”