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“We Are Proud Boys”: Far-Right Gang Normalized Political Violence, Embraced by GOP as Legit Discourse

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The House committee investigating the January 6th Capitol insurrection is set to hold its first fall public hearing Wednesday. Democracy Now! will be live-streaming it starting Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern. The investigation is reportedly nearing its conclusion. The committee is preparing an interim report of its findings, set to be released not clear when, whether it’s going to be before the midterm elections or after. And it will apparently make the case that Donald Trump violated the law by refusing to take action to call off the Capitol attack. The question is: Will they recommend criminal charges to the Department of Justice?

Today we look at one of the far-right extremist groups that helped plan and carry out the insurrection as part of its goal to normalize political violence. Yes, we’re going to look at the Proud Boys. A document obtained by our next guest, and just published for the first time last week in The Guardian, gives a very rare insight into how the Proud Boys planned to carry out a pro-Trump MAGA march in New York City on January 10th, 2021, just days after the attack on the Capitol January 6th, that they participated in. The plan was shared by the Proud Boys through Telegram and was described as a, quote, “strategic security plan” and call to action for Proud Boys. It was apparently written by the president of the group’s New York branch, called for about 60 Proud Boys to be designated into seven tactical teams of five to eight men.

For more, we’re joined by Andy Campbell, senior editor at HuffPost, who discusses this and much more in his newly published book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered In a New Era of [American Extremism].

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Andy. Congratulations on your new book. Why don’t you start off with this document that you found, and then broaden it to who the Proud Boys are?

ANDY CAMPBELL: Thanks, Amy.

Well, the Proud Boys put together this document in preparation, like you said, for an event in New York City on January 10th. It was sent to them on January 5th, right before January 6th. And, you know, it shows how meticulous the Proud Boys’ planning is before these events. I mean, they’re checking to see where police are, what positions they should be in, what weapons that they’re allowed to bring into any jurisdiction, and how they can use their optics to get away with it after their violence. They certainly planned to clash with leftists at that event, and they planned to, quote, “do the police’s job for them.” You know, there’s a lot of planning that goes into these.

And that event actually fizzled out because of the carnage at the insurrection. But that’s not to say that the Proud Boys are done with their events. In fact, they’ve only increased the amount of events that they’re latching onto, bringing violence to all sorts of leftist events going forward.

But the Proud Boys — you know, I think January 6th showed Americans the Proud Boys for the first time. But they’ve been on a parade of violence at the behest of Trump and the GOP for six years now. You know, they were brought up by reactionary talk show host Gavin McInnes to fight the GOP’s grievances in the street. He built the Proud Boys on his talk show live, and he peppered them with bigoted tenets. One of his tenets was to venerate the housewife. He believes that women, and women in the workforce particularly, are responsible for the end of masculinity. He also peppered them with racist tenets. He told them that they can — anyone can join the Proud Boys, but that they have to understand and accept that white men were responsible for the success of Western culture. And so there is a white supremacist leaning here. But it’s with those tenets that Gavin McInnes told the Proud Boys they need to go out and do what crusty old Republicans cannot do, and fight in the street, take that rage that you have about immigrants and Muslims and LGBTQ and go fight it out in the street. And they’ve done so, time and time again. They’ve been in orbit of so many acts of political violence over the years.

And they’ve normalized this political violence by sidling up to the top levels of the GOP, including Trump’s confidant, Roger Stone. So they have friendships in the GOP. They have friendships in media: Fox News celebrates these guys. And they have support from a wide swath of the American right. And so, going forward, even though many of their top leaders sit in jail waiting sedition charges following January 6th, they are still working as planned.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to YouTube video created by Vic Berger back in 2018, featuring Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, discussing the group’s origins. He’s talking with Joe Rogan, as well as calling for violence in the streets.

GAVIN McINNES: I started this gang called the Proud Boys. And —

JOE ROGAN: The Proud Boys?

GAVIN McINNES: The Proud Boys.

JOE ROGAN: What is — what’s Proud Boys about?

GAVIN McINNES: We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys, in a nutshell. We will kill you. We look nice. We seem soft. We have “boys” in our name. But like Bill the Butcher and the Bowery Boys, we will assassinate you. Now, part of the reason I agreed to do the talk is because I’m allowed to bring all my guys, and we can fight our way in and fight our way out.

Beating the [bleep] our of these people, I think it’s our job to do it.

PROUD BOY: [bleep] you, mother [bleep]!

GAVIN McINNES: And the cops’, to turn a blind eye.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Gavin McInnes. He’s co-founder of Vice Media and founder of the Proud Boys. If you can talk about both, and also the origin of the name Proud Boys? Very interesting.

ANDY CAMPBELL: Certainly. So, Gavin was co-founder of Vice News, and he served as Vice Media’s editorial voice until about 2008, when Vice is becoming more popular and they’re more beholden to advertisers. And Gavin McInnes’s voice wasn’t good for that. He wrote, you know, these abhorrent screeds in the pages of Vice, including a veritable guide for date rape. I mean, this was a bad guy. And so, he gets kind of pushed out. He’s sort of a shock jock comedian type. And he starts his own show, The Gavin McInnes Show, where he doubles down on this divisive and bigoted rhetoric. You know, whereas his friends in the comedy circles back then sort of got with the culture and moved on from the misogynist, bigoted rhetoric, he doubles down. And he brings his audience of angry young men over to his new show. And again, he is molding them into himself and into what Trump became. He builds the Proud Boys literally out of his audience live on his show, and he starts describing his followers as disciples. He starts drinking with them near his studio in Manhattan. And he creates what he believes is a movement.

He calls them the Proud Boys. And I’ll tell you how he came up with that name, just to show you who this guy is. He is sitting at his kids’ music recital in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And he sees — after his kids go on stage, he sees a young boy, maybe 12 years old, with brown skin get up and sing a song from the Aladdin musical titled “Proud of Your Boy.” He is absolutely reviled by this image. He hates musicals. He calls — on his show, he describes the kid as a “fatherless Puerto Rican,” describes him as gay, and he mocks the boy. He mocks him by singing the line over and over and over again. That line, “Proud of your boy,” becomes a call-in card for his viewers. It’s kind of like, you know, first-time caller, longtime listener on any other radio show. “Proud of your boy” gets shortened, and that’s how — that’s where you get the Proud Boys name.

But Gavin McInnes wanted anyone to join. You have neo-Nazis in the Proud Boys alongside people of color. He cast a wide net. But the promise that all of these people are gathering under is that ability to go out and fight it. I mean, Gavin McInnes is kind of like an Alex Jones character, but instead of spewing conspiracy theories all day, he is pushing for political violence, specifically in the name of GOP and Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s stick with Trump right now. I’d like to go back to 2020 to the first presidential debate. Trump refused to condemn white supremacists after being questioned by debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.

CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing —

JOE BIDEN: White supremacists.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Go ahead. Who would you like me to condemn?

JOE BIDEN: Proud Boys.

CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

JOE BIDEN: The Proud Boys.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.

JOE BIDEN: His own —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a left-wing —

JOE BIDEN: His own FBI director said the threat comes from white supremacists.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a left-wing problem.

AMY GOODMAN: “Stand back and stand by,” which became so famous. Talk about this moment and the relationship between Trump and Proud Boys.

ANDY CAMPBELL: Right. Well, you know, people argue over that line, whether or not Trump intended to activate the Proud Boys. But it doesn’t matter. The Proud Boys took that as marching orders. They saw Trump looking directly at them and saying, “Fight for me.” And they began raising funds. One of their top leaders published a blog calling for civil war. They saw January 6 as their last stand for Trump.

And through their relationships with the GOP, they had no reason not to believe that they were being given marching orders, because in the previous six years — and following January 6 — they had full support from Trump’s inner circle. None of these people have rebuffed them. In fact, they’ve been on their side all along. I sat down with Roger Stone, Trump’s confidant, last year when he was under intense scrutiny for his proximity to the insurrection, and he admitted to me in that conversation that he had been advising the Proud Boys politically for years and, in fact, talked them through getting out of their charges after an assault on protesters here in Manhattan in 2018. I mean, these guys were, early on, very connected politically to Trump’s circle. And it’s no surprise, because Trump is almost giddy about having people in the street for him, you know, regardless of what they’re doing. If it’s violence, it’s violence.

And you notice there, in that question he got on the stage, that he immediately pivoted and said, “This is a leftist problem. This is antifa.” That is exactly the kind of rhetoric that keeps the Proud Boys around. I mean, a swath of the American public believes that antifa and BLM and leftists are the same par of threat that the far right are. And it makes them a sort of justified political option. It’s the reason why they’re able to stick around and the way that they’ve normalized political violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a January 6th Proud Boy, Dominic Pezzola, who was among the first rioters to breach the Capitol, using a stolen riot shield to smash through a Capitol window. This is one of Dominic Pezzola’s attorneys, Martin Tankleff, speaking to a WUSA9 D.C. news reporter back in June of 2021.

MARTIN TANKLEFF: A number of individuals have been made scapegoats. I think Dominic is just inclusive in it. This is a day that we have turned into something that it really wasn’t. It was — this was social justice. This was an outpouring of individuals who wanted to express their feelings. And our country has gone through a period of time over the last two years where people have decided to step up to the plate, use their voices like it’s never been heard before. And to isolate individuals like those who were at the Capitol on January 6th is a tragedy beyond comprehension, that I think most people can’t understand.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could respond to Martin Tankleff, the lawyer for Dominic Pezzola?

ANDY CAMPBELL: This is the framing that we are going to see as Trump begins campaigning again. You know, January 6th, to the GOP, the defendants there were a group of patriots. Trump has already suggested that he, if he wins the presidency, is going to pardon everyone involved. And, you know, following January 6th, the right wing, especially right-wing media pundits, were already pushing the narrative that either January 6th was committed by antifa — which of course is not true — or that they were patriots that wanted to do something for their country. Ann Coulter, a sort of loathsome longtime media pundit, wrote a blog in March of 2021 titled “Thank God for the Proud Boys” and characterized them as Trump’s freedom fighters. She said that she used them for security at which leftists showed up to protest, and she felt safer because of them.

This is how these extremist groups are being characterized, and it’s sanitizing them for the rest of the country. This is the reason why the Proud Boys haven’t dissolved, despite having this outsize role in January 6th. Not only were there dozens of Proud Boys there, but five of them are now awaiting seditious conspiracy trial, in jail for what the Justice Department believes is planning of January 6th. And so, going forward, you know, into this election and the next, we’re going to see through the voters whether this kind of political violence is something that we accept, because there is a slate of extremist-tied candidates all across the country, many of whom have direct ties to the people who committed January 6th.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m looking at The Washington Post, an article that recently came out. “Five members of the extremist group Oath Keepers, including leader Stewart Rhodes, face trial for seditious conspiracy … in which U.S. prosecutors will try to convince jurors that Rhodes’s call for an armed ‘civil war’ to keep Donald Trump in power on Jan. 6, 2021, was literal — and criminal. Starting with jury selection [on] Tuesday and opening statements as early as Thursday, Rhodes’s trial could reveal new information about the quest to subvert the 2020 presidential election results, as prosecutors continue to probe Trump’s conduct and that of his inner circle. … Florida and national leaders of the Oath Keepers were in contact with Proud Boys leaders and also with Trump political confidant Roger Stone,” who you’ve also reported on. So, at the beginning, I was reading from The Washington Post. If you can make all those connections for us, Andy?

ANDY CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, these seditious conspiracy trials are going to be super interesting. You know, the Oath Keepers are tied in with the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are both tied in with Roger Stone. And on the Proud Boys trial later this year, we have Proud Boys leadership who have already agreed to testify against their own to get out of seditious conspiracy charges. So we may learn a lot about their connections on January 6th, but also their overall connections to Trump’s inner circle.

And certainly, we already know they were very close. In fact, Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keeper, and Enrique Tarrio, the current chairman of the Proud Boys, were both in a group text with Roger Stone on January 6th. That group text was titled “Friends of Stone.” And certainly, Stone told me that he sees Enrique Tarrio, one of — who’s facing seditious charges, he declared him his friend and his mentee.

So, I’m super interested to see where these trials lead us down the rabbit hole of Trump, and what might be illuminated beyond what the January 6th committee has already brought forward. I think we’re going to learn a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about Proud Boys and the number of people running for office at the local, at the state and the federal level linked to Proud Boys and these extremist movements that want to normalize political violence?

ANDY CAMPBELL: Absolutely. Well, Tarrio told me that there were some 30 Proud Boys running for office, big and small, this year. I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t know that Proud Boys are going to have a lot of success running for office. But they have ties to GOP that they’ve built over the years, and the extremist slate of candidates support them all the way.

I’m looking at races like Joe Kent in Washington state, running for — a Republican running for House there. He is tied to a number of extremist figures, hangs out with them. And he also sent $11,000 to a Proud Boy for consulting fees. I mean, these guys are very well connected, and they support one another.

I’m also looking at places where Proud Boys have taken small seats of power to push their ideology. The Miami-Dade, Florida, Republican Executive Committee has something like six Proud Boys on it already. And, you know, the leader there already said, “Well, we have a diverse group of people.” These guys want to influence politics on the local level so that they can then push for something bigger later on. But any success that they have in politics just speaks to how normalized this has become.

And you have places like Arizona, where Republicans are calling for vigilantes like the Oath Keepers to show up at ballot boxes. And so, you can only imagine what it’s going to feel like for voters out there when you have this extremist contingent that includes Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and, really, everyday Americans on the right waiting and watching at the polls, when all that these guys do is commit violence. It’s going to be such a scary election season.

And it’s not just the ballot boxes. It is — going into the future, you know, the Proud Boys are being activated not just by Trump, but by everything that Fox News says. Fox News was railing all summer about drag queens and LGBTQ and trans issues. And the Proud Boys, activated by that rhetoric, have been showing up at abortion clinics, and children’s hospitals and libraries where there are Drag Queen Story Hours, and adding violence and intimidation to that atmosphere. This political violence has spread from the MAGA rallies, and BLM rallies from before, and into everyday American life.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how Doug Mastriano fits into this picture, the candidate for governor in Pennsylvania?

ANDY CAMPBELL: Well, certainly. I mean, Doug Mastriano is part of this machine of conspiracy and political violence and extremism. He has certain, you know, ties to extremists. And what you’re seeing is a cycle where, say, QAnon conspiracy theorists, an Alex Jones type, plant a seed that Satanic pedophiles are coming after your children in the form of drag queens, and then the Mastrianos of the world and the Donald Trumps of the world sort of foster and sanitize that seed and grow it for their audiences, and then the Proud Boys and other extremists show up in force to burn it all to the ground. I mean, Mastriano follows Trump on a lot of rhetoric, and so his success shows that we are not moving away at all from the extremist contingent, and in fact the Republican Party appears to be doubling down on it, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Campbell, we just have a minute. You have spent a long time now writing this book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered In a New Era of American Extremism. What most shocked you in your research and the GOP also normalizing the political violence issue?

ANDY CAMPBELL: After January 6th, the fact that the Proud Boys only ramped up their violence over the years and the fact that the GOP only embraced them more, that was surprising to me. The fact that they didn’t dissolve shows not only their resiliency as a group, but it shows where we are headed in the future of politics. Political violence is normalized for the right. And again, voters are going to have to decide whether this is what we want, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: January 6th insurrection becoming legitimate political discourse. What are you expecting from Wednesday, the next public hearing of the January 6th committee?

ANDY CAMPBELL: I think the committee has done a great job of surfacing the problem, this extremist crisis we have. But I also think that we are 10 steps behind with our leadership and with our law enforcement on responding to the crisis. And so, I’m hoping that there is a culture shift over the next few years where we are not just understanding the problem —

AMY GOODMAN: Two seconds.

ANDY CAMPBELL: — but responding to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Campbell, thanks so much, senior editor at HuffPost. The new book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered In a New Era of American Extremism.

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