It’s not yet clear if the first US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden swayed the country’s few undecided voters, but there was another group who clearly enjoyed a moment in the spotlight last night: the Proud Boys.
During the debate, Trump was confronted by Biden about his leniency toward white supremacists and right-wing militias, and he was asked by moderator Chris Wallace to publicly condemn them. He didn’t do that, although he did address one such group, the Proud Boys. He said:
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.
Who are the Proud Boys Trump told to “stand back and stand by”? If you’re wondering, you’re not alone—the whole world (wide web) was , too, propelling the group toward newfound notoriety.
A far-right, self-described “western chauvinistic” group, Proud Boys are listed as a white supremacist hate group by the FBI, and have been tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2016, when they were founded by Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice Media (which he had left in 2008). In an article introducing the group, McInnes said they longed for a time “when girls were girls and men were men” and stood against politically correct conversations. Essentially a social club with a mission to promote white western values, Proud Boys was born as an informal small group, but it quickly grew into a more structured organization, with rules against masturbation, and mandatory tattoos of the group’s name to attain a certain level of membership.
Although the group rejects labels of white supremacy or accusations of harboring biases against certain religions, its members are vocally Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, as well as misogynistic, believing that western values, particularly as embodied by white men, are endangered. (McInnes—who supposedly left the group in 2018 but is still active in its channels—publicly decried a “war against whites”). The Proud Boys were among the main groups represented in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where a woman was killed by violent neo-Nazis.
The exact number of members is unknown, but there are estimated to be at least several hundreds, with representation in all US states and several international chapters, including in UK, Canada, Australia, and Norway.
Proud Boys member have a uniform of sorts: Fred Perry polo shirts in black with yellow trimming are a favorite—to the point the UK clothing brand decided to discontinue making them to distance itself from the group.
The group is opposed to Black Lives Matter and this past Saturday it organized a rally in Portland, Oregon, and other US cities, where members of the group gathered carrying protective gear and weapons, threatening violent clashes. In 2019, a member of the group had threatened the life of Portland’s democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler.
Although some Republicans said Trump’s instructions during the debate were meant to criticize the group, and Proud Boys chairman Eric Tarrio said he didn’t take the president’s words as a direct endorsement, many of his fellow group members didn’t take it that way. Proud Boys have always been Trump supporters, and they celebrated his comments, reading it as an acknowledgement of their importance and their role opposing BLM protests:
Though they have been banned from Facebook and Twitter, the group has a presence on the rightwing favored social network Parler; on it, they celebrated the debate mention, and called Trump their “new leader:”
While watching the debate live, McInnes associate Ryan Katsu Rivera referred to Trump’s statement as “a general command,” and Tarrio, posted in response to the president’s words, “standing by, sir.”
The group is also selling a t-shirt inspired by the president’s words on 1776.shop, an online store for far-right merchandise.
This article was updated to add that Gavin McInnes left Vice Media in 2008.