It has become a totem of liberal faith in the Trump era that America is crawling with secret brigades of far-right extremists who are ready at a moment’s notice to emerge from their mothers’ basements to commit murder and mayhem. Rancid social media posts and individual acts of horror are imagined to constitute an underground Nazi army.
The evidence for this viewpoint can be charitably termed thin. Certainly, far-right extremists and even terrorists are out there, but they’re nothing new, and a plausible case can be made that America’s problem with the violent kook-right is less grave now than it was a generation ago, when bona fide neo-Nazis were on the murderous loose.
This is off-message, however, and bien-pensants eagerly take any far-right activity as proof of a security threat at the level of roughly the Islamic State. Hence, we get mainstream media pontifications about the alleged deadliness of white males, who are portrayed as a greater threat to public safety than jihadists. That no actual terrorism experts think this is irrelevant, while serious academic studies revealing the true state of domestic terrorism in the West are ignored by the media.
Take the case of the Proud Boys, a quixotic far-right men’s group born in 2016, at the height of Trumpmania. While it has been portrayed by the media as the current era’s Sturmabteilung, it’s difficult to see how any actual right-wing extremists could take the Proud Boys seriously. Their Fred Perry polo shirt uniform screams preppy, while their obsession with not masturbating as a core group value bespeaks adolescence more than Waffen-SS. Plus their penchant for street fighting seems amateurish compared to their better-organized left-wing antifa rivals. Both sides are eager to reenact the Weimar era but can’t quite get there.
Indeed, some on the far-right consider the Proud Boys a cash-cow for their founder, the media-savvy provocateur Gavin McInnes, more than a legitimate outfit. McInnes is a latecomer to the fascistic scene, having made his fortune as a professional hipster and co-founder of Vice magazine. Before he created the Proud Boys, McInnes was best known as a public exhibitionist with sex toys and author of tomes such as How to Piss in Public.
McInnes’s commitment to his polo-shirted legion began to shake in August when he and the Proud Boys were banned from Twitter for their far-right utterances and overall unpleasantness. Things got dramatically worse a couple weeks ago when the media got hold of a threat report from the sheriff’s department in Washington state’s Clark County. According to the July 5 report:
The FBI has warned local law enforcement that the Proud Boys are actively recruiting in the Pacific Northwest and that some in the group have contributed to the escalation of violence at political rallies held on college campuses.
Media furor came fast, with denunciations of the Proud Boys as extremists with ties to white nationalists, according to the FBI. Explanations followed that the ‘no wanks’ brigade was basically Al-Qaeda. Without delay, McInnes dropped his own group with the video statement, ‘I am officially disassociating myself from the Proud Boys.’ Being termed the head of an extremist outfit by the FBI isn’t good for one’s brand outside the ranks of actual neo-Nazis.
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Now we learn that the FBI, in fact, never declared the Proud Boys an extremist group. This week, Renn Cannon, the Bureau’s special agent in charge in Portland, the FBI’s top official in Oregon, explained tactfully that Clark County police misunderstood a threat briefing they got from Cannon’s office.
While FBI Portland indeed mentioned the Proud Boys during a presentation to local law enforcement, the briefing cited several activist groups. Moreover, the Bureau ‘tried to characterize the potential threat from individuals within that group,’ Cannon explained, adding, ‘We do not intend and did not intend to designate the group as extremist.’
Cannon continued: ‘I can see where Clark County representatives came to that conclusion. That was not our intention. That’s not what we do. We will not open a case if someone belongs to antifa or even the Proud Boys. There has to be a credible allegation or a threat of violence before someone opens a case.’
In other words, the FBI isn’t a political police agency and it’s not their job to decide who is and isn’t an extremist. Nor, in a democracy, should it be. It’s the Bureau’s job to catch criminals and, when possible, prevent crimes. Designating political organizations as extremist is something the FBI sensibly avoids doing and hasn’t done since the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover.
Anybody acquainted with the actual FBI should have smelled a rat when the first report appeared, but it seems liberals got so excited that the Bureau designated the Proud Boys an official extremist group that critical thinking went out the window. That these are frequently the same people preaching about the dangers of Islamophobia while insisting that not all Islamic extremists are terrorists indicates that this is about politics, not counterterrorism analysis.
Right-wing extremists are out there in America, just as left-wing ones are, plus jihadists and a diverse array of violence-prone lunatics who represent a threat to public order and safety. However, their numbers are exceptionally small compared to the country’s population. Not to mention that the FBI has a solid record of monitoring and infiltrating extremist groups, especially on the far-right. Like the Communist Party USA of Cold War vintage, today’s KKK white-robe-wearers and Illinois Nazi LARPers are sustained by the donations of the numerous Bureau informants lurking in their ranks.
Extremists of all stripes who preach hatred deserve to be shunned from polite discussion, while anyone advocating violence is a legitimate target for FBI scrutiny. Imagining more extremists than there really are is hazardous for democracy, since such malignant fantasies erode civil discourse, while labeling everyone you don’t like as extremist is a surefire way to radicalize politics.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to the Proud Boys’ no masturbation policy as ‘no fap’. We have amended this, and explained why here.