According to a document obtained by the transparency initiative Property of the People, the FBI now regards the Proud Boys (the self-styled ‘pro-West fraternal organization’ founded by right-wing provocateur Gavin McInnes) as an extremist group linked to white nationalism.
As someone who’s met similar groups (I’ve stayed with anti-government militias in Kansas and California), I’m not convinced. In my experience, Proud Boy-style groups aren’t racist – if I had to define them, I’d say they’re obnoxious pro-Trumpers whose politics seem less about making America great again and more about antagonizing the other side.
Sure, they tend to be strongly anti-immigration and un-PC more generally – but white nationalist? That seems like serious overreach on the part of the FBI (not least because the Proud Boys have plenty of non-white members).
I suspect the FBI’s classification might have been influenced by the Southern Poverty Law Centre which recently added the Proud Boys to its list of hate groups. But while the SPLC has historically been regarded as the go-to resource on racist groups, it has faced justified criticism for expanding its definition of ‘hate’ to cover reactionary views more broadly. Their Proud Boys briefing is a case in point.
Away from extremism per se, the leaked memo blames the Proud Boys for an ‘escalation of violence at political rallies’. In my opinion, this charge is more complicated. The upsurge in political street-fighting is real, but it can’t be blamed solely on the Proud Boys (even if the group’s founder has courted controversy with his shock-jock claims that ‘fighting solves everything)’.
One of the most depressing features of America’s current culture war is the huge explosion in antagonistic rallies (on both the right and left). For the first year of Trump’s presidency, hardly a week passed without either a pro- or anti-Trump demonstration in a major city. These demos are inevitably met by counter-protests, some of which want to shut down the first demo altogether (the leftist network Antifa is notorious for this).
Factor in the hot-headed types who are drawn to groups like Proud Boys and Antifa, and it’s not hard to see how these scenarios spill-over into violence. But this isn’t dangerous extremism: it’s mindless thuggery barging into the culture war. It’s an indictment of American political debate that either side sees itself as engaging in any kind of noble struggle, rather than merely spoiling for a fight.
In such a situation, it’s not hard to sympathize with law enforcement. Policing these angry demonstrations places a huge demand on time and resources. But to call this an issue of ‘extremism’ – or to suggest the blame lies solely with the pro-Trump Proud Boys – is way off the mark.