Portland, Oregon on Saturday saw its biggest far-right rally since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency. Organized by the Proud Boys and a host of smaller far-right groups including the Three Percenters, the event showed the shocking resurgence of far-right street protests two years after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Far-right demonstrations, while weakened by the clampdown that followed Charlottesville, haven’t disappeared. Some groups have in fact thrived in the last couple of years by leveraging the power of social media to rally supporters and adopting the ironic language of online subcultures.
The Proud Boys epitomize a brand of far-right outfit that has escaped the backlash against white supremacist groups post-Charlottesville by treading the fine line of legality and adapting their discourse to avoid prosecution. Established by former Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, a familiar figure of the so-called alt-light (a watered down version of the alt-right), the Proud Boys present themselves as a pro-Trump “Western chauvinistic” men’s fraternity club, seemingly less egregious than the white supremacist groups that took to the streets two years ago.
The group’s activities, however, have been less innocuous than its website’s landing page suggests. The Proud Boys have been involved in violent street protests since 2017, including the so-called Battle of Berkeley. Two members have been convicted of attempted gang assault, attempted assault and riot for attacking left-wing activists outside a club in Manhattan, while leaked conversations from the group’s online chat groups show discussions of premeditated violence. Along with other far-right groups such as Patriot Prayer, McInnes’ team has become a regular presence at rallies across the West Coast.
The Proud Boys have managed to harness the power of internet virality to galvanize a broader support base and navigate the codes of online communication. Last Saturday’s rally was a response to a video gone viral of an alleged attack against right-wing commentator Andy Ngo. After the incident, the Proud Boys built support for the rally online via their channel on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app that has become a platform of choice for far-right groups and figures who have been booted out of mainstream platforms. Members of the Proud Boys also drummed up support on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the rally.
Groups like the Proud Boys have shown that they understand the mechanisms of internet virality and the power of hashtags. “Proud of our boys,” a message read in the group’s Telegram channel below a picture showing “Proud Boys” trending alongside the hashtags #PortlandProtests. Videos of confrontations between far-right militants and anti-fascists have gathered millions of online views, the sort of internet exposure that far-right groups increasingly banned from mainstream social media are looking for.
The group has also harnessed the ironic culture of the online alt-right to cloak some of its most problematic ideas in the mantle of subversion, bringing the alt-right’s memes to the streets. During last week’s rally, dozens of memes appeared in real time in the group’s Telegram channel, some of which advocated violence against left-wingers. Previous Proud Boys rallies saw members dressed up as the alt-right meme Pepe the Frog and waving the flag of Kekistan, the fictional country that has emerged on the messaging board 4chan’s political page /pol/.
The aim of these tactics is clear: gaining political influence with mainstream U.S. conservative politics and avoiding prosecution. Donald Trump’s tacit endorsement of the rally became a PR victory for the rally organizers. “Major consideration is being given to naming antifa an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR,” Trump tweeted before the rally in a tacit endorsement of the group’s mission to bring down the local antifascist activists.
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Other prominent pro-Trump figures have sided with the group. Marco Gutierrez, co-founder of Latinos for Trump, wrote: “THIS IS POWERFUL! Happening right now in Portland Oregon. Patriots from all over the Nation kneeling before God as they do their morning prayer before facing the ANTIFA thugs in their biggest nest in America!” Former Trump ally Roger Stone has received support from the group.
Tech companies have taken measures to reduce the Proud Boys’ online reach. Last November, Twitter suspended the group and its founder’s accounts for violation of its policy against “violent extremist groups.” YouTube followed suit by suspending McInnes’ account. The group has also been banned from Facebook and Instagram. Limiting the group’s online reach is a first step, but understanding its tactics is essential in building an appropriate response and calling out its attempts at bringing its ideas into the mainstream.