Freshly brought to the world’s attention by Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn their associations with white supremacist ideology during Tuesday night’s US presidential debate, the US neo-fascist group the Proud Boys was created by the Canadian-British far-right activist and Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016 in the lead-up to Trump’s election as president.
The group, which admits men only, was classified in 2018 by the FBI as an “extremist group”, while the US research and advocacy organization Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists it as a hate group. The Anti-Defamation League describes the group as misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration.
It is based in America, mostly the western US, but has a presence in some other countries, notably Canada, the UK and Australia.
And while it has an outsize reputation based on the high-profile agitation events and street brawls its members are most infamous for, and now a reference in a presidential debate, the Proud Boys is believed to be a very small group comprising maybe just a few hundred members in the US.
It is one of a sheaf of far-right groups with ready access to legal firearms in the US and with overtly pro-Trump or libertarian stances and an affinity for presenting as vigilantes or paramilitaries, especially during far-right gatherings or when showing up to disrupt liberal-leaning protests.
Related: Donald Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate
To join the Proud Boys, members must make an oath: “I am a proud western chauvinist, I refuse to apologise for creating the modern world”, as well as endure a violent “hazing” process. While the group maintains it is not racist, and simply wants to hark back to traditional ““western” values, its worldview incorporates elements of the “white genocide” conspiracy theory. Members are pro-gun rights, against feminism and gender equality, and take a libertarian stance on issues such as welfare.
During the debate, Trump was asked repeatedly by the moderator, Chris Wallace, to condemn violence by white supremacists and rightwing groups, such as armed militias.
When Trump asked specifically who he should be addressing, Biden prompted him by saying the Proud Boys.
Trump then addressed the Proud Boys, saying: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Members of the group immediately celebrated the president’s comment in posts on social media and rightwing discussion-board platforms such as Telegram and Parler. One Proud Boys group added the phrase “Stand Back, Stand By” to their logo. Another post was a message to Trump: “Standing down and standing by sir.”
On Parler, the term Proud Boys was still trending on Wednesday morning. McInnes posted Trump’s quote amid a slew of his more typical messages, including several which were homophobic.
The Proud Boys have a history of street violence against leftwing activists and protest movements. In recent months they have repeatedly turned up to oppose Black Lives Matter marches or any demonstrations where they sense an opportunity to counter, often with violence, far-left activists loosely characterized by their adherence to anti-fascist ideology and known collectively by the short-form term antifa. Last year, two members were jailed for four years for beating up anti-fascist activists in New York.
The group are identifiable by their adopted uniform of red “Make America Great Again” caps, associated with Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 election campaigns, and black Fred Perry polo shirts with some narrow yellow stripes and the company’s yellow laurel wreath logo, which the company earlier this week stopped selling as a result. The sports clothing manufacturer recently withdrew the design, citing its unwillingness to be associated with the group.
Former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler was instrumental in bringing together the the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 that included among its attendees members of the Ku Klux Klan and a number of neo-Nazi groups, many wearing body armor, far-right symbols and with guns and other weapons.
A young civil rights activist, Heather Heyer, was killed after a car was driven into a crowd of counter-protesters at the event by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr, who is now serving a life sentence. At the time Trump said there had been “very fine people on both sides”.
McInnes tried to sue the SPLC for defamation over the hate group designation. The current chairman of the Proud Boys is Enrique Tarrio, who also posted gleefully online after Trump’s shout-out.
The majority of mainstream social networks have banned the group’s presence – including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Joanna Walters contributed reporting