The Proud Boys and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism
Australia’s recent decision to list the Sonnenkrieg Division – a UK-based neo-Nazi group also known as the National Socialist Order – as a terrorist organisation is noteworthy for two reasons. To begin with, it is the first right-wing extremist group to be added to the list, following growing pressure on Australia as the last nation in the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance to officially designate a right-wing group as terrorists. Second, there are not actually any known members of the Sonnenkrieg Division in Australia, nor are any Australians known to be involved abroad.
Right-wing extremism has been on the rise over the past five years, but has recently come to the fore during last year’s US Presidential Election and the subsequent storming of the US Capitol in January 2021. Australia’s listing of a right-wing extremist group as a terrorist organisation is clearly a positive development, signalling that such an ideology and its associated behaviour is unacceptable in Australian society. However, it is odd that the Sonnenkrieg Division was even in the Government’s scope of concern. To really take a stand against right-wing extremism, the Australian Government should list the Proud Boys, a US/Canadian group with the distinction of being endorsed by former US President Trump, as a terrorist organisation. The Proud Boys have become perhaps the most well-known right-wing extremist group, and unlike the Sonnenkrieg Division are actually active within the Australian community.
Who are the Proud Boys?
The Proud Boys consider themselves a “fraternal order” of “Western chauvinists”. They were formed in 2016 during Trump’s first election campaign, but gained global notoriety in September 2020 when Trump infamously called on the group to “stand back and stand by” during the first Presidential debate. Although Trump later claimed not to know of the group, this clearly emboldened them, as the Proud Boys have even produced merchandise emblazoned with his words. Furthermore, Trump never used his platform and influence to correct the situation. Originally a small fringe group, the Proud Boys’ membership and notoriety has steadily increased over the four years of the Trump Administration, and today the organisation has chapters around the world, including in Australia.
The Proud Boys claim to be a men’s rights organisation fighting back against political correctness, which they see as blaming the world’s issues on white men. They believe in violence as an effective means to solve problems, and employ a tactic of holding events to attract and provoke counter-protestors in order to feed a narrative of victimisation. They have acted as self-appointed “security” for right-wing personalities including Roger Stone, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Although its founder Gavin McInnes claims the Proud Boys are not a racist, sexist, or homophobic organisation, his words and their actions have time and again proven otherwise. Besides, even if McInnes himself might wish to deny that he is racist, sexist, or homophobic, many Proud Boys members are – and are vocal about it.
Humour and irony are woven into the very being of the Proud Boys. Their name comes from the song “Proud of Your Boy” from Disney’s Aladdin musical, and they wear Fred Perry polo shirts as their uniform. But underneath the humour is an undercurrent of violence. There are multiple levels of membership, each requiring different initiation rites. First, prospective members make a public declaration of allegiance, vow to abstain from masturbation, and have to list the names of five breakfast cereals while being beaten by other members. Initiation is completed by getting into a fight with members of the left-wing group Antifa.
The Proud Boys use ‘grey zone’ tactics, including playing up their words and actions with humour and irony, to avoid being too explicit in their extremism. Their rhetoric is dressed up as jokes taken out of context, enabling them to label anyone who is offended as simply “too sensitive.” Their more violent deeds are explained away as the actions of a minority, one that McInnes insists is expelled from the group – although perhaps only because they were caught. For a group that claims not to be extremist, their name comes up readily in conjunction with right-wing extremist acts, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter counter protests, and the attack on the US Capitol.
With increased notoriety comes increased attention and scrutiny. In early February 2021, the Proud Boys were officially designated as a terrorist group by Canada, one of Australia’s Five Eyes security partners, owing to their role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Although the US doesn’t have laws in place to list domestic groups as terrorist organisations, Washington lawmakers intend to take action against the Proud Boys after an ongoing review is completed. The Australian Labor Party is pushing the Australian Government to act as well, but the Department of Home Affairs has so far resisted those calls.
In Australia, it is an offence to lead, be a member of, or associate with any group designated as a terrorist organisation, or to provide it with funds and support. However, the Proud Boys are less of a traditionally structured organisation and more of a confederation of like-minded members, so a terrorist designation may not achieve as much as one might think. Even if the laws did deter new members from associating with the group, it may be hard to prove their involvement in specific activities, especially when, as McInnes says, “ninety-nine percent [are] meeting in a bar once a month and drinking beer just like everyone else”. Still, the laws would prevent members from displaying Proud Boys-branded clothing during rallies and protests, which would limit their visibility and recruitment efforts.
What does this mean for Australia?
Right-wing extremist groups have begun to take root in Australia in recent years, to the extent that they no longer represent a fringe ideology. Instead, they are increasingly perceived as a significant emerging threat to society.
The Proud Boys’ presence in Australia has also grown over the last year. They have now appeared during anti-lockdown protests and Australia Day protests, and are even bold enough to threaten people in their homes and workplaces. The Department of Home Affairs is seemingly waiting on ASIO to provide advice on the Proud Boys before acting against them. However, it still seems odd that ASIO would prioritise advice on the Sonnenkrieg Division, which has no presence in Australia, over the Proud Boys.
Right-wing extremism is firmly in the sights of ASIO, which reports that 40% of its counterterrorism caseload is linked to right-wing extremism, up from just 10-15% in 2016. ASIO advises on designating groups based on whether or not the group is directly or indirectly planning or assisting with a terrorist plot – as the Sonnenkrieg Division was in Britain – but it also considers ideologies, links to other terrorist groups, and listings within other countries. There is also the need to balance issues around free speech and freedom of association.
One could argue that most right-wing extremist groups are too fractured and keep just below these thresholds to avoid being listed, similarly to the Proud Boys’ grey zone tactics. However, many right-wing extremist groups that are active abroad, and which are proscribed as terrorist organisations by our security partners, have ties to Australian groups. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the distinction between domestic groups and international groups is not always a meaningful one; a group’s activities abroad should and do reflect what could happen on Australian soil. A Sonnenkrieg Division plot in the UK has influenced its listing in Australia, so it seems only logical that the Proud Boys’ activities in the US Capitol should earn the group a terrorist designation here as well.
Australia has only recently designated its first right-wing extremist group as a terrorist organisation, but it must not be its last. Although the Proud Boys operate in a grey zone in Australia, they have ties to groups in the US, Canada, and elsewhere around the world, and their actions in one state should be seen as a warning of what can happen elsewhere. While the Department of Home Affairs may not be ready to designate them as a terrorist group, the Government and law enforcement agencies must take action against the Proud Boys to avoid an escalation of violence and to make it clear that such an ideology will not be accepted or tolerated within Australia.
Matthew Dodwell has recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focussed on extremism and counterterrorism.