A Network Analysis of White Nationalism: The Recruitment Pipeline from Alt-Lite to Alt-Right (Part 1)
This is Part 1 of a series exploring the recruitment pipeline between the Proud Boys and white nationalist militia groups. It is written from my point of view as an educator who is constantly rethinking what it means for a classroom to be a site of radical politics. Any suggestions I make are for myself, and not guidance for how other people should behave. Readers should be aware of my biases — I am openly supportive of the diverse tactics that activists use to fight white nationalist and alt-right terrorism. My thoughts and suggestions are my own, and not representative of my institution or university.
Whenever white men commit acts of terrorism, America asks the same set of questions:
Was this a lone-wolf attack?
What political identity did he profess (or what can we ascribe to him)?
How do we establish a motive?
If these are one-off, “lone-wolf” attacks, why do they keep happening?
How did the shooter become radicalized?
How did his friends and family not notice?
Our own political biases act enthymematically in these moments — in other words, we fill in the details based on our own pre-existing ideas about who commits mass shootings. To fellow white supremacists, white radicals are heroes. To Democrats, they are mentally ill. To Republicans, they are mentally ill and leftists, Muslims, or both. Because of the overlap in the Democrat and Republican narratives, the least politicized way to discuss domestic terrorism, as a nation, is through the lens of mental illness. It’s an attractive narrative because it shields the political ideology of the shooter from criticism; it de-politicizes the act and allows us to neglect the relationship between ideology and terrorism.
The concealment and suppression of the relationship between ideology and terrorism is a terrible price to pay for the illusion of objectivity. In the case of white nationalist terror, despite overwhelming data that right-wing terror is a threat to our safety, the psychological, apolitical paradigm of white terrorism has resulted in disbanding the counter-terrorism forces dedicated to tracking or combating it. There are no longer any governmental, empirical efforts to understand and trace white radicalization.
This series takes up that responsibility by providing a brief glimpse into how alt-light groups, particularly the Proud Boys, come to form a recruitment pipeline for white-nationalist terror organizations.
For the most part, this will concentrate on cis-gender, heterosexual, white men. The way women are brought into white nationalist movements is distinct — usually they are placed in nurturing roles, not violent or authoritative ones (with some notable exceptions), and deserving of its own study. But as we’ll see in observing Proud Boys custom, though white women have a place in it, this is a white, male world.
There are sympathetic elements to the Proud Boys position. The core of the Proud Boy’s narrative is a manipulated belief that no matter what they do, they can’t win. Publicly identifying white nationalists is a labor of love, not hate. White nationalists have the most success in recruiting men who feel angry, alienated, and whose beliefs are not entirely incompatible with white nationalism.
This is a recurrent theme in discussions I had with the Proud Boys. Their ranks are full of frustrated men who are being fed misinformation to amplify that anger. They are being contacted by white nationalist groups, extreme even by their standards, who are using that anger to recruit them. Most of the Proud Boys I spoke to expressed feelings of isolation, and cited the sense of community as a major reason they remain loyal throughout the political turmoil.
The Proud Boys aren’t unaware of the social conditioning at play. They cite the perceived hypocrisy of the Left in saying that white supremacy is pervasive enough to brainwash people, but not cutting them a break for being, allegedly, brainwashed. It’s not a totally unfair point: They want to go after the Nazis, but they are afraid that, if we make that a norm, someone will ruin their life without warrant, just because they don’t have a perfect set of ideas. Combined with the absurd and irresponsible way leftist groups are covered in the media, it explains why otherwise reasonable, working-class men are worried about the speech rights of wealthy populists like Milo and Bannon.
It’s not that the Proud Boys agree with everything the alt-right says, but their beliefs overlap enough to make them feel threatened. And some Proud Boys, to their credit, have resisted that message and been willing to admit it existed and talk to me about it. That’s not an insignificant or trivial thing.
Groups like the Proud Boys are actively being alienated by a billion-dollar industry for manufacturing division through conspiracy theories. Most chapters have members who believe that the Vegas shooting was a false-flag attack by the government, or that the government and media are colluding to hide additional shooters. Believing in false flags is not a white-nationalist perspective by itself — many on the left, in communities like Reddit’s /r/pol or leftist Facebook groups routinely circulate fairly outlandish false flag theories — but it represents the alt-right’s effort to manipulate white men into distrusting their own perceptions of reality.
As this powerfully amplified, alienating message spreads, our window to force public conversations about people’s politics and how they lead to white nationalist radicalization is quickly closing. White supremacists don’t have to join terrorist organizations to be recruited into their violence. Dylann Roof — revered by white nationalists for murdering nine African-American churchgoers during Sunday service — absorbed white nationalists’ call to action through online message boards, memes, and other mass recruitment tools. Terrorism is a tactic, not a political ideology of its own.
Addressing any of one of those three factors (anger, alienation, or beliefs) makes someone more resilient to white nationalism. Even a small sense of community goes a long way in preventing violence, because people won’t reconsider their beliefs if they don’t feel connected to (or represented in) the new information.
In a conversation with the @ProudBoysUSA Twitter account, the weight of these feelings is evident (reposted with permission):
It’s frustrating, because it’s still a position that is complicit in tremendous violence and helps white nationalists recruit: though the Proud Boys claim to hate white nationalists, they are letting them recruit in their ranks. It’s completely against many of their best interests, too. A good share of the Proud Boys more closely align with the left, in fact — we, too, think the media is manipulative, that Democrats are racist, gun control is a terrible idea, Harvey Weinstein is a nasty, rapist pig, and that the government and police are dangerously out of control. We, too, circulate false-flag and conspiracy theories, often times created and propagated by foreign-state actors like Russia. Few people can say today that they did not participate in some level of mob behavior on social media at some point in the past year.
Despite these claims, the line between Proud Boy and white nationalist alt-rightist is thin, in my opinion. We should have nearly no sympathy for someone who is aware of this cycle and doesn’t do everything they can to protect their chapter from radicalization. After all, part of the Proud Boy ideology is being public about one’s politics, which should, in theory, provide sufficient imperative for removing white nationalists from their ranks. Oath Keepers, another entity at the fringe of the alt-right, conducted a similar ideological purge in 2017.
Instead, what we see throughout a reading of Proud Boy meme culture and public self-representations is that all too often core tenets of Proud Boy ideology like border closure, mass deportation of Muslims and crackdowns on undocumented workers are uncomfortably close, if not virtually identical, to what they claim to condemn so angrily.
In order to fully understand and interrogate the juncture between Proud Boy and white nationalist ideology, it becomes necessary to suspend, for a moment, one’s preconceived ideas about who is a “real” white nationalist. If we accept that white nationalism is a serious a problem as the Proud Boys claim it to be, then it’s entirely reasonable that people are as angry and condemnatory as they are. But this is not of service in an objective understanding. So, let’s examine the evidence for this juncture as objectively as possible.
What Are The Proud Boys Proud Of?
After I published a recent article, The Nazi in the Chemistry Department: What I Learned Investigating Dylan Bleier, several Proud Boys reached out to take issue with my characterization of their organization. As one Wisconsin-based Proud Boy put it, “The Proud Boys have disavowed the alt-right and Nazis numerous times…We’re not alt-right, and we’re certainly not jerks.”
Indeed, as an organization, the Proud Boys do “officially” disavow the alt-right and white nationalism, but not enough to actively exclude them. Usually, they point to their Black and Latino members as evidence of their anti-racism, which makes some sense — they are attempting to engage the left through identity politics, but have a misunderstanding of what identity politics are (most people do).
To avoid miscommunicating, we should pin down what we mean by white nationalism. White nationalism is a political position, not an identity; it is an ideology, like classic liberalism, communism, Nazism, or fascism. Anyone can be a white nationalist, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or any other intrinsic characteristic. There were (and are!) Jewish Nazis, Black Confederates, Asian white nationalist and American members of ISIS. It doesn’t matter who someone is sleeping with, their personal feelings on racism, or where their parents came from: white nationalism is a way of organizing society that begins with the assumption that white people are superior to others, and as long as one is in accord with that, one may properly deem oneself a “white nationalist”.
Stripped of this claim to anti-racism, examining Proud Boys culture objectively makes it difficult to imagine why the Proud Boys aren’t proud of their affiliation with the alt-right. Their political beliefs align well with white nationalism, and their motto is a giant dog-whistle:
“Creating the modern world” means, explicitly, slavery and genocide. This is not exaggeration; it’s literally taken directly from their public statements:
To the Proud Boys, the enslavement of others was simply a matter of being stronger and smarter — qualities they are fighting to restore to American society. This makes Proud Boys ideologically appealing to radical white terrorist organizations as recruiting grounds; a Proud Boy comes ‘ready-made’ with a set of scientistic beliefs that allows them to dehumanize victims while professing nothing but a belief in being ‘true to one’s people’.
The Proud Boys insulate themselves from criticism by producing purposefully anodyne, often quite boring public content. For example, they claim the following core beliefs:
The Proud Boys are a fraternal organization of Western Chauvinists who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world. Our values center on the following tenets:
Pro-Free Speech (1st Amendment)
Pro-Gun Rights (2nd Amendment)
Glorifying the Entrepreneur
Venerating the Housewife
Reinstating a Spirit of Western Chauvinism
Though these are our central tenets, all that is required to become a Proud Boy is that a man declare he is “a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” We do not discriminate based upon race or sexuality. We are not an “ism”, “ist”, or “phobic” that fits the Left’s narrative. We truly believe that the West Is The Best and welcome those who believe in the same tenets as us.
*We are by no means prudish Victorians. We merely believe that this energy is better spent going out, meeting women, getting married, and having children.
On surface, none of these are outright murderous or violence-sanctioning tenets. They reflect a commonality across a good deal of geographic variance in Proud Boys chapters. These are divided into geographically defined groups in terms of discussions within the Proud Boy community: the Southern chapters couch their identity in the Confederacy, while the North uses scientistic racism and Nordic lore. The Los Angeles Proud Boys have their own unique identity — they are racially inclusive, and much of their beliefs align with the left. They’ve documented several instances of reporters ignoring their existence because it doesn’t fit the narrative, and they rightfully find that to be problematic.
In the majority of the groups, however, there are three different categories of Proud Boys:
- The “Frat Bro,” as Will Sommors wrote about here, who just want to brawl [with the Left],
- The “Politician/Businessman (in training),” who are more polished and careful with their public presence. Some currently hold public office, others hope to emulate them,
- The “Unashamed White Nationalist”: This category has the most regional variance, and as such is the type this study focuses on. This type is not geographically delimited — that is, it’s not that they don’t exist in both the north and south. Far from it, unfortunately. Rather, the way in which UWNs express their white nationalism varies regionally and reveals how Proud Boys are a political expression that can be understood within a matrix of local causative factors towards radicalization.
The first two types of Proud Boys are the ones being radicalized. The third group — the unashamed, overt white nationalists — those are the people doing the radicalizing. Regardless of these nuances, every Proud Boy lives up to the promise of being chauvinists (aggressive patriots), and all Proud Boys believe Western people and culture to be innately superior.
Pepe’s Alt-Right Fight Club
It’s easy to see why the Proud Boys’ hazing process is appealing to violent ideologues. Their “fraternal organization” is based around brawling, beer, and far-right extremism. When you blow a dog-whistle, you can’t be surprised when the dogs come running. The Proud Boys are organized by a hierarchical ranking system, and members rise from first degree (lowest) to fourth degree (currently the highest).
According to Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys and co-founder of Vice Media, to become a first degree Proud Boy,
“You publicly declare you are a Proud Boy. This means you make your Western chauvinism public and you don’t care who knows it. If you support Trump (how can you not if you’re a Proud Boy?) and it comes up in the cafeteria, you proudly state your stance. If that gets you fired, so be it. Our forefathers died in battle to protect our freedoms. The least we can do is be inconvenienced. There is no anonymity in pride.”
Because they believe in completely closed borders, the Proud Boys’ investment in Trump has fluctuated over time, particularly when he was in talks with the Democrats about DACA. For a variety of reasons, iit’s actually commendable that Proud Boys are required to be public about their affiliation, though a significant plurality violates this tenet by hiding in anonymity or denying their membership to journalists.
After you’ve completed the first degree, the “fight-club” spirit of the fraternal organization emerges. To become a second degree Proud Boy, you have to let them physically beat you until you name five cereals (yes, seriously). Here’s McInnes again:
“You must get the crap beaten out of you by at least five guys until you can name five breakfast cereals. If you hammer out, “Chex, Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, and Special K” in a matter of seconds, you’re free to go. If you get flummoxed by the punches and cannot think straight, well, sorry, you’re going to get pounded.
The rationale here is we all need better “adrenaline control.” Both physical fighting and arguing require you to maintain your composure and not get petty with ad hominem attacks or “I just…can’t” forfeitures. Defending the West against the people who want to shut it down is like remembering cereals as you’re being bombarded with ten fists. The bonding and camaraderie this violence produces is inspiring. As Jeff Rojo from Arizona put it, “Proud Boys motivated me to be the unapologetic guy I should have been, starting in high school.”
If McInnes or another Proud Boy isn’t there to witness the beating (as might be the case with new chapters, for example), it must be taped. You can view examples below:
Once you become second degree (or higher), you must also commit to the #NoWanks rule. Members are forbidden from masturbating more than once per month to encourage them to go out, meet women, and procreate to sustain Western civilization. For this reason, gay men are exempted from #NoWanks.
The third degree is simpler, retaining the principles of the first and second degrees, but much more intense: Members must get a Proud Boy tattoo or permanent brand. Dozens of men have this tattoo. One man got it on his forehead and another covered his forearms with it. If someone has a problem with tattoos, branding is permitted and at least one man has done exactly that.
While retaining the principles of the first and second degrees, the third degree involves getting a tattoo that says “Proud Boy.” Dozens of men have this tattoo. One man got it on his forehead and another covered his forearms with it. If someone has a problem with tattoos, branding is permitted and at least one man has done exactly that.
When the Proud Boys began, there were only three degrees. In February of 2017, to celebrate their propensity for getting into fights with protesters, Gavin McInnes added a fourth degree. In an interview in Metro, he described it as involving “a major fight for the cause”. “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa”, and, presumably, arrested.
The Proud Boys started getting into a lot more brawls. They had been primed for violence, their beliefs are exclusionary, and the men that join desire each others’ approval, creating a positive feedback loop of social feedback encouraging men to violence. The violence escalated so quickly, that McInnes wrote an article to protect himself for claims that he was responsible:
For example, ProudBoysUSA posted a video of one of their members being arrested for beating up a protester while an onlooker yells “You got your fourth degree!!”
The violence escalated so quickly, that McInnes wrote an article to protect himself for claims that he was responsible:
The 4th degree is for someone who has “endured a major conflict related to the cause.” In the past I’ve joked about “kicking the crap out of antifa” This obviously doesn’t mean you go to someone’s house or even pick a fight with one at a rally. If you do such a thing, that’s 100% on you and has nothing to do with the groups tenets. It’s about defending yourself. We don’t start fights, we finish them. 4th degree is a consolation prize for being thrust into a shitty situation and surviving.
He wrote the clarification above in July, but continues to praise his members for getting into fights.
The emphasis on violence, particularly as an initiation ritual, should concern us as a society. Even at the national level, the Proud Boys are deeply networked with the worst of the alt-right. And Neo-Nazis celebrate this relationship openly, even as McInnes tries to disavow it.
Sifting and Winnowing: What to Expect From The Rest Of This Series
The structure of this network analysis is deliberately aleatory — it’s a walkabout. The Neo-Nazi/Proud Boy connection is made to be purposefully obfuscatory to a straightforward investigation. A maze cannot be understood like a crossword; we must experience the self-loss and disorientative effects of the maze, in fact, to understand what makes it a maze. It must be traversed, and the logic of this world is such that a random walk, rather than a purposeful inquest, will take one down a path that can one can only be pulled down, not pushed towards.
We will walk, together, through the Proud Boys’ network, and you can draw own conclusions. Some chapters are unquestionably better or less execrable than others, and we should do our best to observe that while sifting and winnowing through the hundreds of profiles and conversations with Proud Boys across the country into a representative sample. I have no expertise in politics outside the United States, so my analysis is limited to America; Proud Boys is an international entity to some extent, but it is concentrated in America. Much of this work will look at ordinary or run of the mill Proud Boys, rather than the elite leadership. Gavin McInnes did not respond to my request for comment, though he’s spoken with colleagues (I won’t spoil the details of their conversation — they’re a doozie.)
Before we look at individual chapters, let’s look at an example of the interconnectedness between the alt-right and the Proud Boys.
Mark Lacey is the “experience” creator at AFEKT MEDIA, a company that is really, really good at creating innocent-looking memes that are powerful tools of white nationalist propaganda. This is his twitter profile:
The site mentioned in his bio — dnew.site — is his newest project, an open platform where subliminal messaging, ‘dank memes’, and conspiracy theories coalesce in a user-friendly platform that keeps users hooked by its social media functions. It’s a one-stop shop for white nationalist recruiters, and Lacey’s followers reflect the market he serves:
Much of the symbolism in these images is densely coded and must be unpacked. Here are two examples:
The “14 words” bio in the middle — this is a coded white nationalist slogan. It stands for a 14-word statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”. 14 often occurs in combination with 88 — Hitler’s initials expressed as the 8th letter of the alphabet, or H — as a coded neo-Nazi statement.
The Syrian flag in the name represents the pro-Assad stance of the user — not due to local ethnical affiliations, however, but due to how the Syrian conflict confirms white supremacist beliefs. White nationalists celebrate Assad because they envy his ability to use mass violence to achieve ethnic and cultural homogeneity.
The bottom right profile, simply named “Rapeable” uses the anti-Semetic echo around “(((forces)))” to denote the user’s belief that Jewish people are promoting a new world order in which white people are “considered rapeable.” The solution? “Wake up & Fight back.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that his content appeals to both Proud Boys and flagrant white nationalists: they both love Trump, hate Islam, and enjoy absorbing material that fits their perspective. Lacey’s work is visually spectacular and deploys Proud Boy and neo-Nazi iconography in a skillful manner that lets neo-Nazis essentially ‘hide in plain sight’ behind outwardly Proud Boy symbols.
Alongside his mainstream content, Lacey also produces a series of progressively more disturbing work. The aforementioned Vegas conspiracy theory is being aggressively promoted, and Alex Jones is set to start hosting content on dnew.site in the near future.
The more you sit with his material, the more disturbing it becomes. The between conspiracy and dissent starts to fade.
The between conspiracy and dissent starts to fade, and the work becomes more disturbing the more one sifts through his material Lacey’s graphics target people who distrust the government (sometimes for good reason), but are uncertain about where power is centralized in American society. White nationalism provides a convenient answer that alleviates responsibility from anyone who joins them. “The system is broken and you are afraid, but if you know the Truth, then it can’t be your fault.”
There’s a quality about his memes — an affect that goes beyond uncertainty and urgency — that the average viewer doesn’t receive. Affect, at its best pathos, at times sheer bathos, works by generating emotional attachments to certain images, which allows them to recall that emotion without specifically mentioning it. Politicians use affect regularly. For example, showing footage of the 9/11 attacks can inspire a sense of patriotism without referencing the concept directly. Affect depends heavily on cultural context. If you haven’t formed the subconscious, emotional attachments between the text (or image) at face value, and the emotion it is meant to recall, you won’t understand the message. To return to my example, people who weren’t old enough to witness 9/11 don’t have the same patriotic feelings when they view footage of the attacks. Affect can change over time, too — a woman who lost her husband in Iraq may develop an affective relationship with 9/11 footage that inspires rage at the government that sent her loved one to die on false pretenses.
I’m going to leave you with a series of images that Lacey produced. The memes below contain more than ideology — they are active calls to violence — but if you haven’t learned the affective “code,” so to speak, you won’t hear it. I invite you soak them in for a bit, perhaps while revisiting the profiles that follow his account, and try to understand this from the perspective of a Proud Boy. I’ll return to them towards the end of the series. Until next time, when we begin our analysis in the Deep South.