What I’ve learned about the Proud Boys

They’re showing up in Michigan, and in my work in Congress.

In last night’s debate, President Trump’s exhortation of a group called the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” may have been the first time many Americans have heard of this group.

But as a Michigander and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, I can tell you this is a group on the rise. They have been increasingly visible in our state and district, and in my work on hate groups in Congress — so I thought I’d share some context.

The Proud Boys, who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists,” are a fast-growing presence in our state and in our district. From what I can tell, they really took off in visibility and activity with the protests against the COVID-19 lockdown and our governor. While the Anti-Defamation League describes them as an example of “right-wing extremism” that “can be described as violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and misogynistic,” they are not a group in the shadows: they participate regularly in rallies, protests and counter-protests. Last month, their demonstrations led to open street brawls in Kalamazoo. They proudly wear clothing embellished with the Proud Boys name, carry signs and drive floats, and have a strong and vocal presence online. They have also started to influence mainstream politics: one of the candidates in my own district’s primary took selfies with and defended them, and in Northern Michigan, the Proud Boys helped the local Republican party provide security for a rally for Senate candidate John James.

As Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL said on CNN today: “The Proud Boys are a hate group through and through. … The Proud Boys don’t deserve a place in the public conversation. Their kind of extremism should be rejected by elected officials at every level, let alone the president of the United States.”

The Proud Boys’ popularity is set against the backdrop of increasing instances of hateful and threatening rhetoric and, at times, violence in Michigan. The ADL recorded seven white supremacist incidents in Michigan in 2017, 34 in 2018, and 43 in 2019. Nationwide, the ADL recorded more anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 than at any time in its 40-year history.

This has led me to focus on this repeatedly in House Homeland Security Committee hearings, pressing the FBI to describe the scope of the problem regarding white supremacist extremists, including the Proud Boys. This month, FBI Director Wray testified in response to my question that white supremacist extremists constitute the largest portion of racially motivated violent extremism in the country, and that the FBI has elevated racially motivated domestic violent extremism to be a priority commensurate with homegrown terrorists and ISIS.

When the President encouraged the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” it was hard to read that as anything other than an incitement to violence. Based on online postings, it appears that many Proud Boys understood the President’s statement exactly that way: earlier today, the Michigan branch of the Proud Boys posted a meme featuring the President’s words with an image from their violent street brawls in August.

In an increasingly tense time, especially in politically diverse districts like ours, the last thing we need is the encouragement of confrontation. The average Michigander can’t stand that tension and division, and such rhetoric only divides us further and makes us less safe.