They started as a joke, are named after a song from Aladdin, abstain from masturbation and have been at the centre of white supremacy in the US since 2016.
And on Tuesday night, president Donald Trump, rather than condemning them, told the far-right group the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” as racially-charged violence continues to rage across the country he hopes to lead for another four years.
He was responding to a question during the presidential debate from moderator Chris Wallace, who asked if he would condemn white supremacist and militia groups that have showed up at some protests.
Instead, Trump branded the unrest a “left-wing” problem and blamed “antifa” which stands for the anti-fascist movement.
“I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” Trump said. “What do you want to call them? Give me a name.”
“Proud Boys,” his Democratic rival Joe Biden chimed in.
So who are the Proud Boys? Let’s start at the beginning...
When were they founded?
The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 – initially as a joke – and were named after the song “Proud of Your Boy” from Disney’s Aladdin musical.
The group was the idea of Gavin McInnes, the controversial co-founder of Vice Media who after leaving the company, became an outspoken figure on the far-right.
What do they believe?
Introducing the Proud Boys in September 2016, McInnes outlined his ideology as “Western chauvinism”, the idea that men and Western culture are under siege from the liberal left.
He wrote: “The basic tenet of the group is that they are Western chauvinists who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world.
“Like Archie Bunker, they long for the days when girls were girls and men were men.
“This wasn’t controversial even twenty years ago, but being proud of Western culture today is like being a crippled, black, lesbian communist in 1953.”
Is this still what they believe?
McInnes tried to distance himself and his group from the wider alt-right movement that rose to prominence after Trump’s election win in 2016, insisting it was focused on its “Western values” rather than race or religion.
This became increasingly difficult, particularly after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 which was organised by a then-member of the Proud Boys.
The group was classified as an extremist group by the FBI in 2018, after which McInnes quit.
How do others describe them?
The Southern Poverty Law Centre which monitors extremism in the the US, describes them as: ”...rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists.
“They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric.”
How does membership work?
There are four stages to becoming a Proud Boy.
- A wannabe member has to publicly declare they are a Proud Boy and this inherently includes supporting Trump. A member is expected to stand by these stances even if it gets them fired from their job.
- As outlined by McInnes, a prospective member “must get the crap beaten out of you by at least five guys until you can name five breakfast cereals”. The rationale for this is apparently “adrenaline control”. They also have to give up masturbation and are only allowed to view porn once every 30 days.
- Stage three is getting a Proud Boys tattoo.
- Stage four is “kick the crap out of an antifa”.
It’s this final stage which has put the group at the forefront of violence sweeping the US in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that have been ongoing since the summer.
The group has been particularly prevalent in Portland, Oregon, where they have clashed with anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter activists.
This week hundreds of Proud Boys supporters rallied to end what they called “domestic terrorism” in Democratic-run Portland.
“It’s crazy that it takes us to come here to solve things,” Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio said in video on the group’s Parler page.
How violent are they?
In May of last year, HuffPost obtained leaked chat logs that belied their purported image as a “drinking club” who only resort to violence to defend themselves from anti-fascist protesters during political rallies.
Members of the group discussed injuring and even killing their adversaries, plotting tactics and optics for months in order to assert a claim of self-defence should they face charges.
Why won’t Trump condemn them?
Trump continues to insist the ongoing violence in the US is a “left-wing” problem and appears unwilling to condemn any group that supports him ahead of November’s election.
At least one Proud Boy organiser, Joe Biggs, celebrated the group’s mention on the social media platform Parler, saying: “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA...well sir! we’re ready!!” according to screenshots posted by a New York Times reporter on Twitter.
The Proud Boys are ecstatic tonight about getting mentioned in the debate tonight.— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) September 30, 2020
"Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy," writes one prominent Proud Boy. pic.twitter.com/hYA7yQVAOn
And within moments of Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comment, Proud Boys T-shirts bearing the slogan appeared online.
The Proud Boys are now sharing the group's logo with the president's words emblazoned like a slogan. pic.twitter.com/T3tp286YRa— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) September 30, 2020
Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the Network Catholic Lobby for Social Justice, said in a statement: “I am appalled at president Trump’s refusal to condemn white nationalists.”
Biden has often said he decided to run for president after white supremacists attacked counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and Trump said there were “fine people on both sides.”
While Trump has sought to distance himself from that comment, he has also been accused of downplaying the threat of white supremacists, even as his own administration has warned of the danger.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.