The Proud Boys Are The Republican Party’s Brown Shirts
The Metropolitan Republican Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side hosted Proud Boys founder and then-leader Gavin McInnes in October 2018, lending credence to the alt-right “Western chauvinist” group, along with its violent tendencies.
- According to Slate, McInnes delivered a “bizarre and disjointed” speech, which saw the ex-founder of Vice magazine dressed up as a “Japanese assassin who killed a Socialist politician with a sword during a political rally in 1960, re-enacting the event with the help of a fellow Proud Boy.”
Afterward, the Proud Boys clashed with antifascist protesters on the street in several fistfights that were caught on video. The NYPD arrested several antifascists, but for days failed to detain any Proud Boys, finally announcing on Monday following public protest that they would seek charges for some members of the group. The club, for its part, issued a statement defending their decision to invite McInnes, saying that his speech celebrating the murder of a socialist was not meant to incite violence.
- Though popular belief in how to approach groups such as the Proud Boys often involves ignoring them, as they tend to thrive on attention, McInnes' invitation to the club marked a change in the game: the Proud Boys gained a foothold in establishment Republicanism.
The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill and Will Sommer argue that it was, and that the success of the Proud Boys in gaining entrée into places like the Metropolitan Republican Club (as well as past public support from Republican figures like Roger Stone, Tucker Carlson, and Devin Nunes) is reminiscent of the way fascism gained power in Europe between World Wars I and II.
- Slate noted that fascists did not come to power overnight, nor did they climb the political ranks without some degree of support from establishment conservatives.
Fascism used conservatism for its own purposes most effectively in Mussolini’s Italy. In the early 1920s, as Mussolini began his rise to power, the Black Shirts, or squadristi, rampaged through the Northern Italian countryside, perpetrating a campaign of terror.
The most important lesson of the squadristi period when looking at the Proud Boys today is that conservative landowners, threatened by their workers’ emergent socialism, supported this widespread Fascist violence as a necessary corrective. Like present-day Republicans who offer legitimacy to the Proud Boys’ theatrics, the conservative powers-that-be in Italy looked the other way while squadristi violence worked to their own benefit.
The public political violence of the squadristi period, on its own, would not have been enough to install and maintain Mussolini as dictator. Mussolini needed support from the crown, the Vatican, the military, and landowners to seize and retain power, and he got it. The establishment, [historian Martin] Blinkhorn wrote, essentially decided “that Fascism deserved the governmental role that Mussolini was now demanding—indeed that a brief administering of ‘Fascist’ muscle might be just the thing that Italian politics and society needed.”
After Fascists murdered the socialist parliamentary deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, a coalition of Socialist, liberal, and Catholic deputies left Parliament en masse in protest. Blinkhorn believed that Mussolini, who was “panic-stricken” by this resistance, might have resigned at this point if the king, Victor Emmanuel III, had demanded it. But the king, and his supporters on the right, thought Mussolini was better than the alternatives—Socialism, or else an explosion of Fascist violence directed at the conservative elite—and believed they could control him. They couldn’t.
- Similar forces were at work in Germany as Adolf Hitler rose to power, made possible by what Blinkhorn deemed “the machinations of conservative politicians and generals” and the “complacency” of economic interests.
- In other areas of Europe, such as Great Britain, fascist movements were unable to take root as they were unaccepted by mainstream conservatives.
Historian John Stevenson argued in 1990 that in Britain, the lack of a true left-wing challenge to conservative hegemony—one that might under other circumstances push those on the right to embrace fascism—denied a real foothold to even the most successful fascist politician, Oswald Mosley.
- In present day America, there is no real threat of a socialist uprising, regardless of Republicans' propensity to make the claim.
A few promising candidates and a lot of energy aside, we don’t have a real socialist movement in this country, either—certainly not one of the kind that led Italian and German conservative elites, worried about social instability in the wake of an all-consuming war, to embrace the “strong arm” of fascist violence in hopes of keeping their power.
- But this does not mean the growing acceptance of far-right conservatism within the Republican ranks, combined with increasingly hostile rhetoric toward Democrats and the left, is no cause for concern.
[W]e do have an unreasonable fear on the right of that type of socialist challenge—a fear that is stoked by the president’s rhetoric. Just last week at a rally in Topeka, Kansas, Trump said that Democrats, who are “radical” and “unhinged,” are “too dangerous to govern.” In his USA Today editorial, which also published last week, he wrote: “The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela … If Democrats win control of Congress this November, we will come dangerously closer to socialism in America.”
The president’s refusal to condemn unconditionally the violent alt-right protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 felt like a bellwether for conservative acceptance of neofascist alt-right violence. The Proud Boys’ invitation to the Metropolitan Republican Club, and that club’s refusal to apologize for this act of legitimization in the wake of the violence that followed, feels like the next dangerous step.
- Trump only compounded the situation this week when he again refused to outright condemn far-right extremism during the first presidential debate, instead telling the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by."