NEW YORK — Gavin McInnes, the founder of the violent neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys, had a perplexing message for the Republican Party last Friday. “At the very least, people of the right,” he told a crowd inside the Metropolitan Republican Club ballroom, “let us scum in.”
It was a baffling thing to say, of course, because McInnes had been invited to speak at the club, a storied and stuffy mainstream conservative institution on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The Metropolitan Republican Club has historically been a place for the traditional elite. Over the past century, presidents, senators, governors and mayors have walked through its doors, including club members Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Michael Bloomberg. But on Friday night, it was a hipster nationalist militant behind the club’s podium: McInnes, a hateful and vulgar vlogger from Canada who likes to play with his butt on camera.
McInnes, who co-founded Vice before leaving the media company in 2008, is now famous for the outlandish antics and bigotry he performs as an online talk show host. He uses slurs like “nigger” and “faggot,” once described transgender people as “gender niggers” and “stupid lunatics” and maligned Muslims as “stupid” and inbred. He has been pictured wearing a neo-Nazi band’s T-shirt, has a tattoo associated with that band, is chummy with white supremacists, writes for white supremacist websites and likes to throw up Nazi salutes. He also regularly incites his Proud Boy followers to commit violence. “Fighting solves everything,” he has said.
In 2018, under President Donald Trump, a person like McInnes is invited to speak at a popular Republican institution not despite his extremism but because of it. His invitation to the Metropolitan Republican Club, scholars of fascism said, shows Republicans’ increasing ease with what is essentially the militant, fascist wing of their party — an especially unnerving development, given Proud Boys’ penchant for violence.
Alexander Reid Ross, the author of Against the Fascist Creep, told HuffPost that “by inviting McInnes to their event, the Republicans are not only endorsing but encouraging his usage of extreme violence and facilitating associations between fascists and the radical right within the party.”
A list of speakers at the Metropolitan Republican Club over the past three years shows both established Republican politicians (including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas), alongside extremist figures (including anti-immigrant fearmonger Ann Coulter, anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Pamela Geller and James O’Keefe, the self-described “guerrilla journalist” behind the fraudulent far-right media outfit Project Veritas). Also on the club’s list: Nazis’ favorite Fox News host, Tucker Carlson.
The club didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on why it has routinely hosted such extremist figures. On Sunday — reacting to outrage over Proud Boys assaulting leftist protesters after the McInnes event ended — the club issued a statement defending its decision to invite McInnes.
“We want to foster civil discussion, but never endorse violence,” club officials said. “Gavin’s talk on Friday night, while at times was politically incorrect and a bit edgy, was certainly not inciting violence.”
But McInnes started his speech at the club Friday by re-enacting the 1960 political assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a leader of the Japanese Socialist Party, who was sliced open with a samurai sword on live television by a far-right ultranationalist. (In an Instagram post before the event, McInnes called the assassination an “inspiring moment.”)
According to the news site Bedford and Bowery, McInnes wore “glasses with caricatured Asian eyes drawn on the front” during the performance. In the audience, his Proud Boy acolytes — many of them in the group’s uniform of Fred Perry black shirts and red “Make America great again” hats — laughed and cheered.
A short time later, video footage shows dozens of those Proud Boys descending upon a much smaller group of anti-fascist protesters on a nearby sidewalk, punching and kicking them as they lay on the ground. They screamed “faggots” during the assault. One of the Proud Boys later boasted of beating up a “foreigner.”
The next day Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon, joined with another violent far-right gang, Patriot Prayer, to assault leftist protesters there. On Oct. 6, Proud Boys in Providence, Rhode Island, attacked counterprotesters at a Resist Marxism demonstration.
Shane Burley, the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, said the Proud Boys are best understood as a part of the violent, racist skinhead movement “that extends back into the 1980s, taking white male rage and turning it against the most marginalized communities.” (Among those at McInnes’ speech Friday night were at least three members of local skinhead gangs to which Proud Boys have long been linked.)
Whereas past skinhead movements mostly failed to establish connections to a major political party, the Proud Boys have found success.
Politicians like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), and former Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone have posed in photos with Proud Boys. In March, Stone asked Proud Boys to be his security detail at a Republican conference in Oregon. Ian Reilly, the Metropolitan Republican Club member who reportedly invited McInnes to speak there on Friday, is a campaign manager for Republican New York state Sen. Marty Golden.
Right-wing media outlets have been equally friendly. McInnes was a frequent guest on the Fox News show of Trump’s favorite conservative pundit, Sean Hannity. Fox News’ Carlson posed with the Proud Boys in a photo.
The Proud Boys were able to ingratiate themselves with the GOP, in part, by confusing traditional American notions of a hate group. McInnes, for example, publicly rejected the racist “alt-right” after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — where one person was killed after someone rammed a car into a group of counterprotesters — despite his closeness with rally speaker Richard Spencer and although a Proud Boy, Jason Kessler, organized the rally.
The Proud Boy’s public rejection of the “alt-right,” however tenuous, has allowed Proud Boys to attract men of color — a fact it loudly advertises to fend off accusations of extremism. But there are still white nationalist Proud Boys, and the group as a whole is still decidedly anti-feminist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender and anti-leftist. Mostly, it’s pro-Trump.
To join the Proud Boys, a man must declare, “I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” To become a fourth-degree Proud Boy, the highest level, McInnes said, members must “get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa.”
David Neiwert, the author of Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, said the GOP’s embrace of the Proud Boys is reflective of the party’s “increasing spiral into the grip of far-right extremists, a process that has actually been taking place for more than a decade now but has increased dramatically since the GOP became the party of Donald Trump.”
“Trump has given all of these people permission, through word and deed, to be as hateful and violent and ugly as they want to be,” he said.
And it could get very ugly.
Historian Robert Paxton, the author of the seminal 2004 book Anatomy of Fascism, wrote that skinheads could “become functional equivalents of Hitler’s SA and Mussolini’s squadristi only if they aroused support instead of revulsion.”
Paxton, of course, was writing in 2004, long before it was imaginable that a founder of Vice would be speaking at the Metropolitan Republican Club as the leader of a gang called the Proud Boys, praising a President Donald Trump.
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