Springtime is struggling this year in New York. Reluctant blossoms bob under a cold wind’s blast. As late, weak red light leaks down 51st St, I’m jumping in the car.
Driving along, on the way to my next assignment for Dateline, I know that even if we achieve the most balanced version of the story we’re about to tell – some people will hate it. It’s a strange feeling to start filming with, and it gets stranger throughout the process.
Earlier this year, I spent a week in New York, New Jersey and Texas embedded with a group called the Proud Boys; as well as meeting their detractors in Alabama and Maryland. Since the group now has chapters in Australia, I’ve come to see what they’re all about.
The Proud Boys are, mostly, pro-Trump. They believe in closing the borders, legalising all drugs, abolishing prison and giving everyone a gun. If this was in a small town in Colorado, it’d probably be called extreme libertarianism – but in an urban context it feels unusual. They are also a male support group – as I was told over and over again; “a group of guys that like to get together and drink beer”.
At a location in Jersey that he’s told us to keep undisclosed, I meet Proud Boy media man Pawl Bazile. Pawl has gotten flack for being in this group, and for being a vocal conservative living in an environment where blue-collar Democrats and big-city liberals call the shots. Pawl is a punk rock guy, who tells it like ‘it’ is. He believes people are still listening to his band – and he’s right. Sixty-three million people voted for Donald Trump in 2016, which is almost half the electorate that bothered to vote. Pawl reminds me that it’s easy to underestimate those numbers if you live overseas or in the big, liberal cities. These ideas aren’t going away.
For the Proud Boys – guys that just like to get together and drink beer – politics comes up a lot. But I could say the same for people I know who like to get together and drink wine, so… so far so good? We go to drink some beer. I’ve been to 17 states in these ‘United’ States since the beginning of the 2016 electoral race, so the Proud Boy rhetoric is pretty run-of-the-mill; these men feel downtrodden and un-listened to – and they blame feminism and political correctness for it.
On a sunset cruise overlooking the New York skyline, where a number of Proud Boys are getting together for a meet up, one guy tells me, “if you look around here, this boat, these structures are built on the sweat of men’s backs. And now we're getting blamed for everything. So we sweat and bleed and then we get called out for bleeding on the floor”. It’s a common theme. A war on men and manhood, being waged against simple, honest ‘western’ guys. I asked several Proud Boys for specific examples of this gender war in action – but I didn’t get any particular incident or moment that lead them to feel this way. It’s more of a ‘vibe,’ as The Office’s David Brent would say.
One of the other Proud Boy tenants is ‘venerate the housewife’. The idea being that men and women are ‘equal but different’, and that those differences should be celebrated. The end result of this celebration, is that men go out to work, and women stay at home.
“It’s just normal. It’s your Dad. If you go to the Knights of Columbus and interview them, 90 per cent of them will be pro-Trump, they’ll think gay marriage is fake, immigration needs to be curbed drastically, that’s just normal dad politics,” says Proud Boy founder Gavin McInnes, who likens the Proud Boys to traditional men’s groups.
“Men would disappear once a week and have a beer and hang out before they had to come home and play with the kids. It was like a reboot. And then the feminists in the 80s ended it. 100s of years of this tradition gone! By 1985.”
Sometimes known as ‘the godfather of hipsterdom’, and a co-founder of Vice Media and Vice Magazine, Gavin tells me he knows how to spot a trend. He says men’s groups are the next trend.
Later at Gavin’s studio, I watch him record an episode of ‘Get off my Lawn’ – his weekly web series. He rails against feminists, the Middle East and Mexico – with punishing generalities. But if people get too offended, it’s all in the name of comedy – like a Howard Stern, or a Louis C.K. At least according to Gavin.
Down in Montgomery, Alabama, I meet Ryan Lenz from the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), who says the Proud Boy rhetoric is a slippery slope.
“Gavin might suggest it's funny, you know, they're actually attacking an entire class of people, the entire Muslim world, and vilifying them as a result of their faith.” Hate speech is hate speech, no matter how much comedy or entertainment is wrapped around it, Ryan says.
The SPLC believe that the Proud Boys cross the line from chauvinism to misogyny, but it’s their presence at right-wing rallies and their attitude towards Islam that has gotten them branded as a ‘hate group’. For their part, the Proud Boys feel they’re miscategorised – and point towards the rising list of hate groups identified by the SPLC. They claim hate-group identification is big business, and the SPLC profits from it.
Gavin McInnes has been accused of conflating hate speech with comedy, and many of the rank-and-file members of the group often take this further online, and among the growing trend of violent political protests and rallies in the US. Of course, this brings controversy, media attention, and constantly updated quotes on the Proud Boys SPLC hate group page.
My ‘Proud Boy’ Google alert goes off faithfully every morning. It’s generally something Gavin has said that has outraged some form of media. So the battle continues – and the controversy buoys the group. It makes them more attractive to those who might even consider this sort of value system, and undoubtedly swells Proud Boy membership.
Ultimately, it’s the same kind of free and compelling media attention that propelled Donald Trump to power.
So if you really disagree with the Proud Boys, it’s probably best to ignore them. Move on, there’s nothing to see here. People’s outrage only makes them stronger.
A version of this story was first published at News.com.au.