HU What is the Impact of Populism on Democracy Paper

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Gateway Readings
Dickson, E. J. “The Rise and Fall of the Proud Boys.” Rolling Stone, July and August, 2021. https://www-proquest-com.chipublib.idm.oclc.org/docview/2547620606?accountid=303.
Theoretical Readings
May 10
Lowenthal, Leo, and Norbert Guterman. “Portrait of the American Agitator.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 12, no. 3 (Autumn 1948): 417-29.
You will turn in a short, roughly two-to-three-page response paper that addresses the readings of that
theme.Please include at the top of your paper the question you will be answering in the paper.
Your paper should include an introduction, which lays out the argument and the ways
you will demonstrate the correctness of your argument, body paragraphs, which will
follow the path you lay out in the introduction to prove your argument, and a conclusion,
which will summarize the claims previously made and draw out their logical
implications. Please do not include a quotation from a dictionary as the definitive
proof of the meaning of a key term. Words change their meaning over time.8/18/2021
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Record: 1
Title: The Rise and Fall of the Proud Boys.
Authors: Dickson, E. J.
Source: Rolling Stone. Jul/Aug2021, Issue 1353/1354, p122-153. 9p. 6 Color
Photographs, 2 Black and White Photographs.
Document Type: Article
Subjects: RIGHT-wing extremists — United States
RIGHT-wing extremism
UNITED States Capitol (Washington, D.C.)
MCINNES, Gavin
TRUMP, Donald, 1946UNITED States — Politics & government
Abstract: The article discusses the political activities of the far-right extremist
organization known as the Proud Boys. Topics explored include the
involvement of Proud Boys members in the January 2021 insurrection at
the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the establishment of the
group by political commentator Gavin McInnes, and the popularity
earned by the Proud Boys during the administration of former U.S.
President Donald Trump.
Lexile: 1400
Full Text Word Count: 7806
ISSN: 0035-791X
Accession Number: 151094463
Database: MasterFILE Complete
The Rise and Fall of the Proud Boys
The far-right extremist group helped mount an insurrection. Then it began to splinter
“Let’s take the fucking Capitol.”
A burly, bearded man in a ballistic vest and a baseball cap that says “God, Guns, and Trump” is trying to rally
members of the crowd. The man’s name is Daniel Lyons Scott, but he goes by Milkshake. It’s around noon on
January 6th, a frigid day in Washington, D.C., and even though most of the men there are wearing orange ski
hats and winter jackets, they’re still shifting from one foot to another to keep warm. 1 “Let’s not fucking yell that,
all right,” someone else in the video says. Ethan Nordean, who goes by Rufio Panman, after the Lost Boys’
leader from the 1991 Steven Spielberg film Hook, shouts into the megaphone, with the air of an impatient older
brother. “It was Milkshake, man….Idiot.” The vlogger shooting the video, Hendrick “Eddie” Block, laughs
uproariously. “Don’t yell it, do it,” says someone in the background.
Hours later, according to video footage, they do it. Led by former InfoWars staffer Joe Biggs and Nordean, the
men march onto the Capitol grounds, yelling “Fuck antifa” and “Who’s streets? Our streets.” At 1:07 p.m.,
Biggs and Nordean are seen near the front of a crowd surging toward the barriers, eventually overpowering
police. Dominic Pezzola, a Rochester, New York, military veteran nicknamed Spaz or Spazzo, breaks a window
using a riot shield he’d wrested away from a police officer, allowing rioters to filter into the Capitol. In the video,
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Biggs can be seen flashing a grin. “This is awesome,” he says over cries of “This is our house.” One Proud
Boy livestreams himself half-singing, “Nancy, come out and play,” as if the speaker of the House was the
member of some rival Warriors gang. According to federal filings, Spazzo later posts a video of himself
smoking a cigar in the hallowed building’s halls. “Victory smoke in the Capitol, boys,” he tells his audience.
“This is fucking awesome. I knew we could take this motherfucker over if we just tried hard enough.”
Nordean, Biggs, Pezzola, and Scott are all members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization with
anywhere between 5,000 and 35,000 members, depending on whom you ask. Prosecutors allege that more
than 60 people affiliated with the Proud Boys used an encrypted Telegram channel to plan the events of
January 6 th, including Biggs, Nordean, and Pezzola; Scott was arrested in May and charged with assault on a
federal officer, in addition to other charges. Biggs, who declined to comment through his attorney, was charged
with conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and destruction of government property, among other
charges, while Nordean was charged with aiding and abetting injury to government property, obstructing an
official proceeding, disorderly conduct, and violently entering a restricted building; if convicted, he could face
more than 30 years in prison. (An attorney for Nordean declined to comment; Pezzola’s attorney did not
respond to ROLLING STONE.)
Defendants have argued in court filings that the Proud Boys are a loosely structured organization, and that the
storming of the Capitol was a purely spontaneous act. Indeed, in an interview with ROLLING STONE, Proud
Boys chair Enrique Tarrio claims the FBI is using the group as a “scapegoat” to account for its own failures and
that the Proud Boys had never planned to storm the Capitol, attributing their actions that day as a result of
“mob mentality.”
But more than 1,500 pages of Telegram chats recovered by the government indicate otherwise, with
prosecutors alleging in court filings that Nordean, in the absence of Tarrio — who had been arrested two days
prior for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a black D.C. church — instructed members to “split up into
groups, attempt to break into the Capitol building from as many different points as possible, and prevent the
joint session of Congress from certifying the Electoral College results.”
According to court filings, in the weeks leading up to the attempted insurrection, top leaders of the group,
including Biggs and Nordean, are alleged to have set up a “Ministry of Self-Defense” to coordinate the plan of
attack. “We’re not gonna be doing like a proud boy fuckin’ 8 o’clock at night march and flexing our [arms] and
shit,” MOSD member and co-defendant Zachary Rehl said during a December 30th video call, according to
court documents. “We’re doing a completely different operation.” On January 4th, another MOSD member
instructed the group to “drag them out by their fucking hair” if congressional members attempted to “steal” the
election.
That day, Proud Boys members eschewed their trademark yellow-and-black colors to go incognito, a way to
confuse “antifa” counterprotesters, they said. But staying under the radar had never been the point. For the
Proud Boys, the goal of January 6th had always been to make it clear that Trump’s most rabid acolytes weren’t
going to stand by as their man went gently into that good night. And if they helped to orchestrate one of the
most violent government coup attempts in American history, in this regard, the Proud Boys succeeded.
BEFORE 2020, what the Proud Boys were and what they represented varied depending on whom you asked.
If you asked members of the group, chances are they’d describe themselves as nothing more than a
boisterous drinking club or “fraternal organization,” a bunch of bearded, tattooed “Western chauvinists” who
were not averse to beating the shit out of the occasional lefty. If you asked far-right figures like Matt Gaetz and
Roger Stone, they’d probably call the group enforcers, a necessary security detail that protected them from the
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threat of the far left. And if you’d asked the anti-fascists themselves, they would have told you the Proud Boys
were violent white supremacists, or “nerds who thought they could start a gang,” as longtime activist Daryle
Lamont Jenkins puts it.
For years, the Proud Boys operated in full view — selling merchandise on sites including Etsy and Amazon,
being quoted in mainstream news publications, and spreading hate on social media — under the guise of
semi-plausible deniability. The group trotted out its charismatic and media-credentialed leader, Vice co-founder
and cable-news pundit Gavin McInnes, as “evidence” that it was a legitimate group simply trying to fight the
scourge of political correctness. “McInnes has always espoused misogynistic views, and I think he saw an
opening for himself” with the rise of the men’s rights movement in the 2010s, says Julia DeCook, an assistant
professor at Loyola University who studies digital platforms and the far right. The Proud Boys would later play a
similar shell game with Tarrio, who is of Afro Cuban descent, citing his leadership role as evidence that it was
not a white-supremacist group, despite its anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric, and many
of its members having neo-Nazi affiliations. “All they have to do is say ‘I’m not racist’ ” to gain credence as a
mainstream group, says Jenkins. “It’s one of the biggest things in the conservative playbook.”
For years, the media bought this perception, downplaying the horrific comments and actions of the Proud Boys’
founder and members. And this was by design, with leaders of the organization threatening legal action if they
were depicted as violent extremists or white nationalists, even though that is exactly what they were.
“For several years the media has not taken the Proud Boys very seriously,” says Margaret Huang, president
and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was sued by McInnes for designating the Proud Boys a
hate group in 2019 (the SPLC filed to have the suit dismissed in April 2019, according to court filings; the case
is still ongoing). “Generally, they were not perceived as a significant problem.” Providing security at rallies for
political figures like Matt Gaetz gave them a “brush of legitimacy,” casting them as protectors and enforcers
rather than posing a threat of violence, she says.
The Proud Boys somehow managed to hold onto this air of legitimacy even as they openly attacked anti-fascist
activists in cities across the country. “Mainstream liberals looked at the warnings of the left and thought that
we’re ludicrous, that we were crazy,” says Luis Marquez, a longtime anti-fascist activist in Portland, Oregon.
“And then it happened. And even now, I still don’t think that people understand the danger that right-wing
groups present.”
In theory, the undercurrent of rage among the far right following Trump’s 2020 defeat, compounded with the
success of the Capitol riots, should have fueled the Proud Boys’ recruitment efforts. To an extent, it did:
Telegram channels associated with the Proud Boys saw a massive influx of new users in the weeks following
the insurrection. But just as the Proud Boys seemed poised to take over the far-right ecosystem, the group
started to fall apart. For one, Tarrio, the group’s longtime leader, was outed as a onetime federal informant,
prompting many chapters to declare independence from the organization.
“We reject and disavow the proven federal informant, Enrique Tarrio, and any and all chapters that choose to
associate with him,” read a February statement on one chapter’s Telegram channel. In May, after being
designated a terrorist group by the Canadian government, Proud Boys Canada disbanded, issuing a statement
denying it was a white-supremacist or terrorist group.
In light of the fracturing of the organization, some of the group’s more openly white-supremacist members
started publicly jockeying for power, leading many anti-extremism experts to worry that newly formed splinter
groups could become even more radicalized. “This was a group that came out of January 6th super
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energized,” Alexander Reid Ross, a far-right-extremism researcher and the author of Against the Fascist
Creep, told me in February. “But with ensuing stories of conspiracy charges and federal informants, [you] start
to see the group deteriorating, one of the chapters splitting off into what’s likely gonna be a more extreme
version. I don’t know if it’s the end of the road, but it seems like it might be close to it.” This is the story of
where that road began — and of the dark recesses of the internet where it may lead us.
AS THE MYTHOLOGY of the Proud Boys goes, Gavin McInnes didn’t want to start a violent far-right
insurrectionist group. He just wanted to start a drinking club. For two decades, McInnes had carved out a brand
as a loudmouthed hipster media mogul, openly and earnestly spouting anti-immigrant, misogynistic, racist
rhetoric under the guise of flouting the boundaries of acceptability. In an interview with the New York Press in
2002, he chalked up such rhetoric to Vice’s “punk rock” aesthetic: “We seem really racist and homophobic
because we hang around with f— s and n——s so much. It just becomes part of our vernacular,” he said.
After coming across a copy of Pat Buchanan’s 2002 book, The Death of the West, the already blurry line
between McInnes as troll and McInnes as blatant white nationalist became even more ambiguous. “I love being
white and I think it’s something to be very proud of,” McInnes told The New York Times in a 2003 profile of
Vice. “I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a
Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” McInnes would later cite Buchanan’s book, as well as Jim
Goad’s Redneck Manifesto and discredited race theorist Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White
America, as “required” reading on Western culture.
In 2008, Vice officially parted ways with McInnes, citing “creative differences.” In a statement, a Vice
representative noted the many years between his tenure at the magazine and the creation of the Proud Boys.
“Vice unequivocally condemns white supremacy, racism, and any form of hate, [and] has shone a fearless,
bright light of award-winning journalism on extremism, the alt-right, and hate groups around the world,” the
representative said. The statement did not comment on McInnes’ work published by Vice.
Following his departure, McInnes carved out a role for himself as a commentator on right-wing cable TV and
podcasts, including his own video podcast, The Gavin McInnes Show. His brand was “using really
transgressive humor to attempt to create plausible deniability about what, in reality, were bigoted beliefs,” says
Cassie Miller of the SPLC. That antagonistic streak helped him build a large young, male, extremely online
audience. Dante Nero, a comedian who frequently guested on McInnes’ podcast, initially viewed him as a
likable contrarian: “He was a funny dude,” he says, referring to McInnes as an “anarchist, ‘I say blue, he says
red,’ type of guy. He really liked when you went against the grain.”
The seeds of the Proud Boys seem to have grown from the podcast, with McInnes first using the term in
December 2015 while griping about a “little Puerto Rican kid” singing “Proud of Your Boy,” a hit from the
Broadway adaptation of Aladdin, while attending his child’s recital. McInnes mocked the child and his musical
selection, calling it “the gayest fucking song,” but it eventually became something of an ironic rallying cry, with
McInnes frequently evoking the lyrics. “Proud Boys” became an inside joke among McInnes and his audience,
and they started hosting meetups.
The far-right leanings of the group were baked into its aesthetic, with members donning black-and-yellow polo
shirts by the late British designer Fred Perry, whose brand has been worn by generations of subcultures, some
with far-right ties. (The brand pulled the color combination in the U.S. and Canada in 2019 due to its
association with the Proud Boys.) Combining tattoos and beards with the clean lines of khakis and Fred Perrys,
the Proud Boys blended aspects of skinhead and punk style with a retrograde, preppy look. “It hearkens back
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to Reaganism and unhinged capitalism pretty broadly,” DeCook says. “They play a lot with time in their
aesthetics. They’re trying to project the past into the present or future.”
The Proud Boys’ first meeting, in July 2016, reportedly took place at Tommy’s Tavern, a somewhat notorious
dive bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Although members would later dispute its penchant for both violence and
racism, both were present from the group’s earliest days, according to a 2016 profile of McInnes and the Proud
Boys in the local publication Bedford + Bowery, in which McInnes boasted that two members at the first meetup
became embroiled in a brawl.
McInnes openly referred to the Proud Boys as a “gang” on a 2017 episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. And
though he now claims to have used that word as a joke, it did have many similarities to a gang, such as tiers of
initiation rites. The first degree simply involved stating: “I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for
creating the modern world.” The second was to withstand a beating while yelling out the names of five
breakfast cereals, ostensibly to demonstrate sufficient “adrenaline control.” The third was to get a Proud Boys
tattoo, and the fourth was achieved by getting in a violent altercation “for the cause” — bonus points if you got
arrested. McInnes came up with the last degree in 2016 after a Proud Boy was arrested for fighting a lefty,
leading McInnes to gleefully bring him on the show and proclaim it a requirement for ascension in the ranks. (In
an email to ROLLING STONE, McInnes claims that Proud Boys were not allowed to “seek out the fourth
degree.”)
Despite this seemingly explicit promotion of violence as part of the Proud Boys’ ethos, the rite that got the most
media attention was the group’s no-masturbation pledge. In itself, a far-right group advocating for abstinence
from self-pleasure is nothing new; there’s extensive history of white-supremacist groups equating masturbation
(and the “Jewish-owned” porn industry) with loss of masculinity, and the hugely popular subreddit NoFap,
which traffics in such ideology, had been founded years before.
But the person who credits himself with planting the seeds of the No Wanks policy is Nero, the black comic
who for some time was known as the “Pope” of the Proud Boys, he says. In 2015 and 2016, Nero frequently
appeared on McInnes’ podcast to dispense romantic and life advice, positioning himself as a relationship guru
of sorts. At one point early on, Nero says, he told McInnes that he avoided masturbating when he was in a
relationship, because it desensitized him from forging an intimate connection with his partner. This piqued
McInnes’ interest, inspiring him to incorporate an anti-masturbation stance into his burgeoning Proud Boys
ideology.
Like many former members, Nero insists that the organization was not meant to be taken seriously. “It was a
group of guys drinking and hanging out,” he says. At various bars in New York, he’d attend gatherings with
McInnes’ acolytes, who would pepper him with questions about their sex lives, or lack thereof. “They were
young guys, all kind of intellectualizing their fear of rejection from women. They were blaming women because
they weren’t interesting or attractive enough to get any attention,” says Nero. He saw his affiliation with
McInnes and the group as an “opportunity to access these viewers. I also thought that I could reach them.” He
jumped straight to the third degree, getting a Proud Boys tattoo on his neck.
Nero doesn’t recall the group being violent at the time, but Jenkins says its inclination toward violence began
fairly early. His first memory of the Proud Boys was outside a pro-Trump art show he attended in downtown
Manhattan in October 2016, hosted by far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. They were wearing black-and-yellow
Fred Perrys, so “I immediately thought that they were trying to be like what they consider skinheads to be,” he
says. At one point, McInnes threw a protester out and kicked his phone at him, smashing it on the street; the
crowd erupted into cheers of “USA! USA!,” followed by a series of self-congratulatory fist bumps and
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handshakes. At that moment, Jenkins says, his view of McInnes and his followers shifted from race-baiting
provocateurs to “stone-cold thugs.”
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 only further emboldened the Proud Boys, providing far-right organizations with
license to publicly spout extremist rhetoric. “One of the things you got to understand about the fascist right is
that when you’re looking at the Trump years, you’re looking at them seeing the last opportunity” to maintain the
popular consumption of far-right ideas, says Jenkins. With an openly racist demagogue in the White House,
the Proud Boys sought to capitalize on the conservative backlash against the progressivism brought about by
the Obama administration. “If you’re the head of the Proud Boys and you’re looking at these mainstream, rightwing circles, you’re looking at an opportunity,” Jenkins says.
IN THE BEGINNING, the Proud Boys primarily aligned themselves with far-right celebrities like Yiannopoulos,
Stone, and Ann Coulter, acting as self-appointed protectors and showing up in force at events where they
knew left-wing counterprotesters would appear. After a 2017 talk by Coulter at the University of California,
Berkeley, was canceled following outcry from the student body, McInnes called on his “army” of followers to
hold a rally on campus. “You fucked up,” he said in a video addressing liberals who protested. “Once again you
have created this mythical universe of Nazis on every corner… well, we are not allowing that to happen. The
show must go on.”
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in the death of counterprotester Heather
Heyer, was a pivotal moment in terms of how the Proud Boys presented themselves to the media. A few
months prior, McInnes had interviewed Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, who would later be filmed
undergoing initiation for the group’s second degree. “What’s really under attack is if you say, ‘I want to stand up
for white people. I want to stand up for Western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for
Christians,’ ” Kessler said on McInnes’ show, as McInnes agreed enthusiastically.
That June, McInnes issued a statement on the Proud Boys’ website disavowing the rally and discouraging
members from attending. “I get that it’s about free speech and we want everyone — even white nationalists —
to have that right, but I think it’s coming at a time when we need to distance ourselves from them,” McInnes
wrote. Nonetheless, some members of the Proud Boys were present at the rally, including future Proud Boys
chairman Tarrio, who told a reporter he attended to protest the removal of Confederate monuments but denied
attending the infamous tiki torch march.
Following Charlottesville, McInnes was in something of a bind, says Matthew Valasik, a researcher of far-right
gangs. “No one wanted to take ownership of it.” Two days after Unite the Right, McInnes brought Kessler on
his show to accuse him of using the Proud Boys as a front for recruiting for the alt-right.
But the group had already attracted members with white-nationalist bona fides, such as Brien James, a former
member of the neo-Nazi group the Outlaw Hammerskins, according to the SPLC, and current head of the
Indiana Proud Boys chapter; and Augustus Sol Invictus, the deputy of the group’s now-defunct militia wing, the
Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK), who in 2013 slaughtered a goat and drank its blood as part of a
pagan sacrifice.
By late 2017, the Proud Boys had also established a presence in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Portland,
Oregon, in part because it had aligned itself with Patriot Prayer, another far-right organization that similarly
positioned itself as a defender of free speech. “There was a lot of switching and intermingling between the two
groups, back and forth,” says Luis Marquez, the anti-fascist activist in Portland. The city has long been a “flash
point” for simmering tensions between left-wing activists, far-right protesters, and police, says Hampton Stall, a
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researcher at Militia Watch: “They knew that when they looked for the enemy, they would find the enemy.” The
rallies attracted Proud Boys like Nordean, a Washington native who would later be charged in connection with
the Capitol uprising.
The Proud Boys quickly learned to use footage of these violent skirmishes as a recruiting tool by uploading it
on YouTube. Members like FOAK founder Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, so dubbed for hitting an antifascist protester with a stick at a March 2017 Berkeley protest, became mini celebrities on the far-right when
footage went viral; similarly, 2018 footage of Nordean punching a counterprotester at a Portland rally was
incorporated into a sizzle reel promoted on the Proud Boys’ Twitter account; the clip received more than a
million views. Joe Rogan brought up the violent footage on his podcast, which garners 190 million downloads
per month, in the context of critiquing anti-fascists’ fighting skills.
Guest appearances on Rogan’s podcast were instrumental to the Proud Boys’ growth, says Juliet Jeske, a
student at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism who has been following Mclnnes since
2016, and has watched and archived all 407 episodes of his show. On it, McInnes frequently bragged about
how many new followers he’d acquired with each Rogan appearance, Jeske says. Though episodes featuring
McInnes were deleted from Rogan’s catalog when his show moved to Spotify, Rogan has previously defended
his decision to have McInnes on, saying, “I had him on before he was even a Proud Boy. I didn’t even know
what the fuck the Proud Boys was” (this despite McInnes having referred to the Proud Boys as a “gang” on a
Rogan podcast appearance). In a later interview, Rogan called McInnes “mostly fun.” (Rogan did not return a
request for comment.)
Using violence as a public recruitment tactic represented a huge shift from far-right extremist groups in
previous years, says Michael German, a Brennan Center for Justice fellow and former FBI agent who went
undercover for far-right militia cases. While historically white-nationalist groups had downplayed violence in
order to avoid law-enforcement attention, “the Proud Boys came out and vocally promoted themselves as
violent actors, even in their initiation process. It’s unusual for any kind of organization to publicly state its intent
to break the law,” he says.
Since many of the Proud Boys were traveling across state lines to attend rallies and openly attack protesters,
German assumed that the group “would draw FBI attention immediately.” But across the country, law
enforcement appears to have enjoyed something of a cozy relationship with the Proud Boys. In Philadelphia,
off-duty police officers were captured on camera mingling with Proud Boys after a rally in support of Vice
President Mike Pence; last September, a police officer there was seen shaking hands with a member of the
Proud Boys and a group of officers was then seen walking with them to a Walmart parking lot after a rally. (In a
statement to ROLLING STONE, a spokeswoman said that PPD officers “will be found at most demonstrations,
following and flanking the crowds as they travel [to ensure public safety.]” She acknowledged that a PPD
lieutenant shook hands with members of the Proud Boys, but said it was aligned with the department’s policy to
“engage protesters in a respectful manner that fosters communication.”)
In Portland, police would regularly usher Proud Boys in and out of the areas where rallies took place, to the
degree that it turned the heads of left-wing activists. Marquez says that one time, after he was arrested at a
protest, he saw a police officer ask one of the Proud Boys for a selfie. (A Portland Police Bureau spokesman
denied that the Proud Boys received special treatment, adding that he’d never heard of a Portland officer
taking a selfie with a Proud Boy. “If anyone wishes to make a complaint, then there is an independent body that
does that,” he wrote, linking to the Portland independent police review.)
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A friendly dynamic between groups like the Proud Boys and police is not unusual, says German. “Law
enforcement treated violent far-right militant groups at public protests differently than it treated nonviolent antiracism protesters. The Proud Boys fit in that milieu,” he says. “They would commit violence with law
enforcement standing by, and in many cases, [police] appeared to be enabling far-right militant groups to come
into their communities to commit violence. Then they’d allow them to leave.”
This attitude also apparently extended to the FBI, which — in light of Trump’s election and Attorney General
Bill Barr’s directive to fight “antifa” — failed to fully recognize the Proud Boys as a threat. “Historically, the FBI
has not prioritized white supremacists and far-right militant violence within its domestic-terrorism program,”
says German. The FBI’s stance on the Proud Boys was reflected by the fact that, in 2018, when an internal
memo from the sheriff’s office in Clark County, Washington, suggested the FBI considered members of the
Proud Boys “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism,” a representative for the FBI made a public
statement contradicting the report, stating that “the FBI does not and will not police ideology.”
The Proud Boys adopted aggressive tactics to combat any insinuation that they posed a violent threat. Jason
Lee Van Dyke, the Proud Boys member who by 2017 had started officially acting as the group’s attorney, says
that he set up a Google alert for “Proud Boys” and every morning, when he arrived at the office, he’d send
legal threats to news organizations that referred to the group as a “white supremacist” or “white nationalist”
group. He boasts that they were able to get a significant amount of corrections and retractions from
mainstream news organizations as a result. (Van Dyke would later be expelled from the group for, he claims,
accidentally doxxing members. He would later be accused of attempting to join the neo-Nazi group the Base in
2019, a claim he refused to comment on.)
It was the organization’s irrefutable bent toward open racism and anti-Semitism that led Nero to ultimately
disassociate from the Proud Boys. After joining the Proud Boys’ Facebook page, Nero, saw that it was
inundated with racist memes and language, including the n-word. He claims he had no knowledge of any
members’ racist leanings prior to this.
Nero confronted McInnes about the racist language on the page. “He seemed as though he was surprised, and
that he didn’t know. He said, ‘That’s not what we’re about,’ and blah blah blah,” Nero says. McInnes posted a
letter on Facebook discouraging Proud Boys from using such language, but Nero says that after doing a deepdive into McInnes’ previous podcast episodes, “the reality is he was spewing this stuff out the whole time.” He
says he stopped returning McInnes’ calls to go on the podcast, with his last appearance in July 2017. Nero
says he has not spoken to McInnes or any other Proud Boys members for years. (McInnes says he was the
one who stopped calling Nero, after the latter’s participation in a This American Life exposé of the group in
2017.)
To this day, however, Nero is insistent in his belief that the Proud Boys did not start out as an inherently hateful
group. He refers to anti-extremism researchers’ categorization of the group as such as “psychobabble. “It was
just a joke,” he says. “That’s really all it was.” In his view, the No Wanks philosophy was designed to empower
men, aid intimacy, and help them respect themselves and their female partners. But in developing the group’s
ideology, “they cut out whatever they wanted… and they left what they didn’t need,” he says.
In October 2018, the Metropolitan Republican Club, a conservative club in an Upper East Side brownstone in
Manhattan, invited McInnes to speak, promoting him on the organization’s Facebook page as a “godfather of
the Hipster movement” who had “exposed the Deep State Socialists and stood up for Western Values.” The
city’s left-wing activists were furious, graffitiing the building with anarchist symbols hours before McInnes was
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scheduled to appear, and leaving a note that said, “The Metropolitan Republican Club chose to invite a hipsterfascist clown to dance for them, content to revel in their treachery against humanity.”
True to form, McInnes took the controversy surrounding the event as an opportunity to troll. He showed up at
the club carrying a katana sword and wearing glasses with exaggerated slanted eyes drawn on them, a
reference to Otoya Yamaguchi, an extremist who had become a meme on the far-right for assassinating the
leader of the Japanese Socialist Party in 1960. McInnes left the club sardonically waving the katana at a crowd
of 80 to 100 protesters who had assembled outside. Surveillance footage released by the NYPD shows one of
the protesters throwing a bottle at some Proud Boys, prompting a group of them to push him to the ground,
punching and kicking him. Two members, Maxwell Hare and John Kinsman, were ultimately convicted in 2019
on charges of attempted gang assault, attempted assault, and rioting.
The Proud Boys, Jeske says, “became pariahs overnight,” thanks in large part to footage of the altercation
going viral. “They weren’t attacked; it wasn’t self-defense. And it was harder to say, ‘Oh, they’re really a men’s
group, they’re not really racist.’ ” The incident left many members scurrying for legal cover, most notably
McInnes, who publicly resigned from the group via YouTube a month later. In that video, McInnes positioned
his departure as an act of self-sacrifice intended to help his acolytes. “I am told by my legal team and law
enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” he said, adding, “at the very least this will
show jurors they are not dealing with a gang and there is no head of operations.”
Despite this, McInnes tells ROLLING STONE that he still maintains contact with them: “I talk to them. I love
them. I still consider them the greatest fraternal organization in the world.”
The group’s reluctance to publicly align themselves with Unite the Right did not stop them from later installing
rally attendee Tarrio as head of the organization. The Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, Tarrio who is
of Cuban descent who grew up with family members who attributed their conservatism to living under Fidel
Castro. Despite his criminal record (he was sentenced to a 16-month federal prison term in 2014 for his role in
a scheme to resell fraudulent diabetes test kits), and his propensity for using racial, ethnic, and homophobic
slurs on social media, Tarrio was ambitious, charismatic, and well-liked within the organization, with the highgloss patina of Republican-establishment credentials, making him an ideal replacement for the more mercurial
McInnes.
But there may have been a more important reason why he was installed as leader of the group, says Devin
Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights: As a Miami native of
Afro Cuban descent, Burghart says Tarrio “provided cover from charges of racism and was often used as a
shield to deflect those charges of bigotry within the organization.” Tarrio was often quick to tout his race to
defend the organization to the media, telling reporters, “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban. There’s nothing white
supremacist about me.”
As the group grew, it became increasingly decentralized, with each local chapter adopting its own unique
flavor. The Pacific Northwest contingent, for instance, “is obsessed with street fighting, with brass knuckles,”
says Stall. “Whereas the Michigan group is increasingly looking like a militia, like they’re showing up with long
rifles.” Such fragmentation had the effect of making them seem disorganized and less likely to draw a crowd.
“What we’ve seen is a decline in the numbers they’ve been able to draw out,” Effie Baum, the spokeswoman
for PopMob, a Portland-based anti-fascist organization, told ROLLING STONE in 2019. But this impression
was misleading. “The important thing to remember is that they were making plans and organizing for the past
four years,” says Jenkins. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent anti-lockdown and BLM protests
across the country “was their time to shine,” he says.
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In October 2020, during a presidential debate, Trump gave the Proud Boys even more of a boost. When asked
to denounce the Proud Boys, Trump first said he didn’t know who they were, then said, “Proud Boys, stand
back and stand by.” The shout-out was the shot in the arm the group needed, taking them from “a fledgling
group that was barely holding on” to a far-right organization with the apparent endorsement of the president,
says Jeske. The members themselves appeared to agree. “Standing by sir,” Tarrio said on Parler immediately
following the debate. “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with
ANTIFA…well sir! we’re ready!!,” Biggs wrote.
Following Trump’s loss in November 2020, the Proud Boys started ramping up their rhetoric. After attending
Stop the Steal rallies in November and December, according to an FBI filing, Tarrio began encouraging
followers on Parler to attend the January 6th rally in D.C., posting that the Proud Boys would “turn out in record
numbers” but go incognito, eschewing their trademark colors; he also posted a meme of men in black-andyellow engulfed in fire, captioning it “Lords of War.”
Tarrio was arrested on January 4th on an outstanding warrant for burning a Black Lives Matter banner in front
of a D.C. church last December. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, despite admitting to burning the
banner on his podcast in December.) An FBI agent later said that Tarrio was arrested because they had
intercepted information he was planning to incite violence at the rally, a claim Tarrio dismisses as “complete
and total hogwash.” (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, despite admitting to burning the banner on his
podcast in December.) Tarrio maintains that the posts on Parler were intended to fool the media and left-wing
counterprotesters.
Despite Tarrio’s protestations, however, charging documents for the individual defendants paint a picture of an
initiative that was, if not well-orchestrated, earnest in its attempt to cause genuine chaos. On December 27th,
2020, according to an FBI affidavit, Nordean posted this on his Parler page: “Anyone looking to help us with
safety/protective gear, or communications equipment it would be much appreciated, things have gotten more
dangerous for us this past year, anything helps,” linking to a fund-raising page.
On January 4th, according to the same affidavit, Nordean posted a video on Parler of himself in tactical gear,
with the caption, “Let them remember the day they decided to make war with us.” That same day, in an
episode of his video podcast Radio Talk With Rufio, he appears to more explicitly allude to the organization’s
future plans when talking about fighting what he viewed as rampant voter fraud: “I think they’re relying on
complacency. I think they’re relying on the Facebook posts, and that’s all we’re going to do,” Nordean said of
the government, declaring that the Proud Boys would “bring back that original spirit of 1776 of what really
established the character of what America is.”
“Democracy is dead?” he later asks. “Well, then no peace for you. No democracy, no peace.”
SINCE THE EVENTS of January 6th, more than a dozen Proud Boy members and associates have been
arrested and charged for their alleged roles in the insurrection. But it wasn’t the FBI investigation that had the
most impact on the group, so much as the revelation, reported by Reuters, that Tarrio had served as an FBI
informant following his 2013 arrest. In an interview with ROLLING STONE, Tarrio attempted to spin his
involvement with the FBI by claiming he named someone involved in a smuggling ring to save family members
from jail time. But within the group’s ranks, the efforts to disassociate from Tarrio — and, by extension, the
formal Proud Boys organization — were swift.
“We do not recognize the assumed authority of any national Proud Boy leadership including the Chairman, the
Elders, or any subsequent governing body that is formed to replace them until such a time we may choose to
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consent to join those bodies of government,” a number of state Proud Boys chapters, including Indiana,
Oklahoma, and Alabama, posted on Telegram. In March, Joe Biggs’ lawyer wrote in a court filing that Biggs
himself, known as the flashy enforcer of the group, had contact with the FBI in 2019 and 2020, which was
“intended both to inform law enforcement about Proud Boy activities in Portland on a courtesy basis but also to
ask for advice on planned marches or demonstrations.” (The FBI declined to comment on any ongoing
investigations.)
Reports of Biggs’ work with the FBI had confirmed anti-extremism experts’ suspicions that law enforcement
had largely ignored the Proud Boys’ activities or even implicitly supported them. “The sheer level of what
they’ve been able to get away with over the past four years is staggering,” says Burghart. “And it’s in large part
because they’ve been able to cultivate that relationship with some in law enforcement and some in the GOP.”
As more information emerges about the FBI’s treatment of the Proud Boys, it seems increasingly probable that
their attack on the Capitol could have been prevented, despite the claims of some FBI officials. In
congressional testimony following the insurrection, for instance, FBI official Jill Sanborn alleged that because of
First Amendment protections, the agency did not have the right to track the public social media posts made by
right-wing organizations in advance of the January 6th attack, a claim German, the former FBI agent, finds
laughable.
“The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors seem to be trying to present the January 6th attack as
spontaneous and original, rather than recognizing it was the culmination of many different violent attacks
across the country,” he says, citing stabbings and the arrest of 33 protesters and counterprotesters in D.C. a
mere month before. “As long as their violence was targeted at antifa, law enforcement was OK with it. It was
only when it turned around and they attacked law enforcement that law enforcement took notice.”
Within the ranks of the Proud Boys, the arrests have arguably served to further fray the ties between factions
of the group, as well as carve out space for more extremist members to try to take the reins over its future
direction. “We’re at a point where there is some kind of entropy,” says researcher Reid Ross. “There’s a lot of
coalitions breaking apart. That will lead to new sympathies down the road, but also the more populist members
falling away and deradicalizing. In some cases it will lead to more intense radicalization and the desire to act in
more extreme ways.”
One potential challenger is Chapman, the former head of FOAK known as Based Stickman. Though Tarrio
says Chapman was kicked out three years ago, he attempted to gain control of the group in the fall of 2020
and steer the Proud Boys toward more open extremism, announcing, “We will no longer cuck to the left by
appointing token negroes as our leaders. We will no longer allow homosexuals or other ‘undesirables’ into our
ranks. We will confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization. We recognize that the West
was built by the White Race alone and we owe nothing to any other race.”
Brien James, the former neo-Nazi who is currently the head of the Proud Boys’ Indiana chapter, also appears
to be angling for some form of leadership position within the organization. “We all have this speculation Brien
James is simply trying to take over,” says Jenkins. “It may not be under the Proud Boys banner, but he’s
definitely going to make use of the momentum that the Proud Boys had.”
On his own Telegram channel, James appears to be actively stoking resentment toward current Proud Boys
leadership. “What else do you think these guys are willing to do to avoid the consequences of their own
actions?” he wrote in one post about Tarrio, Biggs, and Nordean, the latter of whom he said had submitted
Telegram chat logs as part of his defense. “What did their leader do when he got himself in trouble a few years
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ago?” he added, apparently referring to McInnes’ resignation after the Metropolitan Republican Club incident.
“Get the fuck away from these people. Don’t communicate with them….Run for the fucking hills.”
In general, as exiles from far-right pro-Trump movements flock to alternative social platforms like Parler and
Telegram, anti-extremism researchers are concerned about cross-pollination, particularly the Proud Boys’
attempts to recruit other disillusioned Trump acolytes with a range of far-right ideological leanings. “They’re
looking for a potential new well of recruits coming out of the activities of QAnon,” says Burghart, referring to the
far-right conspiracy theory positing the existence of a secret left-wing child-trafficking ring. The vacuum left by
the anonymous poster Q, who has been silent since the insurrection, “can easily be filled with ideas around the
importance of creating a white ethno-state or racial superiority.”
But even though experts say the federal charges may result in many members of the group turning on each
other, those who have watched the havoc that the Proud Boys have wrought over the years warn that it would
be a mistake to discount them now. “Right-wing extremism is still a threat in this country,” says Jenkins. “We
have to recognize it for what it is. If we do not, we’re here again.”
Across the country, members of the Proud Boys are still openly rallying. In April, a Fresno, California, police
officer was ousted from the force after he was spotted at a protest with Proud Boys; more than two months
after the attack on the Capitol, the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters were reportedly involved in a
skirmish with antifascist counterprotesters outside the Oregon state capitol. And in May, Nevada’s Clark
County GOP canceled a meeting following leaders’ concerns about a potential right-wing insurgency that
included the Proud Boys.
This is, effectively, the Proud Boys’ plan for the future, as Tarrio openly admits to ROLLING STONE: Rather
than retreating from the public eye in light of the organization’s legal issues and reputation for violence, he
plans to steer it more toward mainstream politics by running members, including possibly himself, for local
office. “There’s a pretty big percentage of people who think like us,” he says, citing the warm reception he and
the Proud Boys get from local GOP leaders. “I think we need representation.” Despite the organization’s recent
infighting, he says that he, and the Proud Boys, will “be here through fucking sleet or snow.”
Marquez says that for weeks prior to the attempted insurrection, he had watched on Telegram as the Proud
Boys had hyped up one another, saying they were going to show up in D.C. and defend the president and
overturn the vote. “It’s amazing to me that people would think that they were lying,” he says. Throughout their
history, the Proud Boys have “done everything that they said they were going to do. They had shown up for
weeks before, prior to January 6 th, having open brawls in the street. The intent was clear. So why would you
disbelieve them?”
Senior writer EJ DICKSON profiled the generation graduating during the pandemic in April.
Stop the Steal
Joseph Biggs [ABOVE] seen with fellow Proud Boys on January 6th, 2021, later claimed he shared Proud
Boys plans with the FBI in 2019 and 2020.
Violent Agenda
Proud Boys attending a December 2020 Stop the Steal march in Washington, D.C. [FAR LEFT]. Gavin
McInnes at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan in 2018 [LEFT], an appearance that ended in a
brawl between Proud Boys and leftists [BELOW LEFT]. Dante Nero was a frequent guest on McInnes’ video
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podcast [BELOW], but the comedian says he stopped after finding racist memes on the Proud Boys’ Facebook
page. “The reality is [McInnes] was spewing this stuff the whole time,” Nero says.
After the fight at the Metropolitan Republican Club, the Proud Boys “became pariahs overnight. They weren’t
attacked; it wasn’t self-defense. It was harder to say, ‘Oh, they’re really a men’s group.'”
Power Grab
Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio [FAR LEFT] faced rebellion in his ranks when Reuters revealed that he’d
been an FBI informant after a 2013 arrest. “We do not recognize the assumed authority of any national Proud
Boy leadership,” a number of chapters wrote on Telegram. Though Kyle Chapman [LEFT] was kicked out of
the Proud Boys three years ago, he is believed to be jockeying for power. “There’s a lot of coalitions breaking
apart,” says one extremism researcher. “That will lead the more populist members falling away and
deradicalizing. In some cases it will lead to more intense radicalization.”
PHOTO (COLOR)
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~~~~~~~~
By E. J. Dickson
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Portrait of the American Agitator
Author(s): Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman
Source: The Public Opinion Quarterly , Autumn, 1948, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Autumn, 1948), pp.
417-429
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Association for
Public Opinion Research
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2745344
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Portrait of the American
Agitator
BY LEO LOWENTHAL AND NORBERT GUTERMAN
BEFORE AND DURING the past war Americans
do they obtain a hold over their followers?
were amazed to find that there existed in their
Why is it that they appeared when they did?
midst a number of individuals who strikingly
What are the social and psychological condi-
resembled the local Nazi fiahrers of the I920’s. tions under which they flourish? All these
Most of these openly expressed admiration for
questions are discussed in the light of state-
Hitler and Mussolini, were rabidly anti-Semitic,
ments made by the agitators themselves, and
and indulged in intensive vituperation of our
the significance of agitation for our society
national leaders. In addition, most of them
is pointed out.
headed small “movements” and published
Dr. Lowenthal is managing editor of the
period;cals. They all made frequent political
Institute of Social Research, and lectures on
speeches, and some gave aid and comfort to
sociology at Columbia University. Norbert
the enemies with whom we were at war.
Guterman is also affiliated with the Institute
of Social Research, and has been a frequent
These are the “agitators” of whom the
authors speak in this study.’ How do they
differ from reformers and revolutionaries? How
contributor to literary and philosophical publications here and in France.
THE reformer or the revolutionary translates complaints into objec-
tive issues, presumably solvable by collective action. The agitator converts complaints not into an issue for action against one or another
symbol of authority, but into a theme eliciting the destructive impulses
of his public.
Nobody is thinking of agitators right now. The American agitator
is not at present at the center of political attention. Some agitators have,
however, occasionally come fairly close to the national political scene.
Acting on the assumption that America was nearinga grave crisis, they
have tried to build mass movements-with most notable success during
the years of the New Deal and shortly before America’s entry into the
war. Charles E. Coughlin managed to draw several million radio listeners; Gerald L. K. Smith amassed over ioo,ooo votes. But by and
large these have been the exceptions.
1 This article is based on material from a book entitled Prophets of Deceit, to be published by
Harper & Brothers in I949. The research was sponsored by the Department of Scientific Research
of the American Jewish Committee, and is part of a series of studies on the psychology and
sociology of group tensions.
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4I8 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL 1948
Far more numerous are those less conspicuous agitators who are
active locally and who, far from evoking the image of a leader worshipped by masses of followers, rather suggest quack medicine salesmen.
Their activity has many characteristics of a psychological racket: they
play on vague fears or expectations of a radical change. Some of these
agitators hardly seem to take their own ideas seriously, and it-is likely
that their aim is merely to make a living by publishing a paper or holding meetings.2 What they give their admission-paying audience is a
kind of act-something between a tragic recital and a clownish pantomime-rather than a political speech. Discussion of political topics invariably serves them as an occasion for vague and violent vituperation
and often seemingly irrelevant personal abuse. The line between the
ambitious politician and the small-time peddler of discontent is hard to
draw, for there are many intermediary types.
What is important, however, is that the American Fascist movement
finds itself in a preliminary stage in which movement and racket may
blend-much as was the case with Nazi agitators in the Germany of
I923 and I924. Our purpose in this study, therefore, is to outline some
of the distinguishing characteristics of the American agitator and then
to examine the social and psychological factors which enable him to
flourish.
WHO IS THE AGITATOR?
It is quite obvious that the agitator does not fit into the refor
type; his grievances are not circumscribed, but on the contrary ta
every area of social life. Nor does he address himself to any distinct
social group, as does the reformer; except for the small minority he
brands as enemies, every American is his potential follower.
Yet he does not fit into the revolutionary group, either. While the
discontent he articulates takes in all spheres of social life, he never suggests that in his view the causes of this discontent are inherent in and
inseparable from the basic social set-up. He speaks of the violation or
misappropriation of the present form of society, but he does not hold
it ultimately responsible for social ills, as does the revolutionary. Indeed,
the agitator is usually a defender of the status quo.
He points to enemies, groups or individuals held responsible for
2 One of these is Court Asher. Cf. the excellent study by J. V. Martin, “A Gentleman from
Indiana,” in Harper’s Magazine, January 1947, p. 66.
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PORTRAIT OF THE AMERICAN AGITATOR 419
the bad situation, but he always suggests that what is necessary is the
elimination of people rather than a change in political structures. Whatever political changes may be involved in the process of getting rid of
the enemy he sees as a means rather than an end. The enemy is repre-
sented as acting, so to speak, directly on his victims without the intermediary of an impersonal social form, such as capitalism is defined
to be in socialist theory. For instance, although agitational literature
contains frequent references to unemployment, one cannot find in it a
discussion of the economic causes of unemployment. The agitator
lays responsibility on an invariable set of enemies, whose evil character
or sheer malice is at the bottom of social maladjustment.
“Sometimes, these internationalists (a few international financiers) are
not even interested in price or profit. They use their monopoly control to
determine the living standards of peoples. They would rather see unemployment, closed factories and mines, and widespread poverty, if they might see
the fulfillment of their own secret plans.”3
Unlike the reformer or revolutionary, the agitator makes no effort
to trace this dissatisfaction to a clearly definable cause. The whole idea
of objective cause tends to recede into the background, leaving only on
one end the subjective feeling of dissatisfaction and on the other the
personal enemy held responsible for it. As a result, his reference to an
objective situation seems less the basis of a complaint than a pretext
for a complaint rooted in other, less visible, causes.
This impression is confirmed when we observe with what facility
the agitator picks up issues from current political discussions and uses
them for his own purposes. Throughout the past fifteen years, despite
the extraordinary changes he witnessed in American life, the agitator
kept grumbling and vituperating in the same basic tone. When unem-
ployment was of general concern, he grumbled about that; when the
government instituted public works to relieve unemployment, he joined
those who inveighed against boondoggling. Sensational news items
supply him with occasions for branding the culprits whom he holds
responsible for all social evils :
“The death of General George S. Patton, Jr., remains a mystery. He was
a careful driver. He admonished all who drove for him to drive carefully.
3 Social Justice (Charles E. Coughlin), Royal Oak, Mich.; monthly; September 8, I941.
4 The Cross and the Flag (Gerald L. K. Smith), Detroit; monthly; February, I946.
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420 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL I948
He was known to be wise and cautious in traffic. He was killed by a truck
that charged into him from a side road.
“He opposed the Morgenthau Plan. He was against the liquidation of the
German race merely because they were Germans. He refused to be domi-
nated and bulldozed by revengeful Jews. He had promised to blow off the
lid if he ever returned to, the United States. Some people doubt if his death
was an accident.”
His imagination knows no restraint:’
“Do you remember a couple of years ago that a mysterious gas cloud of
drifting death fell upon northern France and Belgium and floated across
the channel and up the Thames even to London itself? …
“Do you know that even in Free America at the present moment, stark
and violent Death waits upon the footsteps of men who know such facts
and give them effectively to the public?”
While the propagandist molds existing audience predispositions
into “predetermined” casts, the agitator appeals to predispositions which
are still in flux; his function is to bring to flame the smoldering resentments of his listeners, to express loudly and brazenly what they whisper
timidly, and to lend social sanction to actions that might otherwise
seem dangerous temptations. He works, as it were, from inside the
audience, stirring up what lies dormant there.
AGITATION AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Agitation may be viewed as a specific type of public activity and
the agitator as a specific type of “advocate of social change”-a con-
cept that will serve us as a convenient frame of reference.
An “advocate of social change” may be defined as follows:
The immediate cause of his activity is a social condition that a section of the population feels to be iniquitous or frustrating. This discontent he articulates by pointing out its presumed causes. He proposes
to defeat the social groups held responsible for perpetuating the social
condition that gives rise to discontent. Finally, he promotes a movement capable of achieving this objective, and he proposes himself as
its leader.
When an investigator begins a study of any movement for social
5 Official Dispatch, Silver Shirts of America (William Dudley Pelley), page 2.
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PORTRAIT OF THE AMERICAN AGITATOR 421
change, the first and most natural problem he confronts is to locate
the cause of the movement in a specific condition of discontent. In most
instances the solution of this problem presents no difficulties at all-in
fact, the advocate of social change himself devotes a great part of his
energy to articulating this cause. When we examine agitation, however,
we face an entirely different situation. That the agitator wants to exploit
existing discontent is obvious enough: he seems always to be addressing
people who are smarting under the harshest injustice and whose patience
has been strained to the breaking point. But whenever the investigator
scans the texts of agitation and, on the basis of his experience in studying
other kinds of social movements, tries to discover what is the discontent
it articulates, he is consistently disappointed.
The difficulty is not that agitation fails to provide him with answers, but rather that it answers a question he did not ask: whenever he
asks “what,” he is answered as if he had asked “who.” He finds numerous vituperative and indignant references to enemies, but nowhere can
he find a clearly defined objective condition from which the agitator’s
audience presumably suffers. At best, agitation provides the investigator
with contradictory or inconsistent references to such alleged conditions.
Unless we decide, as has often been done, that the agitator is simply a
lunatic, we must assume that, although a sense of discontent exists, he,
unlike other advocates of social change, is either unable or unwilling
to state it explicitly. Hence, the agitation analyst faces the task of himself explicating the state of discontent to which the agitator refers.
A CATALOGUE OF GRIEVANCES
Even a cursory glance at agitational material shows that any attempt to analyze it by methods that help discover the purposes of the
revolutionary or the reformer could lead only to an impasse. If we try
to classify the agitator’s complaints in terms of the simplest categories,
we obtain approximately the following picture:
a) Economic Grievances. The agitator roams freely over every area
of economic life, seeing in each the evil and iniquity he finds in all of
modern existence. He may begin anywhere at all. Too much help is
being extended to foreign nations: “If we have any money to offer for
nothing, or to loan, or to give away, we had better give it to our own
first. Of course, that is old-fashioned.”6
6 The Cross and the Flag (Gerald L. K. Smith), February, 1946.
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422 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL 1948
Not only are foreigners taking our money, they also threaten our
jobs. “People born in America have to commit suicide because they have
nothing to eat while refugees get their jobs.”7
Behind such injustices stand “The International Bankers, who de-
vised and control our money system, [and] are guilty of giving us unsound money.”8
Such situations constitute a danger to the American way of life,
for “what is more likely to follow many years of Nudeal communistic
confiscatory taxation, wool-less, metal-less, auto-less regimentation and
planned scarcities than our finally becoming stripped by necessity to
Nudism ?”‘
b) Political Grievances. International commitments by the U.S.
government jeopardize political liberties. “Like Russia, the United
States is suffering from the scourge of internationalism.”10 The American people are warned: “Be not duped by the internationalists who
dwell amongst us.””
Of course it is only reasonable that “treaties and agreements .
shall be reached with other nations, but . . . we want no world court
and no world congress made up of a few Orientals and a few Russians
and a few Europeans and a few British . . . to make laws for us to
obey.’12
From within, this country is threatened by radicalism, which prepares strikes that are “dress rehearsals for a forthcoming general strike
that is meant to paralyze the Nation.”‘3
We face both the danger of a “Soviet America where . . . an
Austrian-born Felix Frankfurter presides over an unending ‘Moscow
trial'”‘i and the rule of “tyrannical bureaucrats” who if they “could
have their way completely” would institute a “dictatorship in America
as merciless as anything on earth.”‘5
c) Cultural Grievances. The agitator is greatly disturbed because
the media of public information are in the hands of enemies of the
7 George Allison Phelms, radio talk, Los Angeles, December 23, 1940.
8 The Cross and the Flag, October, 1944.
9 The Round Table Letter (Elizabeth Dilling), monthly; March 27, 1942.
10 The Defender (Gerald B. Winrod), Wichita, Kansas; monthly; August, I939.
11 Charles E. Coughlin, speech on March 26, I939.
12 The Cross and the Flag, October-November, 1942.
13 America Preferred (Carl H. Mote), Indianapolis; monthly; November, 1945.
14 Joseph P. Kamp, Vote CIO .. . and Get a Soviet America, Pamphlet, 1944.
15 The Cross and the Flag, June, 1942.
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PORTRAIT OF THE AMERICAN AGITATOR 423
nation. “The Hollywood motion picture industry is being exploited by
Russian Jewish Communists determined to inject their materialistic
propaganda into the fresh young minds of our children.”‘6 Hollywood
is “largely dominated by aliens who have appropriated to their own use
the inventions and discoveries of native citizens and who now specialize
in speculation, indecency and foreign propaganda.”‘7
“The American press will never be free” until control “is removed
from racial, religious and economic pressure groups.”‘8
d) Moral Grievances. The enemies of the agitator are notoriously
lax in morals: they engage in luxury consumption, this “crowd of
Marxists, refugees, left-wing internationalists who enjoy the cream
of the country and want the rest of us to go on milkless, butterless,
cheeseless days while they guzzle champagne.”19
And what is most galling of all is that “we gentiles are suckers.”
For “while we were praying they had their hands in our pockets.”20
THE APPEAL TO EMOTIONS
The list of diffuse complaints in the above section coul
ened indefinitely; it should be sufficient to indicate that th
the agitator voices do not refer to any clearly delineated m
moral condition. The only constant elements discernible in this mass
of grievances are references to certain emotions or emotional complexes.
These may be roughly divided as follows:
Distrust. The agitator plays on his audience’s suspicions of all social
phenomena impinging on its life in ways it does not understand. Foreign refugees cash in on the “gullibility” of Americans, whom he warns
not to be “duped” by internationalists. Strewn through the output of
the agitator are such words as hoax, corrupt, duped, manipulate.
Dependence. The agitator seems to assume that he is addressing
people who suffer from a sense of helplessness and passivity. He plays
on the ambivalent nature of this complex which on the one hand
reflects a protest against manipulation and an impulse to independence
and on the other hand a wish to be protected, to belong to a strong
organization or be led by a strong leader.
16Letters (Gerald L. K. Smith), irregular, July, 1945.
17 America Preferred, August, 1944.
18 Social justice, September II, I939.
19 Social Justice, July 2I, 1941.
20 Charles White, New York, street-corner talk, July I8, I940.
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424 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL 1948
Exclusion. The agitator suggests that there is an abundance of
material and spiritual goods, but that we do not get what we are entitled to. The American taxpayer’s money is used to help everyone but
himself-“we feed foreigners,”21 the agitator complains, while we
neglect our own millions of unemployed.
Anxiety. This complex manifests itself in a general premonition of
disasters to come, a prominent part of which seems to be the middle
class’ fear of a dislocation of its life by revolutionary action, and its suspicion that the moral mainstays of social life are being undermined.
The agitator speaks of “the darkest hour in American history”22 and
graphically describes a pervasive sense of fear and insecurity:
“This afternoon America is caught in the throes of fear, apprehension
and concern. Men are afraid … to vote, afraid not to vote. . . . Our population has been caught by the ague and chills of uncertainty. Unless these
uncertainties can be removed, unless these fears can be destroyed, we shall
never have prosperity again.”23
Disillusionment. This complex, a tendency more than an actuality,
is seen in such remarks as the agitator’s characterization of politics as
“make-believe, pretense, pretext, sham, fraud, deception, dishonesty,
falsehood, hypocrisy.”24 In fact, “whenever a legislative body meets,
liberties of the people are endangered by subtle and active interests.”25
Ideological slogans inspire resentment: “Democracy A Misnomer, A
Trick Word Used by Jew and Communistic Internationalists to Confuse and Befuddle American Citizens. .”..26 Values and ideals are
enemy weapons, covering up the machinations of sinister powers which,
“taking advantage of the mass ignorance of our people, accomplish
their purposes under the cloak of humanitarianism and justice.”27
THE MALAISE OF MODERN SOCIETY
The agitation analyst now faces the problem: are these merely
fleeting, insubstantial, purely accidental and personal emotions blown
up by the agitator into genuine complaints or are they themselves a
21 George Allison Phelps, radio speech, Los Angeles, July 27, I940.
22 Gerald L. K. Smith, Detroit, remarks at a meeting, April 9, I942.
23 Gerald L. K. Smith, Why is America Afraid?, printed radio speech, no date given.
24 America Preferred, September, I944.
25 Social Justice, January I5, 1940.
26 The X-Ray (Court Asher), Muncie, Indiana; weekly; February I7, I945.
27 Social Justice, June 6, I938.
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PORTRAIT OF THE AMERICAN AGITATOR 425
constant rooted in the social structure? The answer
these feelings cannot be dismissed as either acciden
are basic to modern society. Such feelings as distru
clusion, anxiety, and disillusionment blend togethe
mental condition of modern life: malaise.
When we define the discontent utilized by agita
are, so to speak, on our own for we cannot substan
by explicit references to agitational statements. It
it is a highly plausible one, because its only alter
see the maze of agitational statements as a lunat
analysis. Moreover, it helps to account for certain
istics of agitation: its diffuseness, its pseudo-spont
in utilizing a variety of grievances, and its subst
enemy for an objective condition.
For it should not be imagined that the agitator sp
out of thin air. The feelings to which he refers
reality, and their existence can be ascertained in
agitational material. The modern individual’s sen
so-called spiritual homelessness, his bewildermen
seemingly impersonal forces of which he feels hims
his weakening sense of values-all these supply th
greatest writers of our time. This malaise reflects
on the individual by the profound transformations
economic and social structure. Correlated with t
such developments as the replacement of the class
producers by gigantic bureaucracies, the decay of th
the breakdown of primary personal ties between in
creasingly mechanized world, and the substitution
traditional patterns.
These objective causes have been operating for
gradually increasing intensity. They are ubiqui
permanent; yet they are difficult to grasp because
rectly related to specific hardships or frustrations
psychological effect is something akin to a chron
habitual and not clearly defined malaise which se
of its own and which the victim cannot trace to an
On the plane of immediate awareness, the mal
nate in the individual’s own depths and is experi
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426 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL 1948
apparently isolated and purely psychic or spiritual c
his sense of antagonism to the rest of the world and
for him a last defense position of his individuality. Those groups in
society that are at present most susceptible to agitation seem to experience this malaise with particular acuteness-perhaps precisely because they do not confront social coercion in its more direct forms.
THE DOCTOR WHO PREVENTS THE CURE
Although malaise actually reflects social reality, it also veils and
distorts it. Malaise is neither an illusion of the audience nor a mere
imposition by the agitator; it is a psychological symptom of an oppressive situation. Because the agitator does not try to diagnose this symptom with regard to the underlying social situation, he makes it into
a pseudo-explanation of his audience’s discontent. In this way the
agitator tricks his audience into accepting the very situation that produced its malaise. Under the guise of a protest against the oppressive
situation, the agitator binds his audience to it. Since this pseudoprotest never produces a genuine solution, it merely leads the audience to seek permanent relief from a permanent predicament by means
of irrational outbursts.
We have suggested that malaise is an alienated awareness of
social reality. The element of alienation can be found in at least the
following factors:
For those afflicted by the malaise, social reality is reflected in categories of individual experience; it ascribes social evil, not to an unjust
or obsolete form of society or to a poor organization of an adequate
society, but rather to cloudy ultimates of instinct. For the agitator these
instincts function beyond and above history: Jews, for instance, are
evil-a “fact” which the agitator simply takes for granted as an inherent condition that requires no explanation or development. In this
sense, malaise is an attempt to reduce the maze of seemingly impersonal and immovable forces that control human destiny to a known
group of people to whom certain traits can be attributed. Abstract intellectual theories do not seem to the masses in modern society as
immediately “real” as their own emotional reactions. It is for this
reason that the emotions expressed in agitation appear to function as
an independent force-which exists prior to articulation of an issue, is
expressed by this articulation, and continues to exist after it.
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PORTRAIT OF THE AMERICAN AGITATOR 427
Malaise can be compared to a skin disease. The pa
from such a disease has an instinctive urge to scratch his skin. If he
follows the orders of a competent doctor, he will refrain from scratching and seek a cure for the cause of his itch. But if he succumbs to his
unreflective reaction, he will scratch all the more vigorously. This irrational exercise of self-violence will give him a certain kind of relief,
but it will at the same time increase his need to scratch and will in no
way cure his disease. The agitator says: keep scratching.
THE ADVANTAGE OF VAGUENESS
The agitator voices the prevalent stereotyped expressions of this
malaise and exploits them for his own purposes. He exploits not
primarily the feelings generated by specific hardships or frustrations,
but more fundamentally those diffuse feelings of malaise which per-
vade all modern life. The malaise which is experienced as an internal
psychic condition cannot, however, be explained by the action of any
definite cause, but only by the social process in its totality. Such an
explanation-following the classical method of articulating causes of
discontent in universal and verifiable terms and then proposing defi-
nite methods to remove them-is beyond the resources of the agitator.
First, because it would require a serious intellectual effort of a sort
which he does not relish; second, and more important, because any
attempt to make his audience aware of the real causes of malaise,
which reflects an obscure protest against the coercive power of society,
would contradict his essential purposes.
Here the agitator turns to account what might appear his greatest
disadvantage-his inability to relate the discontent to an obvious causal
base. While most other political movements promise a cure for a
specific, and therefore limited, social ailment, the modern agitator,
because he himself indirectly voices the malaise, can give the impression that he aims to cure some chronic, ultimate condition. And so he
insinuates that while others fumble with symptoms, he attacks the
very roots of the disease in that he voices the totality of modern feeling.
Because the malaise is perceived as originating in the deepest
layers of the individual psyche, it can be interpreted as an expression
of frustrated spontaneity and essential spiritual needs. The agitator,
implicitly working on this assumption, thus claims in effect that he
represents the most general interests of society, while his opponents,
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428 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL I948
who concern themselves with such limited, specifi
or unemployment or wages, represent only selfish class interests. He
can excoriate the others for their seemingly materialistic attitude, since
he, on the contrary, has at heart only the nation and the race.
The agitator gravitates towards malaise like a fly to dung. He does
not blink at its existence as so many liberals do; he finds no comfort in
the illusion that this is the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary,
he grovels in it, he relishes it, he distorts and deepens and exaggerates
the malaise to the point where it becomes almost a paranoic relationship to the external world. For once the agitator’s audience has been
driven to this paranoic point, it is ripe for his ministrations.
THE AGITATOR AS A SYMPTOM OF SOCIAL DISORGANIZATION
The prevalence of malaise in recent decades is reflected in
doubt as to the validity of the beliefs that bound western society to-
gether.28 Religion, the central chord of western society, is today often
justified even by its most zealous defenders on grounds of expediency.
Religion is proposed not as a transcendent revelation of the nature of
man and the world, but as a means of weathering the storms of life, or
of deepening one’s spiritual experience, or of preserving social order, or
of warding off anxiety. Its claim to acceptance is that it offers spiritual
comfort. A similar development may be found in morality. There are
today no commonly accepted-commonly as a matter of course and
beyond the need for discussion-moral values. Such a pragmatic
maxim as “honesty is the best policy” is itself striking evidence of the
disintegration of moral axioms. And much the same is also true for
economic concepts: the businessman still believes in fair competition,
but in his “dream life . . . the sure fix is replacing the open market.”29
As a result, the old beliefs, even when preserved as ritualistic
fetishes, have become so hollow that they cannot serve as spurs to conscience or internalized sources of authority. Now authority stands
openly as a coercive force and against it is arrayed a phalanx of repressed impulses that storm the gates of the psyche seeking outlets of
gratification.
When, for whatever reasons, direct expression of feelings is inhibited, they are projected through some apparently unrelated ma28 Cf. Eclipse of Reason by Max Horkheimer, Oxford University Press, 1947.
29 C. Wright Mills, “The Competitive Personality,” Partisan Review, September-October, I946.
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PORTRAIT OF THE AMERICAN AGITATOR 429
terials. We may accordingly assume that if the audience is not aware
of the causes of the malaise, this is due not only to their inherent complexity, but chiefly to subconscious or unconscious inhibitions, which
probably originate in a reluctance to direct hostile feelings towards
power groups. By following the audience’s spontaneous projections,
the agitator appears to voice a protest against these groups while actually playing into their hands. He sanctions immediate resentments
and seemingly paves the way for the relief of the malaise through discharge of the audience’s aggressive impulses; but simultaneously he
perpetuates the malaise by blocking the way toward real understanding
of its cause and, resultantly, by further blurring reality.
All such utilizations of malaise are possible only on condition
that the audience does not become aware of its roots in modern society.
The malaise remains in the background of agitation, the raw material
of which is supplied by the audience’s stereotyped projection of the
malaise. Instead of trying to go back to their sources, to treat them
as symptoms of a bad condition, the agitator treats them as needs that
he promises to satisfy. He is therefore not burdened with the task of
correcting the audience’s inadequate ideas; on the contrary, he can let
himself be carried along by its “natural” current.
In the United States the tendency is to wave aside the agitator as a
minor-although unpleasant-phenomenon. Only a few succumbed
to him here, but in Europe millions did. Were there no other evidence
at hand, this one fact would be sufficient to establish the conclusion
that there are powerful psychological magnets within agitation that
draw groups of people into the leader’s orbit; that it is not necessarily
a small-time, street-corner racket, but may become destructive of our
xvestern values on a large scale. The agitator is not to be dismissed as
a lunatic, therefore, but rather deserves close attention as a symptom
of underlying social disorganization.
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