Matthew d’Ancona: Killing joke

Monday 11 January 2021

The Proud Boys who stormed the US Capitol last week started life as a risible drinking club. In the digital age, mutation is constant


In his remarkable video address yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger drew an explicit comparison between one of the most shocking atrocities of the Nazi era and the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January.

“I grew up up in Austria,” he said. “I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 – by the equivalent of the Proud Boys.”

Thus did the former Republican governor of California remind us all of the twitching thread that connects the rise of totalitarianism in 1930s Europe to the threat to our democratic institutions today. And the Proud Boys? Well, thereby hangs a tale.

In the dying days of this grotesque presidency, it’s important not to forget the shock-and-awe vigour of its beginnings – starting with the moment that Donald Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his candidacy.

Online and at rallies, there sprung up a movement of surrogates, champions, pseudo-intellectuals and unabashed showmen, simultaneously enabling and turbo-charged by the MAGA movement and Trump’s insurgency; broadly described as the “alt Right” (though few embraced the label).

In his remarkable video address yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger drew an explicit comparison between one of the most shocking atrocities of the Nazi era and the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January.

“I grew up up in Austria,” he said. “I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 – by the equivalent of the Proud Boys.”

Thus did the former Republican governor of California remind us all of the twitching thread that connects the rise of totalitarianism in 1930s Europe to the threat to our democratic institutions today. And the Proud Boys? Well, thereby hangs a tale.

In the dying days of this grotesque presidency, it’s important not to forget the shock-and-awe vigour of its beginnings – starting with the moment that Donald Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his candidacy.

Online and at rallies, there sprung up a movement of surrogates, champions, pseudo-intellectuals and unabashed showmen, simultaneously enabling and turbo-charged by the MAGA movement and Trump’s insurgency; broadly described as the “alt Right” (though few embraced the label).

There were overtly sinister figures such as the ethno-nationalist Richard B. Spencer, head of the so-called “National Policy Institute” and a central protagonist in the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in August 2017 that ignited a horrific race riot. There were a group of young women, led by Lauren Southern and Faith Goldy, who delivered anti-feminist diatribes online echoing the commanders’ wives in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

There was Milo Yiannopolous, the former Telegraph journalist turned campus-touring trickster who dressed like a glam rocker and did his level best to get banned wherever he could. There was Alex Jones, the noisily deranged Texan presenter of the InfoWars channel – well connected to Trump – who insisted, among many other conspiracist fictions, that the Sandy Hook school massacre had been a hoax.

And then there were the Proud Boys. On the spectrum of what became known as the “Intellectual Dark Web”, and all things being relative, they were the clowns and the comic relief – intentionally or otherwise. Their founder was the Anglo-Canadian entrepreneur and performer Gavin McInnes, widely credited with first identifying the “hipster” style and a co-founder of the magazine and media company Vice.

An early enthusiast for Trump, McInnes had ended up as a presenter for the right-wing website Rebel Media. His regular YouTube clips owed less to polemic than to stand-up shtick, the quickfire wit of a gameshow host, and shock jock comedy. He was unashamedly absurd, reliably offensive but – it seemed – engaged in mockery and satire rather than incitement. I assumed that the audience would dwindle and that his moment would quickly pass.

As for the Proud Boys themselves, they appeared to owe more to National Lampoon’s Animal House than to National Socialism. At their rather sad little meetings in bars, they sang songs from the Disney movie Aladdin (no, really), wore XXXL black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, drank beer, and grunted about how brilliant ‘the West’ was.

Their initiation ceremony required an aspirant Proud Boy to be punched (pretty lightly) by his prospective comrades while reciting the name of five breakfast cereals. It was hard to imagine this bunch of Budweiser-soaked inadequates fighting their way out of a Doritos bag, still less storming the American legislature.

And then – incrementally but indisputably – the Proud Boys became something much more menacing. What had started as a comic vanity project for McInnes, a ready-made gang of gormless admirers, metastasised into an out-of-control digital franchise, a downloadable software.

Though the movement was still notionally divided into accredited local “chapters”, groups of young self-starters adopted the Proud Boy identity unilaterally, joined proliferating online communities, and organised themselves into proto-militias – a classic example of the 21st-century shift from institutional to network politics.

In October 2018, a fight erupted between Proud Boys and protesters outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan, as a result of which two members of the right-wing gang were sentenced to four years in prison. McInnes stood down as their leader. The Southern Poverty Law Center categorised the movement as a “hate group”. The FBI took a greater (and justified) interest in the hardening of a drinking club into a ragged but increasingly violent fighting force.

Though McInnes and others continued to insist that the Proud Boys’ actions were purely defensive, such claims were self-evidently preposterous. In the disorder that swept many American cities last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Proud Boys fought alongside other far-right units such as Patriot Prayer, the Three Percenters and the Boogaloo Boys, seeking confrontation with Black Lives Matter supporters and anti-fascist protesters.

Far from disowning these free-ranging paramilitaries, Trump identified himself as their commander-in-chief. Pressed in the first presidential debate in September to condemn white supremacist groups, he said something quite different: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa [anti-fascist groups] and the left.”

From this extraordinary instruction to await further orders, the path to the storming of the Capitol – in which five people died – was now clear. Many of those detained on and after 6 January were affiliated with the Proud Boys, though precise numbers are not yet available.

On Thursday, the FBI arrested Nick Ochs, leader of the Hawaii “chapter”, at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The national movement’s official leader, Enrique Tarrio, was also taken into custody last week, and charged with burning a BLM banner removed from a Black church in December. At the time of his arrest, Tarrio was in possession of two high-capacity firearm magazines.

So many questions trouble America and the rest of the world about the terrible scenes at the Capitol five days ago. One that nags at me is this: how did humour become a gateway drug to insurrectional far Right violence?

We are used to the function of jokes as what anthropologists call “containment strategies”: a means of letting off steam and defusing tension. It is in the nature of comedy to be reckless and transgressive, voicing unspoken feelings and flirting at the borders of the unsayable.

But the modern far right has taken humour and turned it to much darker purposes. According to the writing guide of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer: “The undoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not… Packing our message inside of… humour can be viewed as a delivery method. Something like adding cherry flavour to children’s medicine.”

The “manifesto” of Brenton Tarrant – who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in the Christchurch mosque attacks of March 2019 – was full of in-jokes and memes, intertwined with much more literal expressions of murderous white supremacism.

The wrong lesson to draw is that comedy should now be policed more aggressively, stand-up comics subjected to ideological vetting, and satire stripped of its cutting edge. As Timothy Garton Ash and others have shown, humour and parody were an essential part of anti-communist dissidence in the Soviet bloc – a phenomenon described in Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel The Joke (Kundera’s reward being expulsion from the Czech communist party). Comedy that is reliably safe stops being comedy: no Lenny Bruce, no George Carlin, no Richard Pryor.

The true lesson is one appropriate to the age of the pandemic and the mutating virus: that it is now possible, through the bitter alchemy of social media and political polarisation, for a group of buffoons singing Disney songs to morph into a seditious force invading the temple of American democracy, intent on taking hostages and perhaps much worse.

In the digital era, anything can mutate into anything. And it is this mutability and volatility against which we must be vigilant, and of which we should be constantly aware.

Still: we can take some comfort, I suppose, from the fact that it couldn’t happen here, in sovereign, sensible Britain. We’d never elect as prime minister a charismatic satirist, surrounded by fanboys, who’d made his name as a comedy panel show host – would we?