Edited by Sam Thielman
ANDY CAMPBELL is the only person I know who found love while reporting on far-right extremism. He met his wife, Tess Owen, a star reporter at Vice, covering the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist gathering for HuffPost.
Campbell and his colleagues at HuffPost stayed a step ahead of extremist groups throughout the Trump era; the outlet has published definitive coverage of MAGA-supporting hate movements. Campbell’s stories have been at the forefront of that coverage.
Last week, I wrote to Campbell with a few questions about the Proud Boys—the subject of his new book. What follows has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jared Holt: Why did you choose to write a book about the Proud Boys? The Trump era brought a lot of hate into the foreground of American politics. Was there something about this street gang that stood out to you as being especially important?
Andy Campbell: Before Trump’s presidential campaign, I was a national crime reporter, but that quickly changed to the extremism beat as we started covering increasing acts of violence at Trump rallies. There were all kinds of weird groups that showed up at MAGA rallies, like 4chan message boards come to life: I remember specifically a young man wearing a German Nazi war flag as a cape, but it was green instead of red and had the word KEK instead of a swastika. These kinds of groups exploded in the early Trump days, prior to Unite the Right.
The Proud Boys emerged as one of the most concerning groups because they wanted to be lionized for the violence. Where others didn’t want to talk to the press, or otherwise hid behind anonymity, the Proud Boys wanted to be known individually, they wanted to be known as Trump’s soldiers in the street, and they wanted to fight Trump’s opponents (read: literally anyone who showed up as a counterprotester). It was unabashed political extremism, and so I kept an eye on them. And given their role in so many acts of political violence over their few short years in existence—Unite the Right and January 6 among those acts—that turned out to be a good bet.
After January 6 happened, I knew I had unique, ground-level experience with these guys, and knew the playbook they’d essentially written about how to go from bumbling street gang to the enforcement arm of a political party, so I started writing.
Throughout my years working on the topics of hate and extremism, I've often felt frustrated by what details get lost in translation as topics go higher and higher up the mass-media food chain. (It's hard to fault anyone; there's only so much you can fit into even the best 4-minute cable news segment, after all.) I'm curious whether you feel any crucial elements of the story of the Proud Boys have been lost in that process. Are there any essential details about the group you wish you could drive home to audiences?
Absolutely. Mass media’s role in the making of the Proud Boys, and the normalization of political violence in America, is twofold. You have a swath of right-wing media figures—and figures who are agreeable to the right—with huge followings on social media, who actively prop up the Proud Boys and work to deflect their violence and blame the left for their actions (Tucker Carlson maintains that antifa did Jan. 6, for just one small example), and on the other side, you have mainstream legacy news media that is so obsessed with the concept of “objectivity” that it bends over backward to give these groups a platform to deny and deflect in person.
One example: ABC News gave Gavin McInnes, a rabidly racist and violent extremist leader, a full feature in soft lighting at his home in 2018. The Proud Boys were known for violence in the name of Trump at that point, they were on a parade of political violence (it’s literally in their ruleset to commit “significant acts of violence for the cause”). And the reporter is asking him, are you violent? Do you feel responsible for the violence? And he lies, and deflects, and at the end of the day he and the PBs look great! But ABC didn’t have to ask those questions, or do that interview in the first place. We know who Gavin is, and there are hundreds of hours of video to draw from to show who he is without allowing him to lie.
This will get worse until mainstream media do just a bit of homework, and have new conversations about “objectivity” in reporting. They have to understand how to deal with people who are not only using them for their big audiences, but have easily researchable backgrounds that reveal them to be white supremacists, violent criminals, and liars. My book isn’t just a history of the Proud Boys—I want it to be the primer that helps everyday people understand this world we report on.
What do you make of the Proud Boys' acceptance into mainstream Republican spaces? Would I be wrong in thinking that the group has been destigmatized a bit among hardcore pro-Trump audiences?
Not only have the Proud Boys been destigmatized, but they’ve helped foment an atmosphere where regular Americans feel like violence is a justifiable option in politics. The violence and intimidation that we saw at MAGA rallies and BLM demonstrations back in the day has now spilled over into everyday life—local conservatives are joining Proud Boys and neo-Nazis at rallies against drag queen story hours and trans rights and abortion rights.
The Proud Boys helped make this happen by building relationships in the GOP, and working with top politicians and pundits, like Roger Stone and Ann Coulter, to position the violence they were committing as a necessary defense against the “leftist threat” of violence (which, I should note, is just not comparable to far-right extremist violence. Researchers and even Trump’s own law enforcement officials maintain this).
Prime example: Months after Jan. 6, Coulter published a blog “Thank God For The Proud Boys,” a love letter to the group celebrating them for protecting her against protesters at her event. The GOP has embraced them, even after the insurrection, and in turn have also embraced their violent tactics.
Since their inception, how have the Proud Boys evolved as a group? What have things been like for them since the Capitol riot and the resulting arrests?
Their first big evolution was after Unite the Right. Their chairman, Enrique Tarrio (now behind bars awaiting a sedition trial) told me that after UTR, he realized that they needed to get more political if they were to survive beyond the racist violent groups that came out in force in Charlottesville. So he worked with Stone to make them run for office, throw their weight and money behind agreeable candidates, and do security and other work for candidates. It was super successful — they aren’t going to win big political runs anytime soon, but their relationships in the GOP have given them a pass, even after Jan. 6.
And even as Tarrio and other leaders sit in jail, the Proud Boys machine is working as planned. They’re taking marching orders from the likes of Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, mobilizing on the GOP’s grievances at a rapid clip, all summer. And what’s worrisome is that even if the Proud Boys magically dissolved tomorrow, there are so many groups and everyday people ready to take their place. Political violence is totally normalized.
What's your favorite thing on the internet right now? Also! Welcome to the ranks of being a wife guy. It's great to have you on the frontlines with us.
My favorite thing on the internet is anything that pulls me out of this dark world. It’s tough to stay on top of these guys because it’s exhausting and emotionally draining. Lately I’ve been obsessed with food and travel TikTok and podcasts, which keep me up too late.
And yes! I’m a wife guy now, with someone who is also on the front lines with us extremism reporters—we met in Charlottesville after Unite the Right—and we both try to make sure that once we clock out of work, we log the hell off and focus on us. I’m a very happy and lucky guy. And lucky to have a crew of likeminded, sweet folks like yourself on this beat!
The Lizzo flute freak-out blows
The clickbait right-wing spent days melting down after pop artist Lizzo played an old flute that once belonged to James Madison.
You might be wondering things like: “That guy played the flute?” or “Don’t musicians play old, historical instruments all the time?” or even “James Madison was… a president, right?”
The answer to those questions is “yes.” They are normal things to wonder. The Library of Congress asked Lizzo to do this, in fact, so that fewer people would have those specific questions, and might be marginally more interested in historical woodwinds.
Some of the leading talking heads in right-wing media asked themselves, instead: “Was this display of musical talent an attack on polite white society, meant to display dominance over me and my children?” As absurd as that sounds, it’s the talking point pushed by people like Matt Walsh, a far-right pundit at Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire—one of the Right’s most-trafficked media outlets online.
If there’s one thing to understand about this latest scoop of slop filed under the “culture war” it’s that it’s purely racist. Beyond that, it is empty. Entertain anything else, and you are failing polite society.
People like Walsh will make these sorts of arguments constantly and then squeal when their prejudices are subsequently scrutinized. But the fact of the matter is that people like Walsh hate Lizzo because she is Black, female, big, and confident. They believe these traits exclude her from having any stake in or relationship with the nation’s history and its artifacts. To entertain any other argument is to get played by cynical demagogues like Walsh. Sometimes things are just plain and clear.
Just as the Right has feigned outrage over Lizzo playing a flute and, frankly, killing it, they would of course be feigning tears of joy about American excellence and European tradition if Lizzo was any random white high schooler instead of herself. (If they could be bothered to care at all, which seems unlikely.)
After chatting with Andy and then stumbling across this story, it’s hard to understand how a group like the Proud Boys couldn’t have risen in profile during the Trump years. I’m worried this drivel is the whole project at this point.