Wearing a black cowboy hat and a bandana covering most of his face, “Odin,” a soft-spoken Proud Boys member, was getting choked up. He stood on a flatbed truck in Sacramento last November outside the state Capitol building, its colonnades a vibrant cream behind him on a crystal-clear afternoon.
“We put ourselves on the line” to protect you, he said into a microphone in front of more than a hundred Trump supporters waving MAGA and American flags. It was a “Stop the Steal” rally, one of many since the election. A sign behind him read “Count all votes” and another said “BLM: ballot laws matter.”
The stage was full of fellow Proud Boys, a chauvinist group the ADL describes as far-right and extremist. Most had their faces covered — not to protect against the coronavirus, but to protect against being identified and publicly outed.
Odin (a pseudonym) introduced the song “We’ll Have Our Home Again,” a popular ballad on YouTube associated with the Männerbund, a white separatist, ethno-nationalist men’s club.
“This anthem that we’re going to sing for you guys touched every single one of us,” Odin said. “If you listen to the lyrics, they’re in line with what’s going on today.”
The Proud Boys sang off-key, clapping and beating an open hand against their chests.
“When there’s nothing left but the fire in my chest and the air that fills my lungs.
I’ll hold my tears and trade my years for a glimpse at kingdom come.
By god we’ll have our home again, by god we’ll have our home again…
By blood and sweat, we’ll get there yet, by god we’ll have our home again.”
Last week, in advance of the presidential inauguration, military Humvees rolled through downtown Sacramento while soldiers with assault rifles patrolled the area near where Odin had stood. Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed 1,000 National Guard members to protect against possible attacks on and around the Capitol grounds on Inauguration Day, after the FBI field office in Sacramento noted alarming internet “chatter” from far-right groups.
“There’s been some terminology like ‘storming’ the capitols,” Sacramento special agent Sean Ragan told ABC. “So that’s what we’re concerned about.”
It was an unusual sight in the state capital, and a striking escalation in law enforcement posture compared with the “Stop the Steal” rallies. Those have led to confrontations between pro-Trump protesters and counterprotesters, assaults, vandalized property and arrests. But local and state police prevented major incidents or casualties.
The unprecedented security failure in D.C. on Jan. 6, when far-right demonstrators stormed the Capitol, chased off members of Congress, killed a police officer and shouted threats to lynch members of the U.S. government, spun the entire nation into a state of heightened vigilance.
An investigation by the Washington Post showed Proud Boys among the mob in the Capitol, identified by their all-black clothes and bright orange hats. They were one of a number of extremist groups and others united in the false belief that the election was stolen. Among 100 people arrested in the aftermath was Daniel Goodwyn of San Francisco, who describes himself as a Proud Boy and admitted on Instagram to entering the Capitol. He said he did not “break or take anything” and only “went inside for a couple of minutes.” In October, Goodwyn was arrested on Muni for refusing to wear a mask, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Now, state lawmakers are introducing legislation they say will help guard against domestic terror in California.
On Jan. 11, Democratic state Sens. Henry Stern of Los Angeles and Tom Umberg of Orange County announced a bill that would create units within the Department of Justice and the Office of Emergency Services to focus on domestic terrorism.
The new offices would assess threats and coordinate efforts to “thwart” attacks by “white nationalist, neo-Nazi, neo-confederate, anti-government militia, and other similar groups,” a statement from the senators said, naming groups such as the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Ku Klux Klan and Proud Boys.
Of the groups mentioned, the Proud Boys have gained the widest notice and been the most media-polished in their presentation. Their public profile only increased after being mentioned in a presidential debate watched by more than 60 million people.
Proud Boys are often compared to a harmless fraternity; they like to drink beer together and engage in juvenile hazing rituals. Some rites have been publicized and mocked, such as one involving members punching a prospective recruit as hard as they can until he names five breakfast cereals.
Many Proud Boys deny being racist, yet their actions do not match their words. Their current leader or “chairman” is a 36-year-old Cuban American from Florida named Enrique Tarrio, a former leader of the grassroots group Latinos for Trump. Tarrio was in D.C. the week of the Capitol riot but missed the demonstration; while entering the city he was arrested for burning a public Black Lives Matter flag the month before.
Odin told J. that the Proud Boys accept Jewish members, yet at a protest in D.C. in December, one was photographed wearing a T-shirt that read “6MWE,” for “6 million wasn’t enough.”
Still, there is little ideological coherence among Proud Boys, and whatever messaging leaders might seek to control at the top does not always percolate down to soldiers on the ground.
Like the Proud Boys, the extreme right in America today is not ideologically coherent; it combines many streams of reactionary thought into one movement. It’s what the Berkeley political scientist Lawrence Rosenthal refers to as “permeability.”
At the protests in D.C., various factions on the extreme right blended together in an ideological soup: anti-government militias united with national socialists; QAnon conspiracy theorists with pro-Confederate groups; keyboard warriors and “Pepe the Frog” meme-lords with upper-middle-class small business owners who flew into the capital to see what all the fuss was about.
Behind right-wing extremism and, more broadly, right-wing populism in America today is “passion”: It can be transferred from one ideological platform to another, according to Rosenthal. In the Trump era it’s motivated by resentment, specifically against cultural elites, and a visceral hatred for “blue America.”
In D.C., resentment and visceral hatred — whipped up by Trump, Rep. Mo Brooks, Rudy Giuliani and others — caused passions to overflow momentously, overcoming the barricades of law and country and flooding the seat of American democracy.
One of the most discordant aspects of the riot was that, for a movement that so celebrated police and law enforcement — flying an altered American flag to express support for police — it nevertheless trampled officers, brutally beat some and killed one. All, ironically, while chanting “U-S-A,” “U-S-A.”
Newly installed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a believer in QAnon conspiracy theories and one of the loudest voices in Congress on behalf of the lie that the presidential election was “stolen,” summarized the ethos of the demonstration in an interview the day before it took place, while imploring her followers to join in: “This is our 1776 moment.”
In Sacramento and at state houses from Hawaii to Maine, law enforcement officials were preparing for the possibility of more violence as Joe Biden was set to be inaugurated as the 46th president.
Most protesters at the “Stop the Steal” rallies in Sacramento have not been violent. But their worldview is an extreme one. Their story, expressed most graphically on QAnon message boards and Facebook pages, is one of good vs. evil, of rapture, of an existential threat to American society.
The leader of the Central Valley Proud Boys, Shawn K., brought his twin daughters to the “Stop the Steal” rally on Nov. 28. His family abandoned the California public school system for its liberal bias, he said; he stood by proudly as his daughters, wearing matching outfits, recited the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible,” which they say each morning.
Shawn K. delivered a prayer to the protesters: “The strong men of this nation are rising up,” he said, calling those gathered “soldiers for your kingdom.”
“We’re going to be the ones to go and lead the charge to bring back America and bring back our freedom, and bring back our sovereignty, and take dominion over all evil things that are trying to destroy the people of our children,” he said as the crowd swelled with applause. “Amen.”