scorecardThe Proud Boys chairman says members of the extremist organization are running for office — and you might not know if you're voting for one
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The Proud Boys chairman says members of the extremist organization are running for office — and you might not know if you're voting for one

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz   

The Proud Boys chairman says members of the extremist organization are running for office — and you might not know if you're voting for one
LifeInternational5 min read
Enrique Tarrio, a leader of the Proud Boys, attends a Proud Boys rally on September 26, 2020 in Delta Park, on the northern edge of Portland, Oregon.    Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
  • The Proud Boys, an extremist right-wing organization of self-described "Western chauvinists" with links to violence and white-supremacist activism, has gained increased attention in recent months.
  • The group was pushed into the spotlight after President Donald Trump told it to "stand back and stand by" at Tuesday night's debate.
  • The fraternity's international chairman, Enrique Tarrio, told Insider that members were running for election this November but declined to identify them by name.
  • Tarrio told Insider that the groups would be attending fewer rallies in the coming weeks to instead canvass for their members.

The Proud Boys was thrust into the national spotlight Tuesday night when President Donald Trump, asked to denounce white nationalists at the evening's presidential debate, told members of the group to "stand back and stand by."

The male-only, right-wing extremist organization supports more guns, less government, and closed borders, and seeks to "venerate the housewife."

Its members often host counterprotests at rallies held by left-wing activists, ramping up in recent months in reaction to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The encounters often result in violence.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Proud Boys as a hate group, and Facebook attempted to ban pages and accounts associated with the organization in 2018 after members assaulted protesters in New York.

Enrique Tarrio, the international chairman of the Proud Boys, told Insider the group was becoming more politically organized for this year's elections.

Chapters around the US are working to elect dozens of members who are running for office in local, state, and federal positions, Tarrio said, moving beyond the organization's street-rally roots.

"It's not as powerful as the dry ink on a piece of paper of running for congressman, senator, or city official," Tarrio said. "The next step in the evolution is to be the change that you're pushing as an activist, no matter what side you're on."

You might not know you're voting for a Proud Boy

Just how many Proud Boys members there are is a matter of dispute. Tarrio told Insider that he considered about 22,000 men around the world to be members and that at least 30 of them were running in this year's elections.

Vegas Tenold, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, says he doubts international membership is as high as Tarrio claims, as there has never been a rally with more than 400 self-identified Proud Boys.

He does believe, though, that Proud Boys members are most likely running for election and that some may not want their affiliation known.

Proud Boys
Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio ran for congress, but dropped out before the primary.      Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tarrio declined to name members running for office but said positions being sought ranged from city councils to US Congress.

"We have our guys who are running for office, and we'll be busy door-knocking pretty much across the county," he told Insider. "We're focused on the election and getting our favorite candidates elected, including our guys."

Tarrio, a Cuban American, ran for office earlier this year. He dropped out before last month's primary to represent Florida's 27th Congressional District after fundraising struggles.

Tarrio in fact claimed there were already Proud Boys members in Congress, without naming any sitting politician — noting that identified members often received threats.

"Really just for the safety and protection of the people running, and myself included, I can't really give you names," Tarrio said.

proud boys trump debate
The Proud Boys, a right-wing pro-Trump group, are heavily armed with military weapons gather with their allies in a rally called 'End Domestic Terrorism' against Antifa in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020.      John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

People may not even know that they're voting for a member of the group. Last year, a 32-year-old member with a criminal history was appointed to the City Commission in Fennville, Michigan.

It wasn't until a week into his appointment that his history was discovered, The Detroit News reported at the time.

Tarrio told Insider the group wasn't composed of just Republicans.

"I mean most of the Proud Boys are obviously Trump supporters, but that doesn't mean that if you don't have a certain belief we don't accept you," Tarrio said. "It's a men's drinking club. It's not a conservative drinking club."

The vibe among those who attend rallies, though, is overwhelmingly right-leaning — and extreme.

Tarrio tried to distance the Proud Boys from white supremacy and violence, but the history is there

At Tuesday's presidential debate, Trump was asked to condemn white supremacy and extremist militia groups. Trump asked for a specific group to condemn, and Joe Biden identified the Proud Boys.

Trump responded ambiguously: "Proud Boys — stand back and stand by." He then pivoted to attacking left-wing groups.

Tarrio said that the Proud Boys denounced white supremacy and that a Republican voting record was not necessary to be a member.

But while the group's leadership has tried to distance it from white supremacy and violence, the links are well-documented.

Jason Kessler, the primary organizer of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a former member. Several members, including Tarrio, attended the rally, which included a violent demonstration that ended in the killing of the counterprotester Heather Heyer.

proud boys rally
Members of the Proud Boys, a far right organization dedicated to fighting with leftists, hold a rally on September 26, 2020 in Delta Park, on the northern edge of Portland, Oregon.      Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The Republican operative Roger Stone has repeatedly used Proud Boys members as security while attending events and posed with members of the group flashing a "white power" symbol in 2018. Also that year, several members were arrested after a brawl broke out outside a Republican Club in Manhattan following an appearance by the Proud Boys' founder, Gavin McInnes.

Some members espouse white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies, and may even engage with white supremacist groups, but members represent a range of ethnic backgrounds, according to the ADL.

The ADL describes the group as "primarily alt-lite" and says its views are misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and anti-immigration.

All of the group's members have accepted Proud Boys tenets and attend at least one chapter meetup at local bars a month, Tarrio said.

The tenets include declaring oneself "a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world."

Proud boys
The Proud Boys, an alt-right group, faces off against Black Lives Matters protesters using mace and a paint ball gun on August 15, 2020 in downtown Portland, Oregon.      Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The national constitution and bylaws of the group also include rules about masturbation and flip-flop bans, a dress code of black and yellow polo shirts, and initiation rites.

Tarrio said a unifying factor for Proud Boys candidates, and "probably the most important thing," was that they be "pro-free speech."

"I get that we're not everyone's cup of tea," he said. "We're a little rough around the edges, but we're definitely not what they make us out to be. I denounce white supremacy, and I denounce fascism and communism."

"I'm pretty brown, I'm Cuban," he added. "There's nothing white supremacist about me."

proud boys enrique tarrio
Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio rallies in Portland, Ore., during the group's "End Domestic Terrorism" gathering on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.      AP Photo/Noah Berger

As for how many active Proud Boys members have a real likelihood of being elected this fall, Tarrio said he wasn't sure.

"I don't know what our chances are — I haven't looked at the numbers for all our guys," he said.

The Proud Boys is just over four years old. Tarrio said this wasn't the first election in which members had participated.

While many members are not politically involved, a contingent is made up of activists. For them, they need to move beyond just hosting rallies, he said.

"If you're an activist and you're trying to make change," he said, "the next step is running for office."