This story is a part of our series on hate groups, in conjunction with the Documenting Hate coalition. We will be reporting on the emergence of people, organizations and groups that threaten human rights, civil rights, and the freedoms of all persons. If you believe you have experienced or witnessed a hate incident, please tell us about it.
Gavin McInnes, the 47-year-old co-founder of VICE Magazine, announced last week that he will be going “mainstream.” The new venture—the details of which he says he’ll reveal in about a month—will apparently include television, radio, the internet, and books.
Announcing his departure from the Rebel Media, one of the right-wing outlets for which he worked until last week, McInnes said, “I’m going to be a multi-media Howard Stern-meets-Tucker Carlson, if that makes sense.” As for who his new employers are, McInnes said he couldn’t announce it yet, but that it was “gonna be huge.”
Were McInnes an ordinary media executive, the revelation that he has a new “mainstream” media platform in the works might only be relevant for industry publications.
But McInnes is far from ordinary. In Rewire’s three-month investigation of the far right, McInnes emerges as one of the main leaders of the so-called alt-lite, one faction on the far-right spectrum of politics that believes in the threat of “white genocide;” maintains that Islam and Muslims endanger “Western” civilization; attacks feminism and women’s rights; and denigrates immigrants who are not white.
Last year, McInnes founded the Proud Boys, a growing movement aligned with President Trump, for men who identify with a nebulous philosophy called “Western chauvinism,” and are willing to literally fight for their beliefs at rallies, political events, and even in everyday life. Through their posts, their official magazine, and their online presence, the Proud Boys have broadcast their commitment to this creed.
Through his social media followings, McInnes’ messages and rhetoric can reach hundreds of thousands of people. His Twitter and Facebook followers number a combined 300,000. It’s not unusual for his videos to receive hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, with some clips going genuinely viral and being watched millions of times. And through the online talk show—The Gavin McInnes Show—which he hosted four days a week until last week when he announced his departure as part of the new mainstream deal, he reached additional audiences who were sufficiently enthused by his ideas to pay a monthly subscription to access right-wing programs.
Oren Segal, who leads the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Rewire that McInnes’ combination of social media talent, with his embrace of physical violence, make him stand out as especially dangerous, even among the ideologues of the far right.
“When you’re looking at people who are prolific online, and know how to get their memes and videos out in a way that Fortune 500 companies would love, that’s significant,” Segal said. Referring to the Proud Boys, Segal said, “I’m not sure how long this movement will have before maybe it melds into something else or is taken over by others who have more bona fides and ideologies. And that’s what’s scary, because there are extremists who are ready to pounce on this.”
McInnes said he would not speak with Rewire for this story unless we agreed to conduct the “interview” live on his talk show. We declined, as it became clear that he was hoping for a debate and a spectacle, rather than an interview.
However, McInnes has amassed such a considerable public record of comments and claims that it is still possible to get a sense of his beliefs, even without the benefit of talking to him directly.
That those beliefs—already being echoed in President Donald Trump’s White House—are about to be elevated to what McInnes says is an even greater platform is a cause for great concern.
“Western chauvinism” and the Proud Boys
McInnes founded the Proud Boys last summer. According to a profile in Bedford and Bowery, a New York City publication, he came up with the name after going to his daughter’s musical recital. There, one of the other kids performed a song from Aladdin called “Proud of Your Boy,” in which the character apologizes to his mother for being a bad child.
McInnes calls the Proud Boys a “fraternal order” dedicated to a concept he calls “Western chauvinism,” which is roughly spelled out in the Proud Boys’ list of “tenets,” published in the official Proud Boys magazine.
They include closed borders, free speech, gun rights, and “venerating the housewife.” Proud Boys also abide by a “no wanks” rule, which is a loose prohibition on masturbation, because, they say, it is better to have sex and produce babies.
“Though these are our central tenets, all that is required to become a Proud Boy is that a man declare he is ‘a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world’,” according to the Proud Boy Magazine.
That declaration will earn a man a “first degree” of Proud Boy membership—a hierarchy of membership that McInnes explicitly borrows from other secretive orders.
“The Proud Boys are a fraternal organization like the Elks Lodge, like the Shriners, like the Knights of Columbus,” McInnes explained in a recent clip for the Rebel Media, in which he also raged against the common claim that the Proud Boys are white supremacists:
It’s a multi-racial group made up of straight guys. There’s some homos in there. There’s plenty of Jews. The only prerequisite is that you’re a dude—born a dude—and you accept the West is the Best. Yes, we’re chauvinist. Chauvinist doesn’t mean sexist! Chauvinist means extremely patriotic. Yes, we’re mostly pro-Trump. We’ve even got Muslims in the mix. And I’m SO FUCKING SICK OF SAYING THIS TO JOURNALISTS AND THEN THEM WRITING THE OPPOSITE!
The Proud Boys’ Facebook and Twitter accounts have nearly 20,000 followers each, and there are dozens of splinter groups with their own social media followings. A Rewire survey of private Facebook groups that claim to be affiliated with Proud Boys chapters showed that there were about 6,000 members of those groups within the United States in mid-July, with the largest chapters in California. Although approval is required to join these groups, anyone with a Facebook profile may see the list of their members through public search results.
Rewire examined about 100 Facebook profiles of the members of Proud Boys groups, seeking to learn whether they were profiles of real people, and what kinds of demographics were sufficiently attracted to the Proud Boys to request and gain admission to their groups.
We cross-referenced names, or pseudonyms, with other social media accounts and public records, and we were able to verify that many of these individuals are using their real names, or a close approximation—in other words, they appear to be real people, not just “bots.” While the majority of members appeared to be white, a significant number had common Latino surnames. A few of the people whose profiles we reviewed had serious criminal records such as assault or weapons charges that appeared in public filings. Several appeared to be military veterans or former policemen. One appeared to be in active duty in the U.S. Navy in San Diego. Another appeared to be a law student at the University of Southern California. Many classified themselves as self-employed.
Of course, membership of a Facebook group doesn’t equate to fully fledged membership of the Proud Boys. When combined with McInnes’ own audience, however, it’s clear that his ideas regularly reach a sizeable number of people.
There are also some highly-placed Proud Boys in the vicinity of President Trump. Lucian Wintrich is a Proud Boy who appeared on The Gavin McInnes Show at least three times over recent months. He is currently the White House correspondent for the Gateway Pundit, an obscure right-wing blog. In early April, a guest host on McInnes’ show hailed Wintrich as “the Proud Boy in the White House.” Roger Stone, the conspiracy theorist and Trump confidante, is a Proud Boy—the video of him taking the oath was posted to YouTube.
So what are McInnes’ beliefs? And where do they fall within the range of the far right?
The taxonomy of the right can be complex and confusing, not least because the various factions are currently fighting an intramural war. Terms like “alt-right” are vague and contested, and often used to sanitize beliefs that condone or imply literal genocides. Rewire typically avoids using “alt-right,” but for the purposes of our Documenting Hate series, we are making considered exceptions in order to explain the dynamics of these movements.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), people within the alt-right generally, but not universally, embrace neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and white nationalist ideologies; they might openly ponder whether genocide is “right” for groups including Jewish, Muslim, or Black people; and they often advocate forced deportation—a form of ethnic cleansing—for non-white people and Muslims. Richard Spencer, David Duke, and Andrew Anglin (of the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer) are firmly in that camp.
McInnes is adamant that he is not. As he occasionally points out on his show and in social media posts, his wife is Native American. “Fucking Nazis hate my guts,” McInnes said on a recent episode of his show. “They hate me for being a race-mixer.”
In a post he wrote on the Proud Boy Magazine, McInnes explained how he sees his group differing from the alt-right.
“The two big differences we have with them is the ‘JQ’ and racial identity politics,” he wrote, using the acronym for the classic Nazi phrase, “Jewish Question.” “They think the Jews are responsible for America’s problems and they think ‘Western’ is inseparable from ‘white.’ They don’t see a future for non-whites in America. FUCK THAT. We reject all of those things. We openly encourage Jewish and non-white members and want them to know they’re at home with us. Black and Jewish conservatives have to put up with a lot of shit and the last thing we want is for them to feel uncomfortable when hanging out with their drinking buddies.”
With these claims to race-neutrality, McInnes is planting himself firmly in the segment of the far right often called the alt-lite, according to the ADL’s definition of the two terms.
While people in the alt-lite deride Islam or Mexican immigrants, says the ADL, they claim to be making an argument about cultural superiority, not the inherent superiority of any particular individual human beings.
It’s a facile argument that the ADL’s Segal says is easy to see through.
“If you scratch the surface and look at what McInnes has said, or those that are in his orbit, it speaks to … what these folks have venerated from the past,” he said. “But when you look at the context of everything they’re saying, it’s for white people.”
The real danger, Segal says, is that by attracting hundreds of thousands of people and exposing them to these alt-lite messages, McInnes is bringing them into the orbit of the alt-right, and conditioning them to be more likely to accept those even more extremist ideas.
“When you create a group, and the foundational elements include any form of bigotry—whether it’s Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-immigrant sentiment—you’re going to lose control,” he said. “You may want to reel it in, and that’s important, but if it started with a level of acceptance of bigotry, it’s going to be hard to rein that in, especially as people are able to meet up and organize on their own.”
Indeed, there is strong evidence that McInnes has already begun to lose control of the movement he created—just as he is about to leap to an even greater stage from which to spread his ideas and attract new followers.
“I think you duped me”
The Monday following Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, Virginia, a visibly shaken McInnes opened the day’s episode of his talk show by asking his viewers, “Who’s to blame?”
“The white supremacists are obviously at the top of the list,” he said. “The man driving that car is to blame. He’s number one on the blame list.”
Next on his list was Jason Kessler, the man who organized the Unite the Right rally—the event that had brought the tiki-torch-wielding neo-Nazis to Charlottesville.
Kessler appeared on The Gavin McInnes Show, and McInnes ripped into him, telling him that Heather Heyer’s blood was on his hands.
He also accused Kessler of infiltrating the Proud Boys.
“I think you duped me,” McInnes said. “I’m suspicious of you coming to Proud Boys meetings, saying you’re not alt-right, telling me you’re not alt-right, and now I think you were trying to recruit guys.”
After trading accusations and blame for seven minutes, Kessler ended the interview, leaving McInnes to fume. He was so concerned that he later warned his followers about the threat of infiltration.
“Word on the street is the alt-right wants to start infiltrating our meetings in an effort to recruit new members and/or sabotage us,” he wrote in the Proud Boy Magazine. “I’m being told they are going to pretend not to be alt-right so they can come to meet-ups and gather as much info as possible. They also plan to get caught doing terrible things while wearing our shirts in an effort to discredit us.”
This would not have been the first time that members of the alt-right had approached people who identified as Proud Boys.
Social media feeds for the Proud Boys groups, as well as replies to individual members, are littered with messages and invitations from groups such as Identity Evropa and other neo-Nazi groups. In those replies, they invite Proud Boys to openly white nationalist and white supremacist events and social media accounts, while mocking McInnes for his “moderate” positions and his denunciation of outright white supremacy. The neo-Nazi Traditionalist Youth Network, founded in 2013 by white supremacist Matthew Heimbach, extended an open invitation on its website to Proud Boys who wanted to attend the rally in Charlottesville.
And some prominent Proud Boys have left the movement as they appear to have become more radicalized. Salvatore Cipolla was so integrated into the Proud Boys that he guest-hosted one of McInnes’ shows earlier this year. Cipolla’s social media feeds indicate that he attended Unite the Right in Charlottesville, where he was pictured with David Duke. He publicly announced that he was no longer a Proud Boy the following week. As of publication, his Twitter profile included the hashtag “#altright.”
There’s an obvious reason that these groups are swarming towards McInnes’ audience: The dog-whistle effect of his endless misogyny and racist barbs are impossible to miss for anyone who watches his show.
To get a sense of McInnes’ messages I viewed nearly a month’s worth of episodes of The Gavin McInnes Show. They were behind a paywall on Compound Media, the right-wing media company founded by the shock jock Anthony Cumia, who was fired from Sirius XM in 2014 after he went on a Twitter rampage filled with vile sexist, racist, and threatening language.
Much of what McInnes and his guests said does not merit reprinting because it is simply too offensive. To say he is vulgar is an understatement. In the past few months, he has made cavalier racial slurs about one of President Obama’s daughters, and has delighted in using offensive terms for almost every vulnerable group in U.S. society.
One of the less offensive segments on the show involved a close-up of him appearing at a New York comedy club earlier this year, unzipping his fly and helicoptering his penis in front of the camera.
McInnes uses the classic ploy of “joking” to convey his messages, so that he can claim those he has offended either didn’t get it or are part of the “PC police.” But many of what he calls his “jokes” involve racist, sexist, ableist, petty, puerile, and mean attacks on entire groups, as well as on individuals. By constantly reinforcing stereotypes, he sends the subliminal message that there are fundamental things that are different and essential about each of these groups—and that the best group, and the one most in danger, is none other than white men.
McInnes has also hosted guests who do not say explicitly neo-Nazi things while on his show, but do so elsewhere. He hosted Tim Gionet, a former BuzzFeed employee who goes by the moniker Baked Alaska. Gionet has grown increasingly extreme in his anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim comments, and is now considered a fully fledged member of the alt-right by the ADL.
Earlier this month, he spoke for an hour w
ith another right-wing YouTuber, Carl Benjamin, whose pseudonym is Sargon of Akkad. Unbeknownst to Gionet, Benjamin was recording the call, which he disclosed at the end of their discussion. Benjamin later posted what he says is the audio to Twitter, where Rewire transcribed significant portions. During their conversation, Gionet said that he didn’t believe the Holocaust was really a plan of extermination committed against Jews, doubted that millions had been murdered by Nazis, and floated the idea of a constitutional amendment to strip Muslim Americans of basic human rights so that they could be forcibly deported to “the Middle East”—a step that would echo the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws that helped pave the way for mass murder.
The other striking thing one learns from watching hours of McInnes on his show is that he has a fascination with violence that permeates much of his material.
McInnes often says that the Proud Boys are not a violent group. “We don’t start fights but we will finish them. The violence you see in the media is us defending ourselves from lunatics who want us dead for no discernible reason,” he recently wrote on the Proud Boy Magazine site.
But much of what he says on his show undercuts those occasional claims to non-violence.
“Violence solves everything,” he said on a recent episode. He began another by describing how a group of medieval nuns were beheaded for refusing to renounce their faith at around the time of the Crusades. He made spraying sounds to imitate blood gushing from slit necks, and laughed at the image he’d conjured up of decapitated heads bouncing from the blood-soaked guillotine into a basket. Then he segued from the discussion of the Crusades into his first topic of the day, the threat he sees posed by Islam to the West.
He tells stories about his own violent fights and recently interviewed a New York Proud Boy named Jovi Val who was left with a slashed cheek and a broken nose after a scuffle over his “Make America Great Again” hat turned into a bar brawl, and who, during the show, removed the bandages from his face, revealing a gash above the lip still oozing with blood.
On many episodes of his show, he congratulated Proud Boys for being involved in street violence. Earlier this year, he added a “fourth degree” of Proud Boy membership, reserved for those men who “had an extreme conflict based on the cause,” as McInnes explained on a recent episode of his show.
And violence has been integral to the Proud Boys’ growing public profile.
They made big national headlines during this past April’s so-called Battle of Berkeley, where they acted as the unofficial “security” force for Lauren Southern, a 22-year-old star of the far-right vlogosphere.
Video footage and reports from the day show that fighting quickly broke out, with protesters hurling bricks, wielding sticks, and setting off large fireworks known as M-80s, used by the military to shock and disorient opponents.
Southern posted video clips to her YouTube channel, where they attracted hundreds of thousands of views. The Proud Boys celebrated their role, tweeting from their official account:
@Lauren_Southern protected by TheProud Boys today. Hearing her say “they (antifa) can’t get to me, I’m with the guys” felt great.
On the following Monday’s show, McInnes appeared elated.
“What a fucking revolutionary evening, or day,” he said on his show. “I felt like it was not just a fun little thing. It was just, the whole planet shifted towards the direction of freedom.”
“Yeah, it was great,” said one of his guests, a Proud Boy who identified himself simply as Sabo, brandishing a gun. After putting the gun away, Sabo continued: “I honestly think that we were like a part of history the other day. I’m kind of wondering, is this like a new civil war or something? I mean, is this just going to keep going? Is it going to get worse?”
Serious people are now starting to openly ponder that same question.
Reports that members of the alt-right were emboldened after Charlottesville have been followed by articles in the New Yorker assessing the likelihood of another civil war. At the Politicon event in Pasadena, California, last month, David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who is now a columnist at the Atlantic, told the audience that one of his greatest fears is that further attacks on the U.S. electoral system in 2018 could cast doubt on the legitimacy of that vote, potentially provoking a constitutional crisis and raising the possibility of political violence. Last week, Roger Stone openly threatened a civil war if Trump were impeached, as reported by Salon.
The month after the Battle of Berkeley, one of the Proud Boys created a subgroup called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, which McInnes described in a Tweet as the “military division” of the Proud Boys. Since then, the ADL and the SPLC say they have observed men wearing the Proud Boys uniform of black and yellow Fred Perry t-shirts (the same kind favored for decades by British fascists) at rallies and meetings that are blatantly white supremacist.
In mid-July, a group of Proud Boys and other right-wing biker groups did a “ride through” of the small hamlet of Islamberg in upstate New York that has been the subject of repeatedly disproven conspiracy theories about its Muslim residents.
In a classic example of McInnes’ mixed messages, in a recent show, McInnes tried to persuade Proud Boys not to go on the ride, while simultaneously repeating those discredited conspiracy theories.
“My fear with the Proud Boys is we get a little above our pay grade and start getting into taking on, you know, ISIS, without proper training or guns,” he said. Then he showed unsourced video clips that his guest claimed were images of Islamic militants training in the area. The timestamp shown in the videos was years in the future. McInnes noted that anomaly, but didn’t question the authenticity of the footage.
That same day, McInnes elaborated his concerns on the Proud Boys’ Facebook page that “PBs are being led to believe we endorse senseless violence.”
“In the past I’ve joked about ‘kicking the crap out of antifa’,” he wrote. “This obviously doesn’t mean you go to someone’s house or even pick a fight with one at a rally. If you do such a thing, that’s 100% on you and has nothing to do with the groups [sic] tenets.”
A group of Proud Boys did the ride through anyway.