Statement for the record prepared for the January 6th Congressional Committee by Alexandra Minna Stern, Ph.D.
Thank you for this opportunity to submit written testimony on the evolution and threat of the far right organization the Proud Boys in the United States. This testimony is based on extensive research on the rise of the far right and white nationalism in the 21st century, which informed my book Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination (Beacon Press, 2019). Since its publication, I have followed the evolutionof the Proud Boys into an increasingly paramilitarized group that has continued to grow in terms of numbers and violent tendencies. This testimony is organized into five sections: 1) context; 2) formation; 3) paramilitarization; 4) misogyny; and 5) multiracial extremism.
The Proud Boys emerged in the mid-2010s during the hey-day of the “alt-right,” a loosely organized movement that brought together a wide spectrum of far right individuals and communities. The “alt-right” was characterized by its heterogeneity and included groups as distinct as men’s right activists, neo-Nazis,and white nationalists. What they shared was a sense of aggrieved entitlement and the anxiety that American society was being irrevocably transformed by increasing demographic diversity, feminism and gender egalitarianism, and immigration from non-Western European countries. The “alt-right” also frequently lamented the burden of “white guilt” supposedly directed at European Americans for historical wrongs such as chattel slavery and indigenous genocide.
While the “alt-right” certainly involved in-person connections and organizing, its reach and visibility would not have been possible without online activity, both on mainstream social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and, especially over time, less regulated and more toxic platforms, such as Gab and Parler. Social media platforms allowed those with “alt-right” inclinations to find one another and recruit new adherents, all with the luxury of anonymous avatars and social media handles (i.e., not some one’s “real” name or identity). Further, the“alt-right” capitalized on the mash-up culture of social media, where memes could be repackaged and purposed in unexpected and sardonic ways, often invoked with a strong dose of plausible deniability.The white nationalist Richard Spencer coined the catchphrase “alt-right” in 2008, a year that coincided with the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency and a major economic recession. In tandem with the expanding presence of social media, these factors helped to set the stage for a proliferation of “alt-right” groups, webzines, and networks in the 2010s. It is sometimes forgotten that one of the defining features of the “alt-right” online landscape was its intense misogyny, which oscillated between sarcastic and vicious, always targeting women or cultural expressions associated with women, feminism, and LGBTQIA communities. Indeed, Gamergate, a harassment campaign against female video game makers, erupted in 2014, with coordinated calls to rape and kill several women in the industry, and was foundational to the amplification of the online “alt-right.”