As Gavin McInnes strode toward the entrance of Washington’s National Press Club in January, a black-balaclaved “anti-fascist” protester lunged toward him. “Get the f— out of here,” the picketer shouted.
The tuxedoed McInnes reacted swiftly. Spinning around, he grabbed the demonstrator’s mask and took a couple of long-range swings at the man.
Some public figures might have, on reflection, voiced regret at the sudden resort to fisticuffs. Not so the Canadian right-wing provocateur, a VIP guest at the “Deploraball” celebrating Donald Trump’s election victory.
“My fist went into his mouth,” McInnes gleefully recounted later to an interviewer from InfoWars, the website of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “I felt his tongue … I felt so much moisture in there. I think I went right down his esophagus.”
The Ottawa native and co-founder of the Vice media empire was, in effect, just practicing what he preaches.
As head of the Proud Boys, a fledgling but high-profile branch of the American hard-right, McInnes is part of an unsettling new trend in U.S. politics: radicals on both the left and right willing to act out their ideological differences with force.
He has pledged to fight back against violence from leftist activists, and his Proud Boys have repeatedly followed through – at raucous demonstrations from Berkeley to Portland, Chicago to New Orleans.
They even have a spin-off organization – the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights – that McInnes describes as his “military division.”
We’re the only ones fighting these guys, and it’s fun
“We’re the only ones fighting these guys, and it’s fun,” he enthused in a recent video for The Rebel, the Canadian ultra-conservative online media outlet. “When they go low, go lower. Mace ’em back, throw bricks at their head. Let’s destroy them. We’ve been doing it for a while now and I gotta say, it’s really invigorating.”
Canada may be stereotyped currently as a liberal antidote to Trumpian America, but the father of the Proud Boys has injected an unruly Canadian voice into the heart of the populist, nativist revolution.
Exactly what the group stands for is up for debate. It describes itself as a fraternal organization that promotes “Western chauvinism,” closed borders and housewives, and is against “racial guilt,” but insists it is not racist or even “alt-right.” Some of its tenets are slightly odd or deliberately whimsical – such as a ban on members masturbating and an initiation ceremony that involves naming five types of breakfast cereal.
But some experts worry about the role being played by the caustic court jester and his followers at a seemingly dangerous time in American politics, as far-left groups trigger violence at rallies, and the far right eagerly responds.
In fact, he has said that Nazis and white supremacists were not welcome in the Proud Boys, while gay and black people are. His own wife is Native American.
Some of his stated beliefs, though, would seem to place him near the outer edge of the conservative spectrum. He’s suggested “women should be at home with the kids, they’re happier that way,” and blasted attempts to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans. The South did not fight the U.S. Civil War to defend slavery, he argued, but because the North “tried to tell them what to do.”
There’s also a pattern of more inflammatory remarks that he later sought to explain away.
“I love being white and I think it’s something to be proud of,” McInnes told the New York Times in 2003. “I don’t want our culture diluted.” Gawker quoted him afterward as saying the statement was only meant to goad easily offended liberals.
I love being white and I think it’s something to be proud of
He ended up leaving the ad agency he started after penning a 2014 column that suggested transsexuals were “mentally ill gays who need help, and that doesn’t include being maimed by physicians.” Afterward, he said he just tried to point out that transsexuals have a high suicide rate.
And this March, McInnes drew ire from the Jewish community with a rant from a Rebel “fact-finding” trip to Israel. Noting that “I’m becoming anti-semitic,” he decried the “brain-washing” at Israel’s Holocaust museum, suggested Stalin’s deliberate starving of millions of Ukrainians was “by Jews,” and blamed the Versailles treaty that helped lead to Nazism on Jewish intellectuals.
When David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader, and others in the white supremacist movement voiced their approval, McInnes insisted that his words had been taken out of context and that he liked Jews, not Nazis.
The Proud Boys, meanwhile, have blipped onto the radar of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The watchdog worries that – while disavowing white supremacy – McInnes’s group presents a more socially acceptable “gateway” into that movement.
“It arouses the emotion of the same things and ideas that are in the alt-right orbit, while skirting a real commitment to exclusive white nationalism,” said Carla Hill, an investigative researcher with the League. “It can attract average Joes, because it appeals to classic forms of bigotry, such as misogyny and Islamophobia.”
But how does all this align with the co-founder of a counter-culture institution that helped define cool for the millennial generation?
Robert Bottenberg, an artist and contributor to Vice in its early Montreal days, said McInnes turbo-charged the magazine with his comic irreverence.
“He was always a provocateur and s–t disturber — in a good way — back in the day,” said Bottenberg. “He has a sort of clinical lack of compassion, which, if you take on the task of challenging other people’s bulls–t is a good thing.”
But the current McInnes seems like a different man, and his former colleague wonders if the “profound emotional impact” he probably felt at leaving Vice triggered the change.
“This new iteration seems completely devoid of any real humour and just strikes me as nasty.”
McInnes, though, portrays his cause as almost heroic.
He alleges that the “antifas” – street jargon for anti-fascists – are using strong-arm tactics to suppress the free speech of conservatives like him, pointing to the recent cancellation of his appearance at a Chicago university. The Proud Boys, McInnes said recently, are ready for them.
“The right isn’t violent, the left is,” he wrote in Taki’s Magazine. “By allowing these sociopaths to shut down free speech with violence, you are all but demanding a war. Okay, fine, you got it. It’s official. This is a war.”
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