The Proud Boys name first came to Gavin McInnes while he watched, with disgust, as a twelve-year-old boy with brown skin sang a musical number onstage at a school recital. McInnes was pissed that he had to be in the audience at all. He’d already sat through performances of his son playing the drums and his daughter playing the guitar, and now here was this kid, singing a song from a Broadway musical. McInnes hated musicals.
But because his wife, Emily, was sitting next to him at the time, he had to pretend like he was enjoying himself. “Fuckin’ musicals, man,” he said during an early episode of his online talk show, The Gavin McInnes Show. “My wife’s a fag hag so I had to sit there and just not laugh. I couldn’t say to my boys, ‘Don’t ever fucking do that or I will be the opposite of proud.’”
He was ranting and waving his hands on the set of his show, a daily livestreamed video podcast on Compound Media that served as his bigoted sounding board for more than two years. He grimaced as he recalled the story for his guest, a comedian named Aaron Berg, who sat giggling at the other end of an L-shaped news desk.
The origins of the Proud Boys, the nation’s most notorious political fight club, can be traced to one reactionary bigot behind a microphone who hated a child he figured was a fatherless Puerto Rican.
The recital was held in Williamsburg, the expensive and majority-white neighborhood in northern Brooklyn where McInnes used to live with his family. Despite the gentrification, it’s still home to substantial populations of Hasidic Jews and Puerto Ricans, which were among some of McInnes’ favorite punching bags. “This little Puerto Rican kid comes out, and he goes, ‘I’ll make you proud boy!’ It was the gayest fucking song,” he said. “When I was watching I was like, this is obviously the Hispanic son of a single mom. He did high-five a grown man afterward, but it couldn’t have been the real dad.”
The song itself gave McInnes pause. He sang the words again and asked an off-camera producer about it—he wasn’t sure where it came from, but he knew he despised it. The producer played the song over the studio speakers. It was a number from Disney’s Broadway musical version of Aladdin, called “Proud of Your Boy.” McInnes’ face collapsed with revulsion.
“Oh my God, he was singing an Aladdin song? What a dork,” he said. He sang the line again to mock the child: “‘You’ll be proud of your boy!’ The worst part is, I don’t think he was gay. I think he was just like, ‘This is a good song, and I can really use my fuckin’ diaphragm.’”
From that moment forward, the phrase “proud of your boy” became a running gag on the show. Callers would recite the line as soon as they joined, as if they were iterating on the classic radio call-in line “first-time caller, longtime listener.” Within a few episodes, it took on a meaning of its own, an inside joke between McInnes and his audience. And soon, it would become a big part of their shared identity.
The origins of the Proud Boys, the nation’s most notorious political fight club, can be traced to one reactionary bigot behind a microphone who hated a child he figured was a fatherless Puerto Rican. McInnes seems to embrace this characterization, though his wife is apparently appalled by it.
“She’s pissed, she’s like: ‘So your whole thing, your whole organization, is mocking a twelve-year-old gay boy?’” he said. “And I go: ‘That’s such a crude way to put it but yes. Yes it is. Because that little boy personifies how far gone we are.’”
This is a comedy talk show on its face, made to resemble the likes of The Howard Stern Show by pitting funny and shocking guests against McInnes’ larger-than-life personality. But the real drive of the show becomes clear when McInnes turns to the camera and talks directly to his audience. This man sees himself as the leader of a movement, and he has an agenda for his followers.
He repeats iterations of this directive often:
Fighting solves everything. We need more violence from the Trump people,” he said during an episode in early 2016. He’d pulled up a clip to show viewers in which somebody spat on a Trump supporter at a rally. He watched the clip, and then he turned to the camera and issued a command.
“Trump supporters: choke a motherfucker, choke a bitch, choke a tranny, get your fingers around the windpipe if they spit on you. That’s assault. Don’t fucking let anyone spit in your fucking face.
The casual savagery and hate on display aren’t some cherry-picked snapshot or fluke—you’ll see this version of Gavin McInnes on episode 1 just as you will on episode 400. This is the character he wants you to see. In real life, McInnes is a siloed media executive whose recent fighting experience includes sparring with neighborhood moms over email in his ritzy suburban neighborhood just north of New York City.
But this man clearly wants you to believe he’s clocking out of his day job and heading home to punch a block of wood. If you spend any amount of time watching one of his shows, you get the vibe immediately: Here’s a guy who saw Fight Club and modeled his career around the Brad Pitt line: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” And it worked. McInnes built himself into a character, the last of a dying breed of free and proud Western patriots, and sold it to an audience of angry and anxious (and overwhelmingly white) men.
He told them that their masculinity and patriotism were under attack, that their rights were being impeded by overreaching liberals and immigrants. He told them to fight back and to regard anyone who didn’t join them as “pussies” and “traitors.” His overtones were familiar—violent nationalism and bigotry aren’t exactly new extremist concepts—but he dressed them up in the same hipster bro culture he helped popularize and commodify in the decades prior. He was building an army in his own image.
McInnes, known as the editorial voice of Vice’s early operation, used the magazine to explore the boundaries of acceptable bigotry in pop culture. Mainstream media was already pretty vile in the early 2000s—this was the time of Jackass and The Man Show, when young men were celebrated for being aggressive and carefree, and young women were told to stop eating and having sex, through obsessive and misogynistic media coverage of the private lives of young famous women, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
But McInnes took the sordid machismo and voyeurism a whole lot further: the stories he wrote and oversaw were often disgusting, racist, violent screeds against women and Muslims and trans folks, each one practically begging you to be offended.
McInnes built himself into a character, the last of a dying breed of free and proud Western patriots, and sold it to an audience of angry and anxious (and overwhelmingly white) men.
McInnes wrote, for example, “The Vice Guide to Picking Up Chicks,” which may as well have been a guide for racist white guys to get away with date rape. It was a multi-section primer on getting different women of color into bed, whether they wanted to be there or not. McInnes wrote:
Besides the obvious coke and Viagra combo nothing turns you into a black man better than Adderall. It makes your dick into a fucking battle-ax. (It also makes you want to fanatically eat her ass, so you might want to avoid it if she’s a square.) The rest of our advice is the usual. Once you have the go-ahead, do everything short of rape and almost scare the shit out of her.
It was published in Vice’s “Sex Issue” in 2005, alongside other repulsive works such as “Me So Horny,” a gory vignette of a war photographer’s “flicks of Iraqis with their faces exploded,” a video and companion article about getting kicked in the balls, and a vox pop of interviews with (mostly) teenaged virgins, complete with a shopping list of what they were wearing at the time.
This is the kind of content that catapulted Vice from a local free magazine to a digital media empire that now boasts millions of visitors per month, so this is the content that filled its pages and its website for close to a decade. But by the end of the decade, Vice was also becoming a mainstream publication, beholden to more mainstream conventions. Suddenly, its founders were answering to investors and the general public, and McInnes’ editorial vision was becoming more of a liability than a viable business plan. Advertisers grew uncomfortable with the content, as did McInnes’ colleagues.
A Vice spokesperson told me via email:
VICE and Gavin parted ways in 2008—many years before Gavin founded the Proud Boys. VICE unequivocally condemns white supremacy, racism and any form of hate, has shone a fearless, bright light of award-winning journalism on extremism, the alt-right and hate groups around the world, and has created one of the most inclusive, diverse and equitable companies in media.
Nevertheless, the breakup wasn’t at all disqualifying for McInnes’ career. On the contrary, he was a media executive who helped build a brand that young people liked, and now he was back on the market. There was still an audience for his hypermasculine trash, and he set out to capture it, by pushing the envelope further and harder than he ever did at Vice.
But first, he needed to reclaim his audience. So he tried a little of everything: He launched an ultimately unsuccessful site for his content called Street Carnage, which Gawker at the time characterized as a Vice competitor. He did some acting and stand-up comedy. He wrote a memoir for Simon and Schuster titled How to Piss in Public (watered down as The Death of Cool for the paperback) in which he told “extreme-but-true stories” about himself, “featuring drunken fist fights, Satanic punk bands, afternoons on heroin, and multiple threesomes.” He cofounded an advertising agency called Rooster, where he sat comfortably as its chief creative officer until the company got wind of an abhorrent diatribe he wrote for Thought Catalog in 2014, titled “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural.”
The article provoked its own cycle of public outcry before it was scrubbed from the Thought Catalog site, and in short order Rooster released a statement that McInnes was taking an “indefinite leave of absence.” McInnes didn’t learn his lesson, though—the transphobia and misogyny would get much, much worse.
The next year, The Gavin McInnes Show launched on Compound Media, a subscription-based website that hosts a handful of right-wing reactionary talk shows, founded by disgraced shock jock Anthony Cumia. Cumia was ousted from his former gig, the popular Opie & Anthony show, after a racist meltdown on Twitter in which he fantasized about killing a Black woman he said he scuffled with on the street.
You could see the Proud Boys’ foundation start to take shape on the very first episode of The Gavin McInnes Show, which aired online on June 15, 2015. McInnes began with a monologue declaring that, despite the nature of his departure from Rooster, he wasn’t racist or sexist. To prove it, he fired off a list of his personal beliefs in an extremely racist and sexist segment titled “How to Save America in 10 Easy Steps.”
McInnes’ Western chauvinism is really just old-school bigotry, dressed up as harmless intellectual discourse and issued alongside a bunch of vague existential threats.
In his vision of America, everyone has a gun and stands prepared to shoot looters “during the riots in Ferguson, or any fuckin’ riot this year.” Welfare, which he likened to “giving Black people money to dump their boyfriends,” is abolished. The borders are closed because, according to McInnes, if “you think most immigrants are sweethearts just coming here to clean your house, you’re a fucking moron.” And Americans would “venerate the housewife,” as he blamed working women for declining fertility rates.
“All my friends from high school, their cunts are like rotten tea bags—baby free,” he said. “And they will remain that way.” The list goes on in this fashion, each point as reprehensible as the next. One line in particular sticks out because it remains today as the Proud Boys’ mission statement:
“I’m a Western chauvinist,” McInnes said. “I’ve lived all over the world. I know a lot of other cultures and I know how much they suck shit. Multiculturalism reeks.”
He continued by offering up a moral panic of his own creation: “If we could be more chauvinistic and more proud, and not be sent home on Cinco de Mayo from our own high schools for wearing an American flag shirt, you would see a ripple effect from that patriotism, of a lot more American things. We don’t suck. We didn’t start slavery; we ended it. Let’s be a little more smug.”
That string of words, along with all the steps laid out in McInnes’ fantasy for America, would later become a set of guiding principles for the Proud Boys. His ultranationalist, misogynist, and anti-immigrant edicts were reminiscent of the white supremacist rhetoric put forth by so-called identitarian groups in Europe, which seek to sanitize age-old hatred for brown immigrants and their liberal supporters by positioning them as imminent threats to modern white culture and tradition.
In short, McInnes’ Western chauvinism is really just old-school bigotry, dressed up as harmless intellectual discourse and issued alongside a bunch of vague existential threats: They’re coming for you, they’re going to persecute you for your patriotism, and then they’re going to erase everything you’ve built. It’s time to fight back. He honed and iterated the statement until it became a one-line motto, now recited by every new recruit into the Proud Boys organization:
“I am a Western chauvinist and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
From the outset, McInnes used his show to indoctrinate his audience. He was building them a new collective identity, complete with their own language, and he was feeding them a bottomless helping of repellent ideology, through interviews with a revolving door of contemptuous far-right goons and violent videos he found on YouTube.
Excerpted from We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism by Andy Campbell. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.