What just happened?
During the first presidential debate of 2020, moderator Chris Wallace said to President Trump, “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland? Are you prepared to specifically do that?”
Trump replied, “Sure, I’m prepared to do that” but then attempted to put the focus back on left-wing groups. When Wallace pressed the president, Trump said, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead—who would you like me to condemn?”
Wallace started to say, “White supremacists and right-wing militia,” when Vice President Joe Biden said, “Proud Boys.” To this Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Biden responded, “[Trump’s] own—his own FBI director said (INAUDIBLE) white supremacist, Antifa is an idea and not an organization.”
Many members of the group known as Proud Boys took Trump’s words as a call to action. As Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs posted online, he was “standing by.” He added the president “basically said to go f— them up. . . President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA… well sir! we’re ready!!”
On Tuesday, Trump said, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. You’ll have to give me a definition because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work. . . . Everybody. Whatever group you are talking about, let law enforcement do the work. Now, antifa is a real problem. Because the problem is on the left. And Biden refuses to talk about it.”
What are the Proud Boys?
Proud Boys is an all-male group founded in 2016 by the UK-born Canadian activist Gavin McInnes. The group’s name is a reference to a song from the musical version of the Disney film Aladdin. Members often wear black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts along with red “Make America Great Again” hats. To be a part of the organization, a Proud Boy must declare that he is “a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.”
The group claims to reject the ethno-nationalism of the alt-right in favor of a civic nationalism they dub the “alt-lite.” Yet despite claiming to denounce “racial identity politics,” members of the Proud Boys are often connected to white supremacists’ events and activities. For example, Proud Boys member and neo-Nazi Jason Kessler was one of the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Virginia, a rally that led to the killing of counter-protestor by a white supremacist.
McInnes claims he and the Proud Boys are not white supremacists, though he has a history of making racists and antisemitic remarks. He told The New York Times in 2003, “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” He also is known for making racist slurs and giving the Nazi salute while chanting “Heil Hitler” on his web broadcast. In 2017, he posted a video called “Ten Things I Hate about Jews,” which was later retitled “Ten Things I Hate About Israel.” In the video he says, Israelis have a “whiny paranoid fear of Nazis that’s making them scared of Christians and Trumps who are their greatest allies.”
“This whole idea of white nationalists and white supremacy is a crock,” he once said. “Such people don’t exist.”
Is the Proud Boys a violent extremist organization?
The Proud Boys have a history of engaging in violence, particularly against protestors at anti-racism rallies or against counter-protests and white supremacist rallies. Violence has also been part of the initiation process since the group’s inception.
McInnes wrote an article in 2016 explaining how to start a Proud Boys chapter. “You must get the crap beaten out of you by at least five guys until you can name five breakfast cereals, he wrote, adding, “The bonding and camaraderie this violence produces is inspiring.”
McInnes later included a final element to the initiation, involving “a major fight for the cause.” “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa,” he said. (After an arrest of Proud Boys members in 2018, this element was “abolished” from the group’s by-laws.)
In a June 2016 episode of the “Gavin McInnes Show,” McInnes warned his enemies, “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. We will kill you.”
The group’s private chat logs also revealed how some members of the group planned to injure protestors. One member wrote, “All I want to do is smash commies too. Actually I’m lying, I’m way past just hitting them. When the time comes I will stop at nothing to fully eradicate them all!”
Ten members of the group were arrested and charged with riot and attempted assault outside a GOP event in New York City last year. Video of the incident show members chanting “Proud Boys! You ready? Proud Boys!” while instigating an attack on protestors associated with Antifa. A self-proclaimed Proud Boy allegedly murdered his brother with a samurai-style sword, claiming that “God told me he was a lizard.”
The “tactical arm” of Proud Boys is “The Fraternal Order of Alt Knights.” This militia group was formed to engage in street battles with left-wing groups like Antifa.
What is the alt-right?
The alt-right—short for “alternative right”—is an umbrella term for a host of disparate nationalist and populist groups associated with the white identity cause/movement. The term brings together white supremacists (e.g., neo-Nazis), religious racialists (e.g., Kinists), neo-pagans (e.g., Heathenry), internet trolls (e.g., 4chan’s /pol/), and others enamored with white identity and racialism. (See also: The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About the Alt-Right)
What is “white supremacy”?
White supremacy is the belief that lighter-skinned or “white” racial groups are superior to all other racial groups. Modern advocates of white supremacy almost always advocate for white identity—the defining concept that unites the alt-right—though the reverse is not always true.
“Racial Identity,” said Arthur Kemp in March of the Titans: A History of the White Race, “can be defined as the conscious recognition that one belongs to a specific race, ethnicity, and culture and with that comes certain obligations toward their own welfare.” And the alt-right leader Jared Taylor defines “white identity” as “a recognition by whites that they have interests in common that must be defended. All other racial groups take this for granted, that it’s necessary to band together along racial lines to work together for common interests.”
White nationalism is a political view that merges nationalism with white identity. White nationalists are racial separatists who believe that to preserve the white race, other racial groups must be excluded or marginalized in “white states” (i.e., countries or regions that have historically had majority-white populations). White nationalists are frequently concerned about miscegenation and non-white immigration because it contributes to what they consider to be “white genocide,” i.e., the replacement of the “white race” by other racial groups.
White supremacy is certainly rampant in the alt-right and alt-lite movement and should be called out when it’s expressed. However, even if those in the alt-right condemn racial superiority—as many claim to do—the white nationalism and white identity aspects are still detestable and should be rejected. White supremacy, white nationalism, and white identity are not all the same thing, but they are all equally repugnant
Who is Antifa?
Antifa is a radical and often violent protest movement organized around “anti-fascism.”
The movement is modeled on militant leftists who, as Peter Beinart explains, brawled with fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. The groups—and the name—were revived in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when anti-racists within the punk rock subculture in Britain and Germany mobilized to defeat neo-Nazi skinheads infiltrating the music scene. “Via punk, groups calling themselves anti-racist action—and later, anti-fascist action or antifa—sprung up in the United States,” Beinart says.
The Department of Homeland Security formally classified Antifa’s activities as “domestic terrorist violence,” according to interviews and confidential law enforcement documents obtained by Politico. (See also: The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Antifa)
What does “antifa” mean?
The term antifa is commonly considered an abbreviation of “anti-fascist” or “anti-fascist action.” But the term originally was an abbreviation for Antifaschistiske Aktion, a German communist movement from the 1930s.
Is Antifa an idea or an organization?
During the debate, Biden said “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.” This is technically correct. As FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said in testimony before Congress, Antifa is not “a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.” Yet Biden’s remark could give the misleading impression that Antifa is not an organized threat.
One of the strengths of Antifa—and what makes it a particularly dangerous movement—is that it is decentralized and has no official or formal organization. The internet and social media have made it possible for activists who align with Antifa’s agenda to share information about locations of protest and to coordinate attacks on individuals or groups without the need for leaders, spokespersons, or outside financing.
As Dartmouth historian Mark Bray explains, anti-fascism is less a political group and more of an organizing strategy, “a model of resistance” undergirded by an understanding of fascism’s history: “anti-fascists have concluded that since the future is unwritten, and fascism often emerges out of small, marginal groups, every fascist or white-supremacist group should be treated as if they could be Mussolini’s one hundred Fasci [the paramilitary wing of Benito Mussolini’s fascist organization].”
When Antifa protestors show up at a rally, they are not doing so as a single group under structured leadership, nor are they typically there as a lone individual. Instead, they are part of multiple autonomous “affinity groups.” Often these are small groups of young men who are friends and acquaintances and that have their own internal, intragroup dominance and hierarchy dynamics. This loose structure makes it possible for some members and affinity groups to plan, prepare, and engage in more extreme actions under the guise of acting as Antifa.
What does Antifa believe in?
The short-answer: opposing individuals or groups who they define as “fascist.”
This may seem like an overly simplistic answer because, when it comes to mass political movements, Americans assume activists organize around what they want to advance or support. We expect protest groups like the Tea Party or Black Lives Matter to a have an agenda, or at least to be organized around a set of unifying goals. That is why we have a difficult time understanding groups like Antifa that define themselves and their cause almost exclusively by what they oppose.
Almost all of those who align with Antifa are from the extreme political left, usually identifying as communists, socialists, or anarchists. But when they engage as Antifa activists they aren’t attempting to directly advance a positive political agenda. Instead, they are trying to shut down groups they consider fascists.
If there is a unifying theme in their efforts, it is that the mere existence of “fascists” poses a threat of violence, especially toward minority groups. They believe this gives them a right to preemptive self-defense that justifies using violence to prevent “fascist” groups or persons from exercising such rights as free speech or public assembly.
How should Christians respond to groups like Proud Boys and Antifa?
Here are three ways Christians can respond to the threat posed by extremist groups on both the right and left.
First, Christians are called to love our enemies and pray for those who would persecute us (Matt. 5:44). Those associated with both Antifa and alt-right often consider orthodox Christians to their enemy. They may seek persecute us directly because of our skin color or because they consider our faith-based views a political threat. Whatever their reasons, we have a duty to love and pray for them. We should pray in particular that they will renounce violence and come to know Jesus, so they will discover the only true peace and freedom is to be found in Christ.
Second, while Christians may share Antifa’s opposition to white nationalism or share the Proud Boys’ disdain for rioters who threaten peace and order, we must not share either group’s use of violence as “preemptive self-defense.” Christians sometimes disagree on when, if ever, the use of force in self-defense is biblically permissible. But no Christian should adopt the view that it is an act of self-defense to preemptively use violence to shut down speech merely because we find the content to be repugnant. Nor it is a legitimate use of self-defense to physically attack people who are participating in a peaceful public assembly, however reprehensible their cause.
Third, Christians should oppose giving radical extremists on both the left and right a heckler’s veto. This occurs when an individual’s right to speak or assemble is curtailed or restricted by the government in order to prevent a reacting party’s behavior.
The government has an obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens, even those with unpopular views. We should not tolerate the government giving groups like Antifa or Proud Boys a heckler’s veto, for we may soon find they use it to prevent Christians from exercising our rights to share the gospel.