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Just three years ago, Donald Trump was the Proud Boys’ North Star. The yellow-and-black clad far-right street-fighters were prepared to mobilize, get into brawls, risk criminal charges—even conspire to overthrow the government—all in his name. But ever since the latest batch of criminal charges against the former president dropped, this time under the Espionage Act in a federal court in Florida, the public response from the Proud Boys has so far been a resounding “meh.”
Public-facing Telegram channels belonging to various Proud Boy chapters barely engaged with—or ignored—Friday’s news of the 37-count federal indictment accusing Trump of hoarding classified documents containing nuclear secrets in his Mar-a-Lago bathroom (among other locations). Over the weekend, the “Vice City” Proud Boy chapter in Miami reposted a flier advertising a protest outside the courthouse Tuesday. But by Monday they were back to targeting Pride Month. Cape Fear Proud Boys, in North Carolina, which has been one of the country’s most active chapters in recent years, were too busy posting updates about their protest outside a drag show in Winston-Salem over the weekend to even acknowledge the latest indictment against Trump. Proud Boys’ Tulsa chapter only paused their steady stream of anti-Pride memes to acknowledge the death of unabomber Ted Kazynski, writing “rest in peace king.” The Ohio chapter reposted an AI image showing a ripped, tanned, and tattooed Trump in a prison yard, in between rants about Bud Light, actor Elliott Page, and family-friendly pride events. The New Jersey chapter remained optimistic, posting “THE PROGRESSIVE LEFT JUST OPENED UP A CAN OF WORMS… MAGA WILL HAPPEN IN 2024,” before also pivoting back to anti-Pride content. Overall, reports that Bud Light—which has been a major flashpoint for the far-right since partnering with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney—is co-sponsoring a family-friendly Pride event in Flagstaff, Arizona, is currently attracting more ire from the Proud Boys than the DOJ filing charges against Trump.
The Proud Boys’ apparent apathy towards Trump’s legal woes sets them apart from the wider far-right extremism world, which has been engulfed in incendiary rhetoric since Friday. For the Proud Boys, their relationship with Trump is complicated. They emerged in tandem with his candidacy in 2016, and operated in lockstep with his presidency—crystallized by the moment he seemingly instructed them to “Stand Back, Stand By” during a debate with Joe Biden in 2020. Dozens of Proud Boys wound up facing charges for their roles in Jan. 6. And four of their leaders, including Enrique Tarrio, were recently convicted on seditious conspiracy charges for the violent riot, after federal prosecutors argued that they saw themselves as wartime combatants in Trump’s personal army. But many of the Proud Boys’ feelings towards Trump quickly cooled in the aftermath of Jan. 6, once he’d conceded to President Biden. “Trump will go down as a total failure,” one Proud Boy wrote in a Telegram channel after the inauguration. Tarrio and some other Proud Boys facing charges later sought to blame their former hero in an attempt to get themselves off the hook.
The Proud Boys briefly retreated from the national stage in 2021, and months later, re-emerged as soldiers in hyper-local culture wars, showing up to school board meetings and menacing drag shows. They’ve remained incredibly active, and particularly in the last year, have operated as part of a far-right coalition targeting the LGBTQ community. Even though they may not be explicitly willing to go to bat for Trump right away, there also seems to be a consensus that, out of all the candidates running in 2024, Trump is most likely to pardon those convicted for Jan. 6 crimes. In a CNN Town Hall last month, Trump said that he would pardon a “large portion” of those convicted for crimes related to the Capitol riot. Zachary Rehl, a Proud Boys leader who was recently convicted for seditious conspiracy, made a direct plea to Trump via a jailhouse phone call on a segment on Infowars, Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory outlet.“If you get back in office, President Trump, if you’re listening, please look into this, and you know, really look into pardoning us,” Rehl said.
Joe Biggs, a Proud Boy organizer from Florida who’s also been convicted of seditious conspiracy, urged his followers to nail down Gov. Ron DeSantis—who is Trump’s biggest opponent for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination—on whether he’d pardon Jan. 6 rioters, according to NBC reporter Ryan Reilly. DeSantis recently said that he’d make pardoning those he believes are victims of “political targeting” a “day one” priority, which could even include Trump. The response to the federal indictment against Trump will be yet another litmus test for the strength and devotion of his base. After Manhattan’s DA Alvin Bragg filed charges against Trump in March in connection to alleged hush money paid out to adult film star Stormy Daniels, the beleaguered ex-president called on his supporters to “protest, protest, protest.” Many in MAGA-world expressed concern that calls to protest were a Jan. 6 style trap. A circus-like assembly of Trump supporters did descend on downtown Manhattan on the day he was indicted in March— but notably missing was the presence of any uniformed extremist groups, including the Proud Boys. Proud Boys do have a strong presence in south Florida, but whether or not they show up in uniform outside the federal courthouse in Miami on Tuesday—and latch back onto the Trump train—is anyone’s guess. (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)