Gavin McInnes is selling a marketable product.
The pose of the right-wing provocateur and founder of the group the Proud Boys is that he’s simply a defender of normality and old-fashioned male fellowship, when what gives his cause its frisson of excitement is violence.
McInnes is enjoying a media moment. After he gave a speech at New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club, a usually staid establishment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, his Proud Boys fought with members of antifa on the streets, in what has been a publicity coup.
The group got denounced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and video footage of the clash has been irresistible. The New York Times profiled McInnes the other day.
McInnes may have more staying power than other fringe-y right-wing figures who have briefly gained prominence the past few years. He is outrageous, yet funny and whip-smart. He is obviously trying to preserve some credibility, or at least plausible deniability. His alt-right affiliation is clear enough, but he steered clear of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
The group bears the unmistakable stamp of his cracked vision – McInnes is like the Abbie Hoffman of right-wing street fighters. One level of initiation involves getting punched while shouting out the names of five breakfast cereals. This all feels like an elaborate joke, yet the business end of the Proud Boys is serious enough.
McInnes is open about his glorification of violence. In a speech, McInnes described a clash with antifa outside a talk he gave at NYU last year: “My guys are left to fight. And here’s the crucial part: We do. And we beat the crap out of them.” He related what a Proud Boy who got arrested told him afterward: “It was really, really fun.” According to McInnes: “Violence doesn’t feel good. Justified violence feels great. And fighting solves everything.”
Then, in keeping with his stance that the Proud Boys represent a return to groups that used to play a large role in American civil society – you know, like the Shriners – he declared the Proud Boys “normal.” All they want to do is have kids, live in the suburbs and love America.
But patriotic suburban dads have better things to do than roam the streets of Manhattan getting into brawls with black-clad left-wingers, nor is this an activity conducive to meeting a nice girl and settling down. The atavistic impulse of the Proud Boys is straight from the movie “Fight Club,” in which a violent men’s group represents a revolt against banal, overly feminized bourgeois society.
In his great book on soccer hooliganism, “Among the Thugs,” Bill Buford writes of how he started out believing that there must be some underlying cause to the thuggery. Then he came to realize, no, the mayhem itself was the point.
“Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures,” Buford writes. By McInnes’ account, his Proud Boys heartily agree.
The violence of the Proud Boys has additional allure to a certain audience. It can be portrayed as merely defense against antifa goons. It is simple, and requires no effort at argument or persuasion. It is taken as a symbol of strength – the Proud Boys supposedly always win their fights.
Needless to say, this is all poisonous. You can oppose antifa without brawling with it – one mob does not justify another. Violence outside the law is always wrong. We have democratic politics exactly so political and cultural disputes can be settled without resorting to fisticuffs – or firearms and bombs. If conservatism is to represent law and order, it must anathematize and exclude advocates of bloodshed.
Gavin McInnes surely believes he has a growth commodity, and he might be right. All the more reason to resist his siren call of violence, which isn’t normal, clever or justified.