Though five of their leaders have been sentenced to a combined 82 years in prison over their seditious plot to overturn an election, the Proud Boys aren’t going away.
The far-right street gang has certainly undergone changes since hundreds of its members stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021: Its national chapter, consisting of leaders from across the country, was purportedly dissolved shortly after the gang was labeled a terrorist organization in two countries. Several local chapters disavowed their chairman, Enrique Tarrio, after news outlets revealed he’d been a federal informant in an unrelated case in 2012. Meanwhile, dozens of rank-and-file Proud Boys have been indicted for their role in the Capitol attack.
But the gang didn’t fall apart in the wake of these shake-ups — it merely changed tactics, and went local.
You don’t see the Proud Boys — or anyone — gathering en masse today for a street brawl in the name of Donald Trump, a scene that played out on a near-weekly basis in the months leading up to the 2020 election. But you do still see members and their extremist allies fighting smaller, localized battles on behalf of the GOP’s culture war: Over the past year, local Proud Boys chapters have attacked and harassed people at drag queen story hours, abortion protests, women’s health clinics, children’s hospitals, libraries and school board meetings, to name a few examples.
The Proud Boys’ parade of political violence, now in its seventh year, continues largely unabated. But even if the gang abruptly disbanded in the face of the Justice Department’s sweeping Jan. 6 investigation, the damage it has inflicted on the American political system will have cascading effects over the next several election cycles.
“That day broke our tradition of peacefully transferring power, which is among the most precious things we had as Americans. Notice I said ‘had’ — we don’t have it anymore.”
During the Proud Boys’ sentencing hearings over the last week, U.S. District Judge Tim Kelly repeatedly brought up the lasting, deleterious effects their Jan. 6 plot will have on elections going forward.
“What happened on Jan. 6 harmed an important American custom,” Kelly said before sentencing Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs to 17 years in prison. “That day broke our tradition of peacefully transferring power, which is among the most precious things we had as Americans. Notice I said ‘had’ — we don’t have it anymore.”
Kelly was touching on the broader implication of Jan. 6 and the Proud Boys’ overall impact on the American political landscape: Not only did the gang dissolve public trust and safety surrounding the next election process, but they’ve helped to ingrain violence as a viable option in politics.
Today it’s not uncommon to see Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, armed militia members or other extremist factions at everyday political rallies or outside polling places. Election workers have been bombarded with harassment and death threats since 2020, most recently following multiple indictments lodged against Trump, and more than a dozen people have been arrested nationally over those threats, according to The Associated Press.
A recent Brennan Center for Justice survey found that 1 in 5 election workers in 2020 know a colleague who resigned over fears of safety. More than 70% of local election officials reported that harassment increased over the last election, according to the survey.
The overwhelming sense among experts is that today’s atmosphere of violence around elections is unique to the Trump era, and catalyzed by the Capitol attack.
“Jan. 6 was the tragic culmination of a dangerous erosion of our democratic norms in the United States,” said Dokhi Fassihian, the deputy chief of strategy at Issue One, a nonpartisan reform group that represents election officials.
Fassihian continued: “Our election officials are facing death threats as a result of insidious lies by the former president and his allies. There can be no tolerance for that behavior in a democratic society.”
Changing the trajectory of political violence in America has already proven to be an uphill battle.
The voices and rhetoric that incited the insurrection on Jan. 6 remain deeply embedded in the GOP. Not only are many of the politicians who pushed the “big lie” that the election was stolen still in office, but few Republicans have disavowed the violent neo-fascist factions still fighting in the streets on their behalf.
On the contrary, the Proud Boys have made inroads with the GOP since Jan. 6. Members have been running for minor elected offices across the country, and several have secured seats alongside the GOP elite. A Proud Boy in Sarasota County, Florida, for example, was elected last year to the county Republican executive committee, where he has the power to influence local politics alongside fellow committee member Mike Flynn, Trump’s onetime national security adviser.
Though the consequences of Jan. 6 have put many American far-right groups on their heels, there’s little evidence that the broader crisis of political violence and extremism born in the Trump era has diminished.
Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who studies political violence, put it bluntly in a conversation last year about Jan. 6:
“The fact that [political violence] is now normal and standard, such that every election is a crisis, means that our democracy is in ... potentially the worst political and constitutional crisis in over 150 years.”