Cassie Miller recalls wondering if she misheard then-President Donald Trump during a contentious exchange in last year's first presidential debate.
Trump was asked to denounce far-right groups, including the Proud Boys — a violent, all-male organization that Miller had been tracking for years as a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Trump responded by telling the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by." She knew that would thrust a relatively unknown extremist group into the American public's consciousness.
"In the aftermath of that, suddenly everyone was talking about who the Proud Boys were and people were submitting applications to join the group," said Miller.
The SPLC, which designates the Proud Boys a hate group, estimates that there are more than 40 chapters across the country, which operate semiautonomously.
Researchers say membership likely falls well below the 40,000 the Proud Boys have claimed, but they hesitate to venture any guess as to where it currently hovers. Nonetheless, many analysts say that the 12 months that followed Trump's notorious statement have, overall, been a period of growth for the Proud Boys.
"The election period was a massive spike of Proud Boys activity in the street that honestly started right after that debate," said Hampton Stall, senior researcher with the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project (ACLED), a private group that collects information on violence worldwide.
ACLED data indicates that between October and January, the Proud Boys became visible to a degree previously unseen. In November alone, the tracking project found that members of the group made more than 40 outdoor appearances at activities such as protests, demonstrations and riots.
Often they were tied to "stop the steal" efforts. Miller said the coordination of these activities, from Georgia to Michigan and Colorado, helped boost the group's profile and build momentum. The momentum culminated in the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
But that event, which has so far led to charges of conspiracy against 15 Proud Boys, has not been the heavy blow to the organization that many expected.
Nor has the imprisonment of the Proud Boys' chairman, Henry "Enrique" Tarrio, who was revealed to be a federal informant. Tarrio recently began a five-month term in prison for burning a church's Black Lives Matter banner and bringing high-capacity firearm magazines into Washington, D.C.
"They're simply switching up their organizational style," said Miller. "Now they are organizing more at a local level, they're hosting local rallies, or they're joining into other rallies around political flashpoints like critical race theory or anti-masking."
This new strategy now situates the Proud Boys firmly in the constellation of far-right causes that coalesced on America's streets over the summer. According to ACLED data, August was particularly notable because nearly half of the events where Proud Boys were present turned violent.
Stall and Miller said the Proud Boys have moved beyond their singular focus on street fights against antifa activists, and they are now pursuing a deliberate strategy to forge alliances with disparate elements on the right.
Members of the group have attended anti-abortion "prayer" events with conservative Christian organizations; they've protested the removal of Confederate monuments in North Carolina; in Washington state, they responded to a false rumor that a student would be arrested for not wearing a mask, prompting the lockdown of three schools. Miller said these alliances should raise concerns.
"What they want to do is normalize their brand of politics, which is one that is authoritarian, that wants to push the creation of a more hierarchical society where men, and white men in particular, retain the most power," she said.
Miller said she already sees evidence that some Republican politicians have embraced the kind of violence and suppression of free speech championed by the Proud Boys.
She points to bills that were introduced in at least six states in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter rallies last summer that sought to give protection to drivers who run over protesters. She also noted that some GOP lawmakers, such as Arizona U.S. Sen. Paul Gosar, are increasingly using language about the possibility of war, revolution or violence.
Trump's welcoming of the Proud Boys into his fold on a debate stage one year ago may have given them the legitimacy they sought. But ultimately, Miller and Stall said the profound shift of America's political right suggests that the group has found firm footing among a more mainstream audience even with Trump out of office, and it won't be disappearing anytime soon.
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