Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and the Other Worst People in Politics

The factions of far-right militants in America can seem a jumble of militiamen and revolutionaries, neo-fascists and white supremacists. While they all share a love of guns and a loathing of liberalism, not all militant groups share the same tactics, aims, or trigger points. How do you differentiate an Oath Keeper militant from a Proud Boy brawler or a Boogaloo Boi from the Patriot Front? We’ve got you covered.

Below, a survey of some of the most dangerous groups on the right, the objectives they pursue, what makes them unique — and why they fight. “The best way to distinguish between these groups,” says Matt Kriner, a senior research scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, “is looking at their narratives of justified violence.” 

PROUD BOYS

Founded: In 2016 by Gavin McInnes, who previously helped launch Vice Media. “Proud Boys started as a street-fighter group that wanted to be real-life shitposters,” says Kriner. “They wanted to be those edgelords on the street.”

Core beliefs: The Proud Boys declare themselves to be “Western chauvinists,” which is “a fancy way of saying white supremacists or white nationalists,” Kriner argues. Despite surface denials of bigotry, the Proud Boys have acted as a gateway to the alt-right. Kriner describes them as a “vessel to deepen the red redpilling” of disaffected men. They have a hipster aesthetic, testosterone-fetishizing mores (eschewing masturbation, for example), and initiation rituals that make light of violence — e.g., enduring punches until initiates can name five sugar cereals. 

The Proud Boys rage against “the left,” which they blame for undermining Western society. The Proud Boys take metaphorical culture wars and make them literal: They are street brawlers, often showing up to clash with anti-fascist counterprotesters — particularly in cities in the Pacific Northwest. Differing from militia movements, says Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, “they’re more focused on opposing the left than the federal government.”

Approach to violence: Unlike the Oath Keepers and other militias, the Proud Boys don’t tie themselves in knots looking for moral or legalistic justifications of violence. “They’re fascists,” says Kriner. “They’re not adhering to a constitutional structure. They’re saying, ‘We’re here to fuck shit up.’ ”

Key moments: Top Proud Boys face federal charges for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. Earlier, a prominent Proud Boy, Jason Kessler, helped organize the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. (Kessler was belatedly kicked out of the Proud Boys.) In a 2020 debate, then-President Trump was asked by Joe Biden to disown the Proud Boys. Trump instead told the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by,” because “somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the left.” 

OATH KEEPERS

Men belonging to the Oathkeepers wearing military tactical gear attend the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Founded: In 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law-educated attorney, who lost his eye in a handgun accident. Through the Obama years, the group’s membership grew into the tens of thousands.

Core beliefs: The Oath Keepers tout themselves as guardians of the constitutional order against what they perceive as encroaching federal tyranny. They recruit heavily among veterans and law-enforcement personnel, appealing to their vow to protect the country against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” 

The organization is “very conspiratorial in their outlook,” says Kriner. Its multipart oath includes fever-dream promises to defend cities from being turned into interment camps. “We will not obey any order to detain American citizens as ‘unlawful enemy combatants,’ ” reads another, “or to subject them to trial by military tribunal.”

Approach to violence: On a surface level, the Oath Keepers orientation is defensive, even as many members spoil for a fight. “They’re going to try to look for moral high ground,” Kriner says, “and say ‘We were pushed to a point that we no longer could avoid violence.’ ”

Prominent adherents: A leaked roster of 38,000 Oath Keepers revealed that many sheriffs, police officers, and even some elected officials signed up for the group. 

Key moments: Oath Keepers showed up in force at the 2014 standoff at Bundy Ranch in southern Nevada, in defense of a notorious anti-government cattleman who refused to pay federal grazing fees. They also manned rooftops during the Ferguson uprising in Missouri in 2014, purporting to protect property owners from looters.

Jan. 6 connection: Many Oath Keepers have been charged for storming the Capitol in tactical gear to disrupt the count by the Electoral College. Rhodes and nearly a dozen other Oath Keepers have been charged with seditious conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power by force. These Oath Keepers allegedly stockpiled weapons across the river in Virginia on Jan. 6 — eager for Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and call them into a “bloody” battle against the president’s enemies.

BOOGALOO BOIS

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 17: "GA", a member of the Boogaloo Boys, stands with his assault rifle in front of the Arizona State Capitol building on January 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. Supporters of President Donald Trump gathered at state capitol buildings throughout the nation today to protest the presidential election results and the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

“GA”, a member of the Boogaloo Boys, stands with his assault rifle in front of the Arizona State Capitol building on January 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Founded: The Boogaloo movement formed in far-right online platforms like 4chan over the past decade — spreading through memes and shitposting — before spilling into real-life protests and acts of violence, beginning around 2020. 

Core beliefs: The Boogaloo name derives from a much-memed movie sequel — Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. The militants seek their own sequel, a new civil war, short-handed as the ‘Boogaloo,’ which is seen as both imminent and necessary. 

The Boogaloo Bois are decentralized and leaderless, and the ideology — while centered on violent revolution — is not fixed. Some Bois are avowed white supremacists seeking to build a white ethnostate. Others are more anarchic in their orientation, wanting to distribute power to a heavily armed populace. 

The Boogaloo arose, in part, as a reaction to traditional militias aligning themselves with the Trump administration — “a place for purists who think the militia movement sold out,” says Friedfeld. Boogaloo Bois win converts with irony and dark humor. But the goofy iconography — a revolutionary flag with a big igloo — and the movement’s de facto uniform, Hawaiian shirts, obscure their violent agenda. Unlike the Oath Keepers, who revere law enforcement, Boogaloo Bois are hostile to police: Boogaloo culture refers to a Big Luau (a rough homonym for “Boogaloo”) that unmistakably includes roasting “pigs.” 

Approach to violence: Unabashedly offensive. “They believe the threshold of violence has already been crossed,” says Kriner. “Violence underpins everything that they do,” adds Friedfeld. “The concept is literally based around a future civil war.” Individual Boogaloo Bois have been linked to a raft of violent plots, including allegedly scheming to firebomb a power station, incite riots, possess machine guns, and toss Molotov cocktails at cops.

Key moments: A militant who pleaded guilty to federal charges in the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imagined that the act would jump-start the Boogaloo. One self-styled “Boojahideen” was sentenced to 36 months in prison in March for conspiring to provide material support to the militant group Hamas.

PATRIOT FRONT

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: Members of the right-wing group, the Patriot Front, as they prepare to march with anti-abortion activists during the 49th annual March for Life along Constitution Ave. on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Members of the right-wing group, the Patriot Front, as they prepare to march with anti-abortion activists during the 49th annual March for Life along Constitution Ave. on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Founded: By Thomas Rousseau, a former Boy Scout and Trump superfan, in 2017, after he attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Core beliefs: Patriot Front is a hate group that revives Italian fascist symbols and Nazi slogans like “blood and soil,” but it projects itself under a red-white-and-blue banner of “extreme patriotism,” says Friedfeld. Where the Proud Boys target men in their twenties and thirties, Patriot Front recruits disaffected teenagers. Its recruits dress like preppy storm troopers, in khakis, blue windbreakers, baseball caps, and white neck gaiters pulled up to their sunglasses. They show up in flash mobs and use graffiti, defacing public murals celebrating diversity or LGBTQ pride.

The group taps into the America First imagery of the modern right, but Kriner insists that just below the surface, “it’s deeply fascistic, deeply anti-Semitic, very racist, and they don’t hide it.” (The group’s website venerates racist and bigoted Americans like Robert E. Lee, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Andrew Jackson.) Yet the overly patriotic trappings “give people a comfortable platform from which to then jump into the broader pool of extremity,” Kriner says.

Approach to violence: Lots of bark, little bite. Patriot Front’s direct actions and propaganda are designed to intimidate, but the group is not known for overt violence. “Here are a bunch of teenagers who’ve had pretty easy lives,” Kriner says. “The moment they’re confronted, they tend to run away.”

Key moments: In June, a U-Haul full of Patriot Front members was arrested for conspiracy to riot at a LGBTQ Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. In July 2021, Patriot Front defaced a Portland, Oregon, mural honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. It was far from an isolated incident. Of nearly 5,000 public hate markings cataloged by the ADL in 2021, Patriot Front was responsible for 82 percent. “They’re incredibly active in plastering towns with posters and graffiti that lean into the patriot side of the ideology — but direct interested parties to their white-supremacy resources,” Friedfeld says. “If you’re not repelled and they have your attention, that’s where they can start to peel people off into their ranks.” 

ATOMWAFFEN DIVISION

Founded: Atomwaffen Division, also known as the Nationalist Socialist Order, announced its launch in 2015 on a then-prominent neo-Nazi website called Iron March. The group pledged to move beyond “keyboard warriorism” in pursuit of “ultimate uncompromising victory.” The name Atomwaffen is German for “atomic weapons,” and also a play on words; the Waffen were a feared division of Hitler’s SS. Atomwaffen is small but has spread internationally. 

Core beliefs: These are literal Nazis, declaring: “National Socialism is the only solution to reclaim dominion over what belongs to us.” Many white-supremacist groups attempt to sugarcoat their noxious beliefs to redpill new recruits, but Atomwaffen is for hardened haters. (They’re also trolls, known for plastering campuses with stickers like “Join Your Local Nazis.”) 

Members of Atomwaffen are students of American neo-Nazi James Mason, who was a follower of Charles Manson, who touted a white-on-Black race war (and whom Mason wanted to make the American Hitler). They believe that democratic society is irredeemable and a race war should be accelerated to destroy the “Jewish oligarchies and the globalist bankers” responsible for what they call the “racial displacement
. . . of the white race.” 

Approach to violence: Terroristic. Atomwaffen idolizes mass murderers like Manson, Dylann Roof, and Timothy McVeigh, and models itself after Al Qaeda. The group seeks to operate in small cells and has been tied to murders, bomb plots, and other conspiracies.

Prominent adherents: Rolling Stone profiled 21-year-old founder Brandon Russell and fellow Atomwaffen member Devon Arthurs after Arthurs allegedly murdered the duo’s other two roommates. Russell was sentenced to five years on federal charges for possessing bomb-making equipment. Arthurs, in and out of mental hospitals, was only recently judged fit for trial. 

Key moments: The Atomwaffen have a knack for getting arrested. In March 2020, shortly after the feds arrested five Atomwaffen on conspiracy charges, Mason declared that the group had disbanded. But it seems to have merely splintered, with many cells going underground.