Review: ‘We Are the Proud Boys,’ by Andy Campbell

Although Campbell does not explore it, far-right paranoia about pornography goes all the way back to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In Protocol No. 14 of that notorious forgery, now more than a century old, Jews supposedly create “filthy, abominable literature” to distract the goyim from their scheme to take over the world. In recent years, similar attacks branding pornography as a Jewish plot have come from right-wing terrorists ranging from Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, to Robert Bowers, charged with fatally shooting 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.

These anxieties reflect a greater fear: that what’s being lost is not just testosterone but masculinity itself. It’s no coincidence that groups like the Proud Boys have arisen at a time when we have a record number of women in Congress and when far more women than men are earning both college and graduate degrees. Women’s proper role, McInnes has said repeatedly, is in the home, as traditional housewives and mothers. “There is a real war on masculinity,” he told one interviewer a few years ago, adding that many Proud Boys had been raised by single mothers without a male figure in their lives. A researcher who studied 43 McInnes videos that drew more than a million views each on YouTube found that only three had to do with race, while 26 concerned women, gender or feminism. One, entitled “Single Moms: Stop Talking About How Brave and Cool You Are,” drew 2.1 million views. Don’t forget: The target of some of the worst insults and threats on Jan. 6, 2021, was one of the country’s most powerful women, Nancy Pelosi.

We hear a lot from the far right these days about the Great Replacement: the charge that sinister liberals are deliberately replacing native-born white Americans with hordes of minorities. But one wonders if what groups like the Proud Boys are really worried about is the replacement of men by women.

A similar sense of precarious white masculinity underlay the earlier vigilante groups. One of the most frequent pretexts for a Klan lynching, after all, was the rumor, usually spurious, that a white woman had been sexually assaulted by a Black man. The badge-wearing members of the American Protective League were less public about their sexual anxieties, but it, too, was essentially a boys’ club. After a few men enrolled their wives, and other women showed interest in joining, the group barred female members, with one leader declaring that to allow them would cause “untold difficulties.” The America of the World War I years, like today’s, was one where millions of men were jarred by the changing role of women: They were about to get the vote, birth control promised them power over reproduction, and, as the war swept men into uniform, women showed that they could perform traditionally male jobs ranging from firefighter to streetcar driver.