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Inside St. Louis' Proud Boys, the Far-Right Frat Accused of Fascism 

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In a July 1 Facebook post, the St. Louis Proud Boys triumphantly shared a viral video of a Proud Boy KO-ing an Antifa protester in Portland - SCREENSHOT VIA FACEBOOK
  • In a July 1 Facebook post, the St. Louis Proud Boys triumphantly shared a viral video of a Proud Boy KO-ing an Antifa protester in Portland

Four weeks after karaoke night at Tuckers, the St. Louis Proud Boys convene at a house in St. Louis County. They've got cans of Budweiser and an Imo's Pizza, and a YouTube compilation of Trump's 2016 election-night win is streaming on the TV. It makes one Proud Boy nearly tear up.

"We saved the world, you guys, can you believe it?" one says. "We saved the fucking world."

Outside, on a porch ringed by Tiki torches, the local chapter's vice president is smoking the first of many cigarettes. (He spoke on the condition that he not be named in this story.)

"I just wanted to make a platform for people of a conservative mindset, a place where they felt welcome and not ostracized," he says.

The St. Louis Proud Boys' alienation is a frequent conversational topic, almost always in relation to their support of Trump.

"I thought this election was going to be like any other," says Lasater. "I thought everyone was going to be at each other's throats until Election Day, and then somebody wins and we all just accept it."

That didn't happen. In St. Louis, being outspoken boosters of the Trump presidency damaged the Western chauvinists' relationships and ended jobs. One Proud Boy remarks that he grew up liberal and voted for Obama, but claims his co-workers turned on him "the second I made an original thought for once in my life."

"I wasn't saying anything that's racist, I wasn't saying anything that's bigotry, I'm just having my own opinion," he says. "I lost a lot of friends, I lost a lot of people, just speaking up."

To replace those lost relationships, the Proud Boys have turned to the profane approval of their Virgil, Gavin McInnes. It's McInnes' ability to convey self-help lessons and elaborately offensive comedic riffs — jokes that often make Muslims, feminists and gay people the punch line — that seem to most captivate his fans. Somehow, the author of How to Piss in Public has become a compass for young men searching for a guide in the wilderness. (On McInnes, Lasater later attempts to distance himself, saying, "He's our founder, not our leader.")

For members, it's easy to get swept up in Proud Boy self-righteousness, to let the frustration boil over. Last year, Lasater took to Facebook during the protests that followed the acquittal of ex-St. Louis cop Jason Stockley.

Lasater wrote: "While you were protesting in the sweltering heat, I was enjoying air conditioning, a three-course meal and shaking Steve Bannon's hand."

Bannon, the strategist credited for encouraging Trump's Muslim Ban and bringing the alt-right into the mainstream, is a widely reviled figure for supporting what many suspect is a quiet white nationalism masquerading as "civic nationalism" (a term Lasater himself uses when describing his own views).

Some of Lasater's Facebook friends did not take well to the trollish Bannon-praising Facebook post, with one simply remarking, "Congrats on being a turd, I guess?!?"

But within the Proud Boys, nationalism doesn't make you a turd, and there's nothing wrong with voting for Trump or shaking the hand of Steve Bannon. Doing these things, the Proud Boys insist, is part of a proud American tradition.

"What's wrong with nationalism?" the chapter's vice president posits at one point during their gathering, his voice rising with exasperation. "What's wrong with being a patriot? That's what got us to the moon. It's America. What's wrong with that? Who does that hurt? Who does that hurt?"

"Nationalist," though, isn't the label the Proud Boys struggle to reject. It's "Nazi." It's Jason Kessler and his Tiki torch-wielding crowd of young men chanting "Jews will not replace us." It's Gavin McInnes riffing on the idiocy of feminism or extolling the accomplishments of white people and "Western civilization."

Again and again, Lasater, Rohlfing and other St. Louis Proud Boys wave off these associations. Their nationalism isn't race-based, they insist. But there are open fascists out there, and some of them do find their way to the Proud Boys. Lasater recalls one applicant to the St. Louis group who bought a Fred Perry polo and provided a first-degree initiation video before revealing that he represented the American Blackshirt Party, a group that seeks to create "the foundations of a Fascist America." He was summarily rejected, Lasater says. Same with a Missouri man with neo-Nazi tattoos who appeared in photos uncovered by Right Wing Leaks.

Anyone can make a video of themselves stating the Proud Boy oath. Anyone can buy a $90 shirt or show up to a rally. Rohlfing wonders aloud what would happen if the Proud Boys staged a gathering in St. Louis. What if white supremacists decided to attend?

"How do we know if they are white supremacists?" he asks. "Are they going to show up wearing SS uniforms?"

For the Proud Boys, efforts at culling their ranks only seem to dig them deeper. On multiple occasions, McInnes has ordered the Proud Boys to avoid certain rallies (including 2017's Unite the Right catastrophe), in an attempt to break the association with groups that vocally praise Western civilization in terms of race and superiority. Still, some Proud Boys show up. Or, if not Proud Boys themselves, then friends of Proud Boys, or former members, or Facebook acquaintances in right-wing groups with photos revealing neo-Nazi tattoos.

Of course, those are the associations that draw Antifa, who see only a battalion of black-clad fascists. Yet Rohlfing argues it's Antifa that's drawing out the real fascists.

"The main reason these [white supremacists] show up to these events is because Antifa is there," he says. "If Antifa spent their time attacking actual fascists, white supremacists and Nazis, we'd —"

Lasater cuts in. "We'd work together on it, for fuck's sake," he says.

After a couple hours at Lasater's, the Proud Boys decide to finish their "boys night" in St. Charles. Their black polos are tucked in tight (they shrink in the wash, one explains) and they roll into a nightclub looking every bit the Western chauvinists. But outside their closed Facebook groups and Portland rallies, these prideful patriots seem out of place, even in the Trump country that is St. Charles. They sit at a circular table at the edge of a dance floor, looking like uniformed busboys at someone else's prom. One Proud Boy attempts chatting up several women, to no avail.

So they gather at the edge of the dance floor, watching the action amid the lasers and smoke. They talk about an upcoming gala in Las Vegas, "West Fest." It's expected to attract hundreds of Proud Boys. "It's going to be awesome," says Rohlfing.

And for the St. Louis Proud Boys, it is. Lasater finally gets that third degree: a Proud Boy tattoo emblazoned on his forearm. Rohlfing will later post photos from the gathering on Twitter, one showing dozens of Proud Boys in a group pose, many using one hand to flash an "OK" hand gesture while grasping a drink in the other.

There, finally away from Antifa, one imagines the Proud Boys are free to be themselves, to pursue happiness, even if all that means is not being criticized for being too chummy with Nazis. Just a men's group. A drinking club. A fraternity. Anything, really, as long as it's not an apology. 

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