The Proud Boys Love a Winner


A second Trump term would validate the violent ideologies of far-right extremists—and allow them to escape legal jeopardy.

Illustration of a helmeted, goggled, and masked rioter in combat gear and kneepads, holding a bullhorn, rifle, and Confederate and Gadsden flags
Matt Huynh

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “If Trump Wins,” a project considering what Donald Trump might do if reelected in 2024.

Until the very end of his presidency, Donald Trump’s cultivation of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other violent far-right groups was usually implicit. He counted on their political support but stopped short of asking them to do anything.

Trump had mastered a form of radicalization sometimes known as stochastic terrorism—riling up followers in ways that made bloodshed likely while preserving plausible deniability on his part.

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But in the weeks after November 3, 2020, his language became more direct. He named the place and occasion for a “big protest”—on January 6, 2021, when Congress would be certifying his election loss—and told supporters, “Be there, will be wild!” When that day arrived, Trump told the assembled crowd, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” With that, the president of the United States embraced violence as the natural extension of Americans’ democratic differences, and he has not stopped since.

Trump continues to lash out at his perceived enemies. Yet Americans have mostly been able to treat Trump’s extremism as background noise. That’s partly because he’s no longer in office, and partly because he’s no longer using Twitter. But it’s also because the legal counteroffensive against pro-Trump extremism, along with a proliferation of court proceedings holding Trump himself to task for his misdeeds, appears to have given his fans reason to think twice before committing crimes on his behalf.

Extremism ebbs and flows. Violent groups can grow only when they can raise money and recruit members faster than law enforcement can shut down their operations. They thrive when they are perceived to be winning; even the kind of person who might be drawn to violence makes a calculation about whether taking part in a plot to, say, overthrow an election or kidnap the governor of Michigan will be worth the risk. In the past few years, Trump’s election loss and his legal woes have made him less persuasive in this regard.

Trump now faces both state and federal conspiracy charges for his efforts to stay in power despite losing the election. Leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have received long prison sentences for their role in the violence of January 6. Fox News, which knowingly broadcast false statements about faulty voting machines rather than offend its pro-Trump core audience, agreed to a defamation settlement of nearly $800 million with Dominion Voting Systems. All of these proceedings have demonstrated that Trump and his supporters will be held accountable for what they do and say.

But if Trump wins another term, both he and his most disreputable supporters will feel vindicated. The Republican Party has already given Trump a pass for exhorting a mob to break into the Capitol. In turn, Trump has promised to pardon many of the January 6 insurrectionists. His forgiveness could extend to extremist leaders convicted on federal charges.

Federalism, to be sure, would be a check on his power. Trump’s followers, like Trump himself, may still be subject to state prosecution. But a president with firm control of the Justice Department, who wields a corps of supporters willing to use intimidation for political ends and who has maintained a considerable following among police, could overwhelm the ability of state institutions to uphold the law.

Trump’s bullying of military leaders, journalists, and judges was never merely the ranting of an attention seeker, and that behavior—backed by the credible threat of violence from radicalized supporters—will likely become even more central to his governing style. “The extremism won’t be some side group,” Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard professor who studies political violence, told me. “It won’t be like a terror group against the state. The conditions will be different. It will be embedded into state institutions, and into the orientation of the state against perceived opponents.”

What’s clear is that a restored Trump would have a winning narrative in which right-wing extremism, after suffering some legal setbacks during the Biden interregnum, thrives again.


This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Extremists Emboldened.”



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