Early voting in Texas starts on Oct. 13, and there are already concerns being voiced by the FBI that armed right-wing extremist groups might show up as “poll watchers” in order to intimidate or deter voters. This is particularly impactful in Texas, where President Donald Trump currently holds less than a two-point lead over former Vice President Joe Biden, making it possible that Trump will be the first Republican not to carry Texas since 1976. At a moment when every vote counts, voter intimidation might mean the difference between victory and defeat for either candidate.
But just who are these groups, and how much danger do they pose to Texas and the electoral process? Here’s a quick look.
The Proud Boys
The biggest name in right wing extremism at the moment is the Proud Boys. Founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, they are described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “western chauvinists” who vehemently deny they are white nationalists. However, they regularly associate with more overt white supremacist groups, such as their participation in the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, and members constantly espouse anti-immigrant, misogynistic and Islamophobic viewpoints. The association of the Proud Boys with white nationalism is strong enough that they were used as an example of such groups in the first 2020 presidential debate, where Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.” The phrase was immediately adopted by the group as a slogan.
In other cities (primarily Portland, Ore.), the Proud Boys are known for their rallies and history of “sustained provocations” that are used to “incite violent confrontations with counter-protesters, blame any resulting violence on the left, and press for further repression and retaliation against those they consider their political adversaries” according to the SPLC. However, in Texas their activities have been minimal.
In 2019, the current head of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, attended a Texans Against Communism event held in Houston and spoke at length. The entire program was rife with slurs and bizarre right-wing conspiracy theories, but Tarrio took things to the next level. He quoted passages from Pat Buchanan’s book “The Death of the West,” one of the seminal white nationalist American texts.
Another curious incident happened in Houston in 2018 that may or may not have involved the Proud Boys. In May of that year, the famous Rothko Chapel was vandalized. The “Broken Obelisk” sculpture by Barnett Newman that is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was splashed with white paint and the ground was littered with flyers bearing the phrase “it’s okay to be white.” About a month after reporting negatively on the incident, I received an email from the Houston Press contact system by a man named James Friend who claimed to be a member of the Houston chapter of the Proud Boys.
It reads (with errors intact), “Have you ever actually talked to the groups you hate? As a member of the Houston Proud Boys chapter, I’d love to have the chance to give you the real story of who we are. Or are you only able to tell lies and slander us. Will admit, y’all do keep our lawyer busy. But if your a true open minded leftist, then you really need more info for your stories. We are NOT alt right, nor racist.”
In neither the original article about the vandalism nor the follow-up opinion piece I wrote about soft white supremacy did I mention the Proud Boys by name. The supposed member contacted me out of the blue following the reporting. If this link between the vandalism and the Proud Boys is legit, it would constitute the only illegal act connected with the Proud Boys in Texas thus far. At least three chapters do exist in the Lone Star State, but Tarrio describes them as “drinking clubs with a patriot problem.” They don’t appear to be planning any demonstrations at Texas polling places at this time.
Two other right-wing organizations in Texas bear mentioning.
The first and most dangerous is Atomwaffen Division, an overtly neo-Nazi group that is connected to at least five murders. They are very active in Texas, with their leader John Cameron Denton, also known as “Rape,” attending white supremacist concerts and throwing Hitler salutes in pictures.
Terrifying and violent as Atomwaffen Division is, it is unlikely that we’ll see them at polls attempting to sway voters. Though they do target journalists who have written critically of them, they also openly targeted Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. A true classical hate group, they don’t seem interested in political activities.
The second is Texas Patriot Network, who also operate out of the Houston area. TPN was a partner in the Texans Against Communism event mentioned above. They are also famous for protesting at the largest Muslim convention in the country in Houston in 2018, at which leaked chat logs showed them picking specific targets and calling them “dead meat.” Fortunately, no one was injured then.
TPN often serves as a kind of hub for smaller groups, such as the openly racist Sons of Odin and Texans United for America. In 2017, TUA organized the 1776 Freedom March in Austin (also attended by the Proud Boys), and called for armed insurrection. Since reporting on the Texans Against Communism event (after which I received at least one death threat from people associated with the group), TPN went underground and privatized all their social media. However, they did survive the recent Facebook purge of right-wing extremists, and as of September were still planning pro-Trump parades in Texas.
When a dad joke meets the specter of armed insurrection to protect a right-wing supremacy in America, you get the Boogaloo Movement (as in Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo). Texas has always had people willing to dance with the idea of violent secession. In 2015, concerns about the Jade Helm series of military exercises in the state were exacerbated by Gov. Greg Abbott saying he would call out the Texas State Guard to watch the maneuvers, leading to an all-out movement of alt-right lunacy that was worthy of merciless mockery.
Those sentiments didn’t go away, though. In fact, they grew. As the QAnon conspiracy cult and other factions of violent right-wing extremism metastasized on Chan boards and escaped into the mainstream, “Boogaloo Boys” began making themselves an uncoordinated but extremely potent driver of intimidation, often showing up at rallies in their trademark Hawaiian shirts and tactical gear.
In Texas, they are very active. In June, Austin bodybuilder Phillip Russell Archibald was arrested. He was being investigated for trafficking steroids, but he was also on social media calling for violent action at Black Lives Matter rallies. He had apparently also gained quite a personal following of people interested in “hunting Antifa” and shooting looters. In April, a Texarkana man, Aaron Swenson, was arrested after planning to attack police officers. His social media accounts also contained numerous references to the Boogaloo movement.
Unlike other extremist groups, the Boogalo Boys are far more loose-knit and decentralized. As such, tracking their movements, motivations and activities is very difficult. Their ideology is also less cohesive and more prone to conspiracy theory thinking, making it hard to anticipate their actions. Their sole, consistent beliefs seem to be a fanatical devotion to the unregulated right to bear arms and a desire for a civil war, whatever form that may take. Considering their members’ histories of planning violent acts, voters should be wary of anyone they see in a Hawaiian shirt with a gun while standing in line to cast their votes. Odds are, they are there to cause trouble.
If you feel you are witnessing an attempt to intimidate voters, call the Election Protection Hotline (866-OUR-VOTE), or if you feel you are in danger, 911.