Here’s how the Proud Boys weaponize irony to pretend they're 'funny dudes — not Nazis'
Right-wing extremists have long fled behind humor and irony to escape consequences for their hateful ideology, and that allowed some of them to hide in plain sight before Donald Trump's supporters tried to violently overturn his election loss.
They've never made any secret of their efforts to use humor and irony as both a weapon and defense, and those tools also allow them to sell what might otherwise be considered toxic to potential converts, reported NPR.
"Irony is so important for giving a lot of cover and plausible deniability for our views," said 22-year-old extremist Nick Fuentes in a video from last year.
Fuentes specifically mentioned Holocaust denial -- or "revision," as he puts it -- as a topic he smuggles into conversations under the cover of irony, and he recently went on an extended violent and misogynistic rant about domestic abuse that he punctuated with a smirk toward the camera.
"Just kidding!" he told viewers, after urging a viewer to violently "punish" his wife. "No, I'm kidding, of course. Just kidding. Just a joke."
Weaponized irony allows extremists like Christian Secor, a Fuentes fan who was charged in the Capitol riot, to skirt past consequences after his UCLA classmates grew increasingly worried about his glorification of guns, racist and anti-Semitic social media posts and other bigoted behavior, which he insisted was just "trolling" whenever he was called to account.
"It's called a joke and the fact that you think that these posts are anything more than that is telling," Secor told one classmate who flagged an offensive tweet.
Fuentes and other right-wing content creators urge their followers to hide behind irony and then try to shame their critics into silence.
"A lot of these content creators will tell the audience explicitly, 'When people say you're racist for liking this or thinking this, just laugh at them. They can't handle it — they're sensitive babies,' " said Jared Holt, a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.
UCLA took no action against Secor despite his escalating behavior, likely out of free speech concerns at the public institution, and classmates said they were afraid to report him for the same reason.
"I definitely felt that sense of threat," said student Oona Flood, "and, like, I really hate to say, [because] it sounds so much like, overblown, 'snowflake,' that we're just overreacting, you know?"
The Ku Klux Klan were portrayed as outlandish, rather than dangerous, in its early days, and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously noted the way Nazis attempted to hide behind absurdist humor to cover their hate -- and give themselves an unfair advantage.
The Proud Boys, the pro-Trump paramilitary group named after a song from Disney's "Aladdin," revel in irony, indulging in ridiculous bonding rituals before engaging in street fights, and at least 25 members of the right-wing group are facing conspiracy and other charges related to the Capitol insurrection.
True to form, group founder Gavin McInnes mocked the media in an email to NPR, which he said "willfully ignores" the group's in-jokes to make them look bad.
The Proud Boys are "funny dudes, not Nazis," McInnes wrote.
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