Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

My Fling with a Proud Boy

A young liberal reflects on what a far-right romance taught her about men, women, love, and life.

We met in a bar.

Elias is a trim, intelligent man about my dad’s size. He seemed quiet, except for his clothes. He wore a jaunty plaid hat and his wool coat reminded me of a Confederate soldier’s. There were anti-PC pins on it.

“I’m fighting the establishment,” he said. (In my mind he added m’lady.)

Elias was on a Tinder spree. His heart was torn. His girlfriend broke up with him a year ago so she could explore the world.

“I’ve met a lot of women,” he said. “I’ve noticed that the girls in their 20s like to have fun and the women around 30, they want to get more serious…”

I gulped my Delirium Tremens. I pointed at his pins. “You’re politically incorrect.”

“The values of this society aren’t sustainable,” he told me. “We should promote family values and healthy reproduction.”

I thought who the fuck is this?

He said “You want a drink?”

He got us rum and Jacks. He asked “So who’s the guy?”

I’d met up that night for drinks with a fellow Thought Catalog writer. He’d just left. Elias told me he didn’t like mainstream media. I referenced Paglia. He countered with Evola. We both read Robert Greene. We kept going until I pulled the trump card:

“I’m reading Jung.”

“Good stuff.”

He tilted the Pepe on his screensaver towards me.

“Have you heard of the Proud Boys?”

There’s a point in a girl’s life when she needs it. This was that point. In 2017 I almost got married. I failed. I’d only lived in New York for six months when I met him; I was definitely influenced by Sex and the City.

But it was deeper than that. Freud teaches us about the repetition compulsion: how we get used to patterns. Our past. Our families. I grew up listening to a very specific brand of redpilled firespeak. Not about government. About sex. My line is full of bad men and the women who lost their souls to them. I guess my id still thinks that if I can earn the approval of these men full of hate: the men who are least inclined to grant it—then bad men won’t hurt me. I told Elias about my recent borderline personality disorder diagnosis as he walked me home.

* * *

The next day I sent screenshots of the pages from Man and His Symbols that described the male rite of passage towards marriage.

“The novice for initiation is called upon to give up willful ambition and all desire and to submit to the ordeal,” the text portended. “Only by such an act of submission can he experience rebirth.”

“Most of the Proud Boys want to get married,” Elias said, answering my question before I asked it. “I think some of us kind of need a father figure to tell us what to do.”

Elias has what I’ve found to be a not-uncommon conservative origin story. His parents are divorced. His father was married three times, to progressively younger women. His mother was the second wife. She never loved again. His father’s third wife, a girl in her twenties, left him. Now he’s old and alone, too.

The son wants to be better than the father. He wants to know love. Which means, sometimes, that we have to ignore our base instincts. Christianity is as much a set of principles as a man in the sky.

“Gavin wants to teach us responsibility,” he said. “We can’t have guys running around in their 40s, trying to act like they’re 20. The Proud Boys are saying ‘hey guys, step up. Marry these girls already.’”

I didn’t feel like I was talking to an unreasonable man. He was exploring his shadow. Like me.

* * *

We met again in another bar. This time he wore houndstooth. He’d gone vegan. He was eating a cucumber. I ordered pumpkin ale and he pulled out a bottle with some purple liquid.

“Minerals,” he said. “I’m trying to live a clean lifestyle.” In accordance with the Proud Boys’ steps towards enlightenment, he was also doing No Fap.

“Is this like how Victorians used to eat graham crackers to moderate their urges?” I asked.

Sort of, he said. But he lived a temperate lifestyle to begin with. Despite believing Christianity is the best moral guide, he’s a Buddhist. He was a Buddhist before he was a Proud Boy. I wondered how deeply he was going to get into this. His room is colorful and full of multicultural tchotchkes. Elias is mixed race and comes from a well-traveled family. He talks about race as identity, and racial differences. He gets really into music. He likes all kinds, but his favorite is ’80s.

“It was a more innocent time. When artists talked about love.”

We saw an ad for a show called Single Parents on the subway. “See, look at this,” he scoffed. “We’re telling people it’s okay to be single parents. So their children grow up with attachment problems.”

I never doubted Elias’ sincerity. The culture wars have stakes. Millennials have the lowest marriage and childbirth rate on record. We’re not connecting. He said women don’t respect men and men don’t take care of women. He said antifa put their women on the front lines in brawls. I had a visceral response to that. I think it’s weak and disgusting if true. He also said that made them fair game.

Men, especially young men, are less sure of their place in society now that women are fully expected to take care of ourselves. You could argue that the onus is on them to earn us. But there are darker implications about where this mistrust between the sexes comes from.

I didn’t meet many people in psych treatment who talked about a kind, honest, hardworking, honorable, capable father. He was too cruel or too soft, stoically tolerating more than he should for the sake of the family. He was drunk or sick or a layabout, or (perhaps fortunately) not there at all. The fact is, a lot of us are turned on by bad, superficially strong men before we understand what a good man is. After years of compounded trauma, it’s hard to trust any man at all.

My sexual experiences in college drove me to blogs that coined phrases like sexual market value and others too lurid to print. These raunchy, mean-spirited men, while unconcerned with setting a positive example, spoke the unspeakable. They suggested that there is such a thing as too much freedom.

Elias and I talked regularly, keeping each other up to date on the news. We hit the town. We went dancing. Afterwards we said goodnight. He invited me to a secret meeting where Milo was in attendance, but I didn’t make it. Elias told me they got mad because there was a girl there. I still wish I went.

* * *

One night he brought Guinness and oranges. My place is small; I sat on my chair and he sat at the desk.

“You look dapper,” I said. His outfit was ASOS. He pulled a yellow compass-looking apparatus out of his canvas messenger bag.

“Here, give me your face.”

He held it at several angles across my cheekbone.

“You’re neotenous,” Elias said approvingly.

I raised a brow. He paused, taking a drink. Then he added “You’re cute.”

I smiled. “Come up with me.”

We climbed the wooden ladder to my loft.

“I’m scared,” I told him. “I’ve been watching Jordan Peterson videos.”

“Father Peterson is helping you through?”

“I watched the one about female heroism. How she knows her children will be in pain and she does it anyway.”

“Ah.” He said it knowingly and wisely, like a sage. “So you are paying attention.”

I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to be an autistic mother. To have autistic children, at whatever level of functioning they may be. I’ve worked with the lower-functioning kids you hear about. I think about how it would feel to watch my child experience pain. About giving myself fully to another. Like my mother did for me. The intensity of her feelings scares me sometimes. It’s easier to sit alone with my weed and the heroes & villains in my head than face the hard stuff. I told Elias I think that’s another reason I ran out on my man.

“I’m afraid of rebirth,” I told him.

“You wouldn’t want your child to be like you?” he asked kindly. “You’re weaponized autism!”

I sighed.

“Hey,” Elias said gently. “Maybe I’ll be a woman next time around. I’d love to experience your side of life.”

He leaned in to kiss me. I thought about all the men. The men I’ve had. Air Force and antifa. Bodybuilders and bums. Incels and transhumanists and dozens of other emotional cripples crawling through me for years and years. Our culture makes us addicts. Ever since the sexual revolution. What’s my id going to do to me later in life if I’m incapable of sustained, temperate love?

The shadow is easy. You don’t have to fight it. You give in. The kind of shadow the Proud Boys support is a Muslim member Elias told me about, who’s been with over a hundred women and expects his wife to be a virgin.

I asked Elias to read a brutally honest dating profile I wrote. It was inspired by Blanche du Bois and Sade. I confessed disease and unemployment and rape. He read the whole thing. He asked questions.

“Do you think that’ll scare good men away?”

“No.” He smiled. “I like it. It’s a creative way to find a partner.”

I wasn’t scared anymore. I could trust him.

* * *

Elias called the next night to ask if I was okay.

“You triggered something in me,” he said. “Something primal.”

“Is that why you made me do yoga?”

“It was intense,” he continued. “It felt like there was a lot of….”

He stopped short of saying microchimerism. But I felt like he wanted to. Instead, he said “pain.”

“It makes me wonder what I’m doing, you know? What kind of energy I’m putting into the world.”

He went on with his usual bombast about how sex with me showed him the consequences of normalized promiscuity and how he’d rather be a man who makes the world a better place instead of being a parasite on society. But he delivered. He started seeing someone. She’s a musician like him. She’s also a liberal.

“She doesn’t like that I’m in the Proud Boys.” He added that he wasn’t so sure how he felt about it anymore, either. “Some of them are vicious.”

He isn’t into reactionary masculinity anymore. He said he learned what he needed to learn. Culture is changing. Kanye and Roosh V found God.

Elias is serious with his girlfriend now. I believe that he’s faithful. He called me once a few months ago in the middle of the night like he used to, inviting me out. His friends were with him. It sounded like they got in a fight. Like he was getting his stripes and he wanted me to be there.

I don’t know how much he still fights about this with his girl. I don’t know what he does. I see posts on Twitter about the Proud Boys harassing female antifa and showing up outside their doors with guns. A fascist on Twitter told me that our cultural hostility towards firm, protective masculinity means that not only do men owe feminists nothing, but they should fight as hard as they can against them to counter their influence over younger girls. This made me wonder about his personal life. I wouldn’t want to catch this man on a bad day.

It’s hard to imagine Elias showing up outside a woman’s door with a weapon. I don’t want to think about it. But I do think this vehement contention over the moral future of America has become a kind of war. Men are fighting in the streets. When I was growing up, Ron Paul libertarianism was all the rage. I’ve never seen reactionaries this fired up. And when you look at the statistics I see their point. We’re more divided than my generation has ever seen us. Meanwhile, other countries, with their markedly un-Western conception of freedom, are stronger than ever. I’m learning more about the core differences between liberalism and conservatism, and why these two sides can’t make peace.

Elias and I don’t talk much anymore. I’m pretty sure he’s still in the Proud Boys. I hope he continues on his journey, honorably and honestly, as he’s helped set me on mine.

Gwen Kansen is a writer and free spirit in New York. She has written for Slate, Broadly, Pacific Standard, Thought Catalog and Racked.