Inside the Demon Factory
How rallies, protests, and street brawls feed the far-right propaganda machine.
The high-definition video shows three fighters, masked and dressed in black, as they begin to beat a man who lies prone on the street. Suddenly, a man steps forward, built like an ox, muscles bulging beneath a black-and-gold polo shirt. One of the masked fighters swings at him with a metal baton. He catches the weapon with his left hand. As the first aggressive notes of the soundtrack thunder forth, he delivers a brutal haymaker that sends his enemy’s glasses flying. The masked fighter falls, stiff as a board. The video proceeds to show slow-motion footage of the punch, interspersed with mass brawl scenes, while the beat pounds on.
Cinematic techniques such as montage, light filters, and dramatic music make the episode feel like a Hollywood blockbuster. But this is no action movie. This is a recruitment video of a rally by the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon, on June 30th, 2018, moments before the police declared a riot. The masked fighters belong to Antifa, an anti-fascist group that organized a counter-protest. The ox-like man, whose alias is Rufio Panman, belongs to the Proud Boys, another far-right group. And the video has been skilfully edited to reinforce a simple narrative—to cast Antifa as dangerous extremists and Panman as a patriotic hero.
While this rally was unusually violent, it was by no means exceptional. Patriot Prayer has staged several right-wing rallies in Portland since 2016, deliberately antagonizing the city’s progressive majority.
On the surface, Patriot Prayer’s agenda sounds consistent with traditional conservative values. Its leader, Joey Gibson, preaches a message of Christian love and free speech along with unflinching support for President Trump and his border wall. Gibson, who is half-Japanese, avoids overt racial rhetoric. Listen closer, however, and you’ll hear a more radical agenda. Gibson also tells his followers that rebellion against the government is “obedience to God” and that they must therefore become “Warriors for Christ.” His speeches are filled with invective against Antifa counter-protesters—and, by extension, liberals and the left. Gibson simultaneously paints his political opponents as a dangerous threat to America and mocks them as laughable “soyboys.” Clashes between Patriot Prayer and Antifa routinely send members of both sides to the hospital or to jail.
For my senior thesis, I observed this rally and many others like it. I listened to countless speeches, watched taunts escalate into brawls, and got to know members of Patriot Prayer. I conducted interviews with nine attendees in coffee shops, bars, and, once, on a bridge festooned with a “Free Alex Jones” banner as rush-hour traffic crawled by. I also read extensively on the history of the alt-right and the so-called “Patriot” movement in the Pacific Northwest, consulting the work of political scientists Katherine Cramer and George Hawley; sociologists James Aho and Michael Hechter; and veteran journalists Matthew Lyons and David Neiwert.
My interest in this group began long before my thesis. I attended my first rally in June, 2017, just nine days after a racially-motivated knife attack on a TriMet train left two people dead, including Reed alumnus Taliesin Namkai-Meche ’16, who lost his life defending a pair of teenagers from attack. The murderer, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, had attended at least one Patriot Prayer rally. Despite significant pressure, the group decided to press ahead with a “Trump Free Speech Rally.” Controversy surrounding this event transformed what would likely have been an inconsequential affair into a national news story.
I attended as one of hundreds of counter-protesters to this event, then decided to cross the barricades and see the rally up close. The rhetoric I heard inside did not match the news coverage that had inspired me to counter-protest. Gibson spoke about free speech, love, religion, and the importance of dialogue. Some attendees wore paramilitary gear or flamboyant costumes, but most seemed like ordinary conservatives, more interested in discussing free speech and second-amendment rights than in an ethnonationalist takeover.
When the time came to choose a thesis topic, I knew I wanted to do an ethnography of this strange and fascinating group. Some within the political science department were understandably skeptical. “Why would you want to talk to those people?” one professor asked. Other faculty members saw potential in the project. Prof. Alexander Montgomery and Prof. Paul Gronke encouraged me to move forward and helped focus the project on recruitment and goals. Why do people attend rallies where violence is not only likely, but expected? What do they hope to accomplish by antagonizing an entire city?
What I discovered was that these rallies primarily exist to manufacture propaganda—propaganda that drums up ideological support and fresh recruits.
When Realities Collide
When Patriot Prayer comes to town, the Portland Police erect barricades that, for a few hours, create a physical barrier between two different realities.
To Antifa, the people on the other side of the barriers are an alt-right cancer metastasizing within their dark-blue city. This enemy includes the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group. The enemy uses megaphones to hurl insults and threats. They wave American flags, Trump 2020 banners, and the Kekistani flag, which originated on 4Chan and is modeled on the Nazi battle flag. When they look across the barriers, Antifa see racists and crypto-fascists who disguise their ethnonationalist agenda behind dog-whistle phrases like “western culture” and “real Americans.”
On the other side of the barriers, Gibson and other speakers pray for peace, advocate for freedom of speech, and praise the bravery of great Americans like George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. The enemy screams accusations that sound ridiculous to most rally attendees: “Nazi,” “racist,” “fascist.” Huge men in paramilitary gear are a welcome defense in the face of this perceived menace. When they look across the barriers, Patriot Prayer sees masked communist thugs who want to limit free speech, terrorize conservatives, and destroy everything that makes America great.
These realities are incompatible in every way save one: each believes they must expunge their opposition from American politics. Little wonder that, when Patriot Prayer crosses the police barriers, violence usually erupts. This street fighting is more than just an excuse for angry young men to fight. For the participants, these brawls are part of something bigger: a battle for the narrative and the soul of America.
This larger struggle, which the far-right often refers to as the “culture war,” seeks to change America through shifts in norms and values. Elements on both the left and the right attempt to create space in mainstream dialogue for ideas traditionally relegated to the fringes of American politics. To win the culture war, these groups must convince large numbers of Americans to see things their way. Political change, they believe, will follow.
Propaganda is one of the most effective weapons in the culture warrior’s arsenal. For Patriot Prayer, videos of protest violence serve to spread a simple yet powerful message: Antifa, and by extension the Left, is a violent and dangerous enemy incapable of reason. Patriot Prayer and its allies are simply defending Americans against this existential threat.
The one-punch knockout occurred in the midst of a wider confrontation spanning a city block. Yet a cameraman was there to film the event in high-definition. This presence was more than a coincidence; right-wing videographers are ubiquitous at these rallies. Some livestream using phone cameras. Others mount GoPros to their helmets. A few have professional video equipment. All hope to capture a dramatic confrontation that will capture the internet’s attention.
Later, content creators sift through this haystack of footage to compile and edit videos designed to go viral on YouTube. This type of video, which I call a “fable,” portrays a morality play between a few characters intended to convey a larger message about the groups the characters represent.
The story of this video is simple. A merciless enemy beats a prone man in violation of all norms of fairness. A brave culture warrior stops this injustice and overcomes an armed enemy with his fists alone.
To their target audience, these fables appear to be organic and objective views of reality. After all, they show real, unscripted events. To create the moral clarity necessary for a fable, however, the video divorces itself from context and leaves ambiguities on the cutting-room floor.
The video does not show the events that led to the beating of the prone man, who was actually two prone men. Moments before the video begins, Panman punched a different counter-protester. When the counter-protester fell to the ground, another member of Patriot Prayer dove on top and began to attack. The three Antifa members were not beating a fallen opponent, but the man attacking their fallen comrade.
Nor does the video include the rap performance broadcast on enormous speakers earlier that day. The song repeatedly refers to Antifa as the “alt-left”: a term popularized by President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally. This language invokes memories of swastikas and murder; it reminds Antifa just how high the stakes are.
Rhetoric and history primed participants for violent conflict in a way the video cannot and does not communicate. This is no accident. Patriot Prayer deliberately creates this atmosphere using troll techniques. When the group does things like play “Alt-Left,” fly the Kekistani flag, or wear shirts advocating the mass murder of left-wing dissidents, they deliberately provoke and threaten Antifa while maintaining plausible deniability to moderates who do not understand the context of these symbols and actions. Antifa reacts to what they see as an existential threat. Right-wing videographers then edit events so that the viewer sees the reaction, but not the provocation.
This sophisticated effort to demonize the Left is fundamental to Patriot Prayer. My interviewees largely agreed that the rallies serve to “expose where the real hate is coming from.” Or, as Gibson puts it, they seek “to expose [Antifa] for who they are...how they really feel on the inside.”
The Wider Audience
The knockout punch, which few saw in person, reached millions of people in a matter of weeks. Content creators seized on the dramatic footage and produced literally hundreds of videos of the incident. The top four of these videos have collectively drawn over 1.2 million views, and this number continues to rise almost a year after the event itself: the view count increased by 276,000 between April and July 2019.
Five days after the incident, Panman appeared on a platform with an even wider reach: Infowars, the far-right conspiracy website run by infamous provocateur Alex Jones, who showed footage of the punch to his 1.4 million viewers throughout the hour-long interview. “This is just an incredible, archetypal, Americana—just a good-vs-evil-type story,” Jones said. “You're now a folk hero.”
Many commenters on social media simply revel in the violence, but others clearly internalized the message Patriot Prayer wishes to spread. “Came to the rally as a skeptic conservative and left the rally as a 100% believer!” one Facebook user commented. “Are (sic) American rights are definitely under attack!” “Democrats, in their true colors vs the Americans/Patriots,” a YouTube comment declares. “Portland is just a disaster,” according to another commenter. “Burn it down and start over.” “I think we all know which side would win a civil war,” one quips.
Many of the people I interviewed attended their first rally after watching a video of protest violence. One attendee, a combat veteran, initially avoided rallies due to post-traumatic stress disorder, but changed his mind after he watched a video of “innocent civilians getting harrassed and attacked” by Antifa. Another said he had to do something when he saw a livestream of riots in Portland in the days after Trump’s election. Two of my interviewees—and Gibson himself—began their activism after they saw mainstream news coverage of counter-protesters throwing eggs and chasing Trump supporters. “When I saw, basically, that people couldn’t stand up for themselves were getting harrassed,” one of my interviewees explained, “that’s when I felt that I needed to step in.”
Only one person I interviewed attended their first rally out of strong political conviction. Everyone else expressed a desire to push back against the perceived existential threat of Antifa and, by extension, the Left itself.
Winning the Culture War
These videos succeed in part because, like all good propaganda, they contain a grain of truth. Antifa engages in “direct action” against the far right, which often includes physical violence. They aim to stop the rise of fascism while the movement is still small. Yet, as this video demonstrates, protest violence can have the opposite effect. Street brawls provide Patriot Prayer with an opportunity to create powerful fables that recruit fresh members and persuade a wider audience that it is the left, not the right, that is dominated by deranged extremists.
When the bull charges at the cape of the matador, he plays into the hands of the system that will destroy him. Until left-wing activists grasp the dynamics of the far-right propaganda machine, they will continue to provide entertainment for the crowd and boost support for their opposition.
Political science major Laura Jedeed ’19 won the Class of ’21 Award for her thesis, “Making Monsters: Right-Wing Creation of the Liberal Enemy.” The award recognizes “creative work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.”