The Seattle-area Proud Boy and the cracking of a cult

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Even Ethan Nordean figured it out in the end.

The realization came too late for him. The local Proud Boy who became the “war footing ground leader” for the group during the U.S. Capitol insurrection was convicted this past week of seditious conspiracy, and now, pending appeals, will be off for what could be decades in federal prison.

But Nordean did have an awakening about it all, an insight, a moment of bitter clarity of the sort that eventually, God help us, will dawn on more of this polarized country.

Nordean was a bodybuilder who lived outside Auburn and worked at his family’s restaurant in Des Moines before rising up the ranks of the Proud Boys — a paramilitary group of “Western chauvinists” who basically act as street muscle for right-wing causes.

The group reached a delusional peak of self-aggrandizement when former President Donald Trump essentially deputized them as his private militia, telling them to “stand back and stand by” during a 2020 presidential debate.

Whipped into a “stop the steal” frenzy, about 200 of them showed up in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, organized by Nordean and several others, where they breached the Capitol to try to stop the certification of the election.

Their trial lasted four months. Some themes emerged about how inane, but also how precarious, American politics has become.

One is that the Proud Boys’ lawyers presented Nordean and the others as witless dupes of Trump, drunks who were conned into chasing a lie.

“They are basically incompetent people, they can’t even order McDonalds, and they’re planning to stop what the government is calling the peaceful transfer of power?” Nordean’s attorney, Nicholas Smith, asked incredulously during closing arguments (Nordean didn’t testify).

Smith also called them “confused, unarmed men with cans of beer.”

Another defense attorney said they’re really scapegoats of a higher power: “It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation. It was his anger that caused what occurred on Jan. 6 in your beautiful and amazing city.”

None of the above was the prosecution talking — that was the defense.

The verdicts ought to put to rest the Republican historical revisionism that Jan. 6 was simply a protest or “legitimate political discourse.” Three different juries now have handed down sedition-related verdicts to 14 people, calling it what it was: a directed movement — with beer, yes, and lots of chest-pounding nonsense — but with an overarching goal to use force to stop the wheels of democracy.

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