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The Proud Boys aren’t sorry — luckily, prison works great at stymying their terrorist impulses

At the sentencing hearings for the five Proud Boys convicted for some of the most serious crimes related to the January 6 insurrection, the crocodile tears were flowing. Perhaps hoping for mercy from the Donald Trump-appointed federal judge, Timothy Kelly, one member of the neo-fascist gang after another claimed to have seen the error of their ways and promised to walk a better path from here on out. 

Dominic Pezzola, who had joined the group only weeks before the January 6 attack, declared himself “a changed and humbled man” ready to return to a quiet life as an apolitical father and partner to his girlfriend. Joseph Biggs, who was functionally second in command of the Proud Boys on the day of the riot, claimed, “I was seduced by the crowd” before claiming that he’s “so sorry.” Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio claimed to be “profusely sorry” and called the cops he sicced his gang on “heroes.” 

It doesn’t matter if the Proud Boys are remorseless.

“I’m done with politics, done with peddling lies for other people who don’t care about me,” said Pennsylvania-based Proud Boy Zachary Rehl, while wiping away tears. “There is no excuse for what I did,” Ethan Nordean declared.

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of a single word of remorse offered by any of these men, however.

Pezzola, after getting sentenced to 10 years, raised his fist in the air and yelled “Trump won!” While the other Proud Boys were less dramatic, it was also not so hard to see how few, if any, genuinely feel bad about what they did. After being sentenced, Biggs called into a vigil held by pro-insurrectionists outside the jail and declared that his 17-year sentence was “insanity,” even though it was half what prosecutors had asked for. “They can kiss my ass. We’re still fighting all the way to the end,” he told the crowd, imploring them to “never give up.” He also called into “Infowars” to insist, “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

As Brandi Buchman of Emptywheel, who has been covering the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers trials from the beginning, pointed out, Nordean’s pleas for mercy were flat-out dishonest. He kept insisting had only shown up “to keep people out of trouble and keep people safe,” and that he was only guilty of a failure to “deescalate.” That’s a lie, as evidence showed he not only egged people on before the attack but that he was texting his fellows about plotting for “absolute war” in the days after. Similarly, Rehl has lied throughout this process. He lied on the stand, saying he didn’t pepper spray cops, until video evidence was produced showing him doing it. Even after being found guilty, Buchman notes, “Rehl continued to mock proceedings and not just that, but lie about them” to far-right media outlets. 


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Meanwhile, Tarrio’s lawyers continued to push silly lies, such as the claim that Tarrio was there to “fight antifa,” despite all the evidence showing his intent was to block the counting of electoral votes. 

The Trump-appointed judge was skeptical, reminding Tarrio many times that he told the Proud Boys “don’t f*cking leave” during the riot:

Tarrio’s sentence of 22 years — so far, the longest of any January 6 insurrectionist — speaks to how skeptical the judge was of his “remorse.” 

This lack of real contrition is the norm with insurrections top to bottom, from Trump to the lowliest window-smasher. The Capitol riot wasn’t the result of misguided people who just needed to be set straight. These folks are fanatics who lie with ease in service of their goal, which is toppling democracy. It’s dispiriting to realize they aren’t going to give up, no matter how destructive their obsession turns out to be. Trump and his minions have egos that are way too big to sincerely admit they were wrong, no matter how much they stand to lose by being stubborn. 

It would be nice if these men would reflect on how they lost their way, but the good news is that we don’t need their penitence. Punishment is enough, especially when it comes to what really matters, which is deterrence. There’s ample reason to believe that the prosecution of the Capitol rioters — and increasingly of the coup leadership — is having the desired effect. MAGA America may still quietly wish that January 6 would have worked, but they are also showing signs that they’re unwilling to try again, for fear of ending up in handcuffs. 

This lack of real contrition is the norm with insurrections top to bottom, from Trump to the lowliest window-smasher.

That’s most evident in how little violence there’s been in response to Trump being indicted on 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions. Trump has been out there pathetically begging his followers, in unsubtle ways, to riot or commit acts of terrorism against people who are prosecuting him. His followers haven’t even really shown up in significant numbers to protest. At every arraignment, the most he’s gotten is a few relatively harmless cranks.

We know this is due to cowardice and not any real loss of support with the MAGA base because polling shows GOP voters still back Trump as their presidential nominee by wide margins. Mostly, this is petulance, as those voters refuse to admit liberals were right about him all along. And, unfortunately, the people involved in holding Trump legally accountable — prosecutors, judges, and even grand jury members — have also been subject to threats and abuse. 

But what we’re not seeing is many people who are willing to risk their own safety or freedom to lash out for Trump. The people making threats are doing so from anonymous forums, where they think their identity will be concealed from authorities. Or, in the case of the woman who threatened federal judge Tanya Chutkan, after allegedly drinking too much to be in her right mind. 

Republicanism has long been about recasting selfishness as a virtue. While that’s helpful in justifying bullying behavior, it also makes it hard to convince people to take personal risks in the name of fascist ideology. Most of them are content shaking their fist at Fox News, rather than do something foolish that risks prison time. Even those that broke windows on January 6 seemed to do so because they were dumb enough to think they’d get away with it. 

This fear of consequences could restrain not just the violence, but other future schemes to overturn elections. After a couple of years of getting away with it, people who agreed to be fake electors for Trump are starting to get arrested. And rather than be good soldiers for Trump, their fingers are starting to shakily emerge, pointed straight at their leader. As Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for Politico, three fake electors in Georgia, after being charged in a RICO case alongside Trump, “recently said in court filings that nearly all of the charges they face were the result of instructions from Trump and his lawyers.” They may not be ready to turn state’s witness. But already that’s three people who won’t be answering the call next time a Trump lackey asks them to forge paperwork to try to steal an election.

Pezzola likely told himself a story about how courageous he was, pumping his fist and yelling, “Trump won!” In reality, the gesture only underscored how pathetic he and the other Proud Boys are. They lie like sniveling babies to the judge, feigning remorse in an impotent effort to get mercy. The defiant face shown to the MAGA crowd is play-acting, done only when they think there will be no added consequences for doing it. But after their behavior at the sentencing hearings, there can be no doubt that they’d do things differently if they had another chance. Not because they sincerely wish to be better people, which they clearly don’t. But because punishment works as a deterrence. It’s also why it’s so important for Trump to be tried in a timely fashion. Nothing will scare the MAGA hordes straight like seeing Dear Leader take the fall for his various crimes. 

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