Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Tuesday night's debate included one of the most disturbing moments in presidential campaign history. Trump was asked explicitly and repeatedly by moderator Chris Wallace to condemn white supremacists and militia groups who are fomenting violence in cities across the country. Trump passed. Instead, he called on the Proud Boys, a right-wing hate group, to "stand back and stand by" because "[s]omebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left."
Trump was inciting a group known for street violence. "What's the matter with fighting? Fighting solves everything. The war on fighting is the same as the war on masculinity," Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes said. The group maintains a "military arm," known as the Fraternal Order of the Alt Knights.
In 2017, the group celebrated after a protest in Berkeley "descended into bloody violence." In 2018, a group of Proud Boys "pummeled three people on the sidewalk in Manhattan’s Upper East Side while shouting homophobic slurs." The victims were protesting McInnes' appearance at a nearby Republican club. The incident resulted in 10 members of the group being charged with assault and rioting. Two members of the group were ultimately sentenced to four years in prison. Following the incident, McInnes claimed to break ties with the group.
This year, the group has been responsible for fomenting violence in Portland, including a brawl with counter-protesters on August 22. Proud Boys and right-wing militia members came "armed with paintball guns, metal rods, aluminum bats, fireworks, pepper spray, rifles and handguns." On Wednesday, a Proud Boys member who participated in the incident, Alan James Swinney, was arrested on "a dozen charges, including assault, unlawful use of weapon, and menacing." The group now claims Swinney is not a member, despite the fact that he has a Proud Boys tattoo on his arm and actively promotes Proud Boys events.
The group says it is not a white supremacist organization because it permits non-white members. But it is certainly bigoted and racist. The group routinely participates in events with neo-Nazis and other explicitly white supremacist groups. "I love being white and I think it's something to be very proud of. I don't want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life," McInnis told the New York Times in 2003.
The group is also deeply misogynistic, anti-Muslim, transphobic, and antisemitic. In 2017, McInnes published a video titled "10 Things I Hate About The Jews." These are the people Trump directed to "stand by" and be prepared to "do something" about "the left."
Trump pleads ignorance
Facing widespread criticism, Trump claimed on Wednesday that he didn't know what he was talking about. "I don’t know who the Proud Boys are," he said.
This is a familiar strategy for Trump when caught in a racial controversy. Asked to disavow the endorsement of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke in February 2016, Trump said he was unfamiliar with Duke. "Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on," Trump said. Trump's claim of ignorance about Duke's history was not credible, since Trump had publicly criticized Duke in 2015. Trump later told NBC that he was unable to answer the question about Duke on CNN due to a "bad earpiece."
On Wednesday, Trump also whiffed on an opportunity to condemn white supremacy in general. Asked if he welcomed the support of "white supremacists," Trump said that he wanted "law and order." Asked about white supremacists again, Trump said that he "always denounced any form, any form, of any of that."
Trump campaign contradicts Trump, construct alternate reality
While Trump claimed he was unfamiliar with the Proud Boys, Trump 2020 National Press Secretary Hogan Gidley went on Fox News radio and claimed Trump has "condemned the Proud Boys on multiple occasions." On CNN, Gidley claimed that during the debate, he "called out" and "condemned" the Proud Boys. Those two things did not happen.
Gidley also claimed that Trump condemned white supremacists "three times" during the debate. That was also false. Trump was asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and responded, "sure." But asked to actually condemn them, Trump repeatedly dodged the question.
Jason Miller, another top Trump campaign aide, told USA Today that Trump was telling the Proud Boys to "knock it off," which is not something that Trump said or did.
Proud Boys rejoice
For the Proud Boys, President Trump’s words were cause for celebration. After Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” members of the Proud Boys took to social media and embraced Trump's orders as a new catchphrase.
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this [sic] makes me so happy,” wrote Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs on Parler, a far-right Twitter alternative. In a previous post, Biggs typed: “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA...well sir! we’re [sic] ready!!!” And Biggs was not alone — other members of the Proud Boys shared Biggs’ unbridled enthusiasm for the shout out. Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio wrote, “Standing by sir...I will stand down sir!!!”
The group also updated its crest logo to include the words “Stand Back, Stand By” and even began to sell merchandise on sites like TeeRepublic and Amazon featuring Trump’s comments.
So far, Teespring has removed these products from its site after it was brought to their attention by watchdog group Sleeping Giants. The company tweeted: “Teespring does not allow the sale of items that promote hate or violence. We are in the process of investigating and removing content that violates our policies.” Amazon also took down products with the words “Stand back and Stand by.”
President Trump’s remarks are the Proud Boys’ “fantasy,” professor Megan Squire told NBC News, “They were pro-Trump before this shoutout, and they are absolutely over the moon now,” Squire said.
Some GOP Senators up for reelection defend Trump; others criticize him
Some Senators facing reelection defended Trump. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), who will face voters in November, said that he “think[s] white supremacy...should be condemned 24/7.” But when asked about Trump's remarks, Tillis responded: “I’ll leave it to the President. I know he’s not a racist, and I’m sure he doesn’t approve [of] their activities.”
Similarly, Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), who is also up for reelection, was untroubled by Trump’s comments, telling reporters that Trump “has been very clear that there is no place for racism in this country."
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who is facing a strong challenge from Jaime Harrison, took a different approach, saying he believed that Trump needs to "make it clear Proud Boys is a racist organization antithetical to American ideals." But Graham also thanked Trump for designating the KKK and Antifa as terrorist organizations. Susan Collins (R-ME), fighting to retain her seat in a moderate state, stated that Trump made a "mistake" by failing to condemn white supremacy.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is up for reelection this year, aligned himself with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC). "[Scott] said it was unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists, and so I do so in the strongest possible way," McConnell said.
The saddest thing is that there is absolutely nothing which will dissuade a Trump supporter. NOTHING. Refusing to disavow white supremacists? No problem. Being heavily in debt to whoever? No problem. Allowing a pandemic to run unchecked through our country, and lying about it to the American public on a daily basis? No problem. Actively undermining our democratic institutions? No problem. Trying to set up a crypto-police state and sending armed, unidentified "federal troops" into American cities? No problem. Having the national guard clear out peaceful racial justice protesters so that you can get a bizarre photo op with a bible (a book I'll guarantee that he's never read) in front of a church? No problem. Kowtowing to Russia/Vladimir Putin every chance he gets? No problem. Starting a trade war with China that has resulted in zero positives for this country? No problem. Funning federal money into the pockets of his family and friends? No problem. Destroying this country's environmental regulations? No problem. Passing a "tax cut" that amounted to a tax increase for many people (especially those in "blue states")? No problem. Pursuing an openly bigoted immigration policy? No problem.
I could go on and on. This is such a disheartening time to be an American.
The Republicans say Trump's failure to condemn white supremacists is unacceptable, but as with his behavior during the debate, what are the consequences? We may yet see the consequences in an electoral sense, but in the meantime, it's a poor consolation.