“Stand back and stand by.”
This was the infamous message Donald Trump delivered to the Proud Boys during that first calamitous debate with Joe Biden back in September. Moderator Chris Wallace had asked Trump to condemn “white supremacists and militia groups,” and Trump took the moment to give that one group — among the most violent, dangerous and heavily armed of the lot — the best day of its life.
“To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement,” Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who tracks online extremism, told NBC News after the debate. “They were pro-Trump before this shout-out, and they are absolutely over the moon now. Their fantasy is to fight antifa in his defense, and he apparently just asked them to do just that.”
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Current Proud Boy chairman Enrique Tarrio responded ominously for the group on the night of the debate: “Standing by sir.”
But for what?
A signal, perhaps, from the one person all these white supremacist organizations have cleaved to. A signal from the person who has already signaled to them time and again over the years, as if to say, “I see you, we are one.”
That deeply disturbing debate moment was carried away in the slipstream of immediate history; some 48 hours after Trump said it, he was in the hospital battling COVID-19, and suddenly the media had moved on from discussing how the president of the United States was passing notes to fascists during study hall.
Kathleen Belew, the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, who has studied groups like the Proud Boys for years, offers this analysis of the Proud Boys and Trump’s signaling to them:
They should be seen as fellow travelers with white power groups and activists. Names and tactics vary, but the white power movement is united in ideology and intent. Its adherents include propagandists calling for the end of non-European immigration, those who carry out attacks mislabeled “lone wolf” violence in places like El Paso, Pittsburgh, Charleston, S.C., and Christchurch, New Zealand, and groups that train secretly for war, like the Base, and even for nuclear war, like Atomwaffen Division.
It also includes members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups, and large segments of the Boogaloo Boys and extralegal militias. This is why it is a mistake to understand Mr. Trump’s statement as directed solely to the Proud Boys — which had, before the night was over, incorporated “Stand Back, Stand By” into a badge logo. Other groups aligned with the white power movement will certainly interpret Mr. Trump’s message as including them. This complex web has worked exactly this way since the late 1970s, with disastrous results.
Donald Trump understands the use of power at the brass-knuckles level. Subtlety is not in his lexicon, as has been demonstrated multiple times since the election through his brazen broad-daylight settling of grudges throughout his entire administration. Perceived “enemies” — both real and imagined — are being thrown from their positions at dizzying speed, often with no warning. Bill Barr, Trump’s own attorney general, didn’t break the law to overturn the election, and now it’s a footrace to see if he quits before he gets Twitter-fired.
It is oafish leadership in every way, yet demonstrably effective when backed up by a muscular voting base that will destroy any Republican politician who dares to cross the commander-in-chief. Trump has done so many terrible things, and yet his fellow Republicans have largely responded with silence, because even a misplaced syllable could bring down the wrath of the devoted and end their political careers.
In other words, you don’t have to be right when you have an army. That base is Trump’s political army, one that is permanently mobilized to serve as an insurance policy against his blunders, vivid flaws and anti-democratic designs. They, too, have become increasingly violent and threatening as Trump’s already negligible reelection hopes have all but collapsed. And Republican officials are egging them on, as alarmingly evidenced by the official Twitter account of the Republican Party of Arizona, which shared a tweet from a #StopTheSteal fanatic saying “I am willing to give my life for this fight.” Rather than criticize the implication that Trump supporters should martyr themselves “for the cause,” the Republican Party of Arizona instead tweeted, “He is. Are you?”
Election officials in multiple states are being menaced in their homes and threatened on the job. As the election endgame plays out, these threats promise only to increase in frequency and fervor.
The Proud Boys and groups like it are Trump’s brass knuckles, the weapon in his pocket we haven’t really seen yet. We know it’s there, the right-wing groups know it’s there, and more to the point, Trump knows we know it’s there. It’s the steel inside his ham fist, the implicit threat hanging over all of politics now that he has folded brazen white supremacy into his core political identity. It’s the glint he gets in his eye whenever he feels untouchable.
I got these guys, he seems to leer. Who do you got? It is the cold language of power superseding right, and Trump speaks it fluently even when his lips aren’t moving.
It’s possible that a major confrontation between the far right and anti-fascist counterprotesters may occur in January, when Congress is set to certify the Electoral College results confirming Joe Biden’s victory.
We will see if Trump keeps those knuckles in his pocket.