Trump’s Refusal to Condemn Proud Boys at Debate Reflects His Electoral Strategy

President Trump once again refused to take a hard stance in condemning white supremacy and white supremacist violence during Tuesday night’s tumultuous and bizarre presidential debate with his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Trump made many comments disparaging antifa, which is not a formal group but rather a movement of people who are vociferous in their views against fascism. Even after Biden pointed out that “antifa is an idea and not an organization,” the president’s remarks made clear that he intended to continue demonizing antifa and to employ baseless scare tactics in order to errantly posit the movement as a threat to the country.

Debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he’d take a similar stance on actual threats from known right-wing hate groups.

“Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” Trump responded.

That comment directly contradicted Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which considers violence from right-wing groups the greatest terrorist threat to the United States at this time. Indeed, a whistleblower within DHS has even alleged that department leaders had pressured government employees to revise draft documents on the matter to downplay the far right threat in order to match Trump’s dubious rhetoric about antifa.

Debate host Wallace and Biden, however, pressed Trump to condemn white supremacist hate groups on national TV, which prompted him to ask for the name of an organization he could make a statement on. “Proud Boys,” Biden chimed in, referencing a white supremacist organization of men in the U.S. that openly endorses and engages in violence toward those who oppose their blatantly discriminatory and bigoted views and have on several occasions clashed with anti-fascists.

Trump’s response — “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by” — was the opposite of a condemnation of the group. Indeed, according to The New York Times, members of the far right group celebrated Trump’s comment as a tacit endorsement:

Within minutes, members of the group were posting in private social media channels, calling the president’s comments “historic.” In one channel dedicated to the Proud Boys on Telegram, a private messaging app, group members called the president’s comment a tacit endorsement of their violent tactics. In another message, a member commented that the group was already seeing a spike in “new recruits.”

Trump’s reluctance to directly speak out against far right and white supremacist violence immediately came in for criticism, prompting Jason Miller, a senior adviser on the president’s reelection campaign, to wrongly claim that Trump’s comments made “very clear he wants [the Proud Boys] to knock it off.”

However, the Proud Boys clearly indicated that they understood the president’s words to mean he was on their side, based on comments on social media and the organization’s website.

“Standing by sir,” read one user’s comment in response to the phrase employed by Trump.

“President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA…well sir! we’re ready!” read another comment from a Proud Boys member.

Minutes after Trump said “stand back and stand by,” the Proud Boys, a self-described “pro-Western fraternal organization for men,” considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, had created a new logo featuring President Trump’s words from the debate which was shared widely.

Though the group and its members had been banned on both Facebook and Twitter in 2018 due to their conduct online, they continue to have a strong presence on other social media sites.

While many were shocked and outraged by Trump’s refusal to take a hard stance against far right violent groups, those who have been following Trump’s close ties to the far right were not surprised, given Trump’s record in the recent past. Just last month, for example, Trump refused to speak out against the conspiracy theory-driven movement QAnon, describing it as a group of individuals who “love America” in spite of the group spreading beliefs that the FBI has noted could drive some adherents to engage in “criminal and sometimes violent activity.”

Trump’s reticence in decrying the far right has, in fact, long been a staple of his presidency. In 2017, following actions by neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in attacks against counterprotesters (including the vehicular murder of activist Heather Heyer), the president did not take a forceful position on the matter, choosing to condemn instead the violence that happened “on many sides” at that event.

“I wasn’t surprised at all that Trump refused to condemn the Proud Boys,” Spencer Sunshine, a counter-far right researcher and activist, said to Truthout regarding the debate on Tuesday night. “His administration has long had an unspoken alliance with them. I would have been more surprised if he had condemned them.”

Mark Bray, a historian of human rights and terrorism, also noted that Trump’s refusal to condemn outright the Proud Boys was part of “what is now indisputably Trump’s larger strategy moving into November.”

“In that context, it seems like his comments about how the Proud Boys should ‘stand by’ is an effort to ‘wink’ at what he imagines is his paramilitary base of support, and to have them at the ready to be some of the muscle for this larger strategy,” Bray told Truthout. “Bearing in mind there has been a significant overlap in membership between groups like the Proud Boys and others [in] the military and law enforcement.”

Trump’s response on Tuesday will also likely “embolden” groups like the Proud Boys to “maybe redouble their efforts to mobilize and organize,” Bray said. “But I think this is really primarily about November and beyond.”