Donald Trump declined to condemn white supremacists and violent rightwing groups during a contentious first presidential debate, instead urging a far-right group known for street brawling to “stand by” and arguing that “somebody’s got to do something” about the left.
The president was asked repeatedly by the moderator, Chris Wallace, to condemn violence by white supremacists and rightwing groups, such as armed militias, as well as criticizing leftwing protesters.
Instead, Trump addressed the Proud Boys, a far-right group whose members have been sentenced to prison for attacking leftwing protesters in political street fights, and said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
The Proud Boys, whose uniform is a black polo shirt, immediately celebrated the president’s comment in posts on social media platform Telegram. One Proud Boys group added the phrase “Stand Back, Stand By” to their logo. Another post was a message to Trump: “Standing down and standing by sir.”
Experts who study extremist groups said Trump’s message was dangerous, and could encourage additional violence.
“A green light like ‘stand back and standby’ is catastrophic,” Kathleen Belew, a historian of American white power movements, wrote on Twitter.
Trump “owes America an apology or an explanation. Now,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which monitors American extremists groups, wrote on Twitter.
The ADL classifies the Proud Boys as an extremist group with a misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigrant ideology, and notes that some of its members endorse white supremacist ideas. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies it as a hate group.
In 2019, a New York judge who sentenced two Proud Boys members to prison for assaulting leftwing protesters after an event in New York City said that cracking down on political violence was essential.
“I know enough about history to know what happened in Europe in the 30s when political street brawls were allowed to go ahead,” the judge said at the Proud Boys’ sentencing, the New York Post reported.
Antifa is a broad term for ideologically aligned anti-fascist individuals and small groups but it is not a distinct organization in any sense.
About 1,000 supporters of the Proud Boys, some armed, rallied in Portland, Oregon, last weekend.
Trump has repeatedly dog-whistled racist groups and expressed support for protesters seeking to keep Confederate monuments up on America’s streets. In the wake of violent far-right and neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville in 2017 – in which one counter-protester was killed – Trump said there “were very fine people, on both sides”.
Many observers said that Trump’s remarks prompted glee among Proud Boys’ members. “Proud Boys in social media groups are going wild about the ‘Stand back and stand by’ comment. They are basically seeing it as acknowledgment and a call to arms,” said the NBC reporter Ezra Kaplan.
Trump’s refusal to condemn the group prompted outrage among progressives.
After the debate, Biden, who has said Trump’s Charlottesville comments spurred him to run for the presidency, tweeted:
“Donald Trump is a white supremacist,” wrote the New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. “People have been warning about this for a long time. They were ridiculed, called hyperbolic & radical –not bc they were wrong, but bc others couldn’t accept that our country elected a supremacist as President.
“This is fascism at our door.”
Rashida Tlaib, the Democratic congresswoman from Michigan, echoed: “An important reminder that while racism is being debated, Donald Trump, a white supremacist, just told them to stand by. This again shows he is dangerous.”
Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, also condemned the president’s refusal to disavow white supremacists. “The president of the United States, in the year of our Lord 2020, refuses to condemn white supremacists,” she said.
And Belén Sisa, the former Latino press secretary for Bernie Sanders, said: “When someone shows you who they really are believe them.”