At the 2020 presidential debates on Tuesday, Donald Trump didn’t just choke on condemning white supremacists—he actually gave what a far-right hate group that has beat up protesters and launched street brawls interpreted as at the very least a tacit endorsement, or even a direct order. The president has since attempted to walk back his failure to condemn far-right extremists during the debate, but the damage is already done.
Prompted by the debate moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, to condemn racist and far-right militia groups in the wake of violent clashes with anti-fascist groups in Portland, Oregon, and a militia double-killing in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Trump landed on the Proud Boys after Democratic challenger Joe Biden suggested them by name. A neo-fascist, male-only organization, the Proud Boys has been referenced by the FBI as an extremist organization and has taken the president’s “law and order” agenda into their own hands by bringing guns and other weapons to protests, starting melees, and firing paintball guns into crowds.
Last year, two of its members were handed four-year prison sentences for offenses including attempted gang assault over their role in a 2018 street fight in New York. On Wednesday, Portland police arrested another member for allegedly pointing a firearm at, and using pepper spray on, protesters at an Aug. 22 rally. Members have also issued death threats, and they’ve coordinated with other far-right groups like Patriot Coalition that advocate brutal violence against leftists. The Proud Boys have largely been driven off mainstream social media sites, but have built up a presence on less public services like messaging app Telegram in response.
Trump pointedly didn’t condemn the Proud Boys and instead asked them to “stand back and stand by”—adding that groups like them should “do something” about “antifa and the left.” Per the USA Today transcript (emphasis ours):
Okay, you have repeatedly criticized the Vice President for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing groups. But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups? And to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha, as we’ve seen in Portland? Are you prepared specifically to do that?
Sure, I’m prepared to do it. I would say- I would say, almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right wing-
So what do you, what do you say-
I’m willing to do anything I want to see peace.
Then do it, sir.
Say it, do it, say it.
You want to call them — What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me —
White supremacists and, white supremacists and right-wing —
The Proud Boys.
Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem. [Emphasis ours]
On Parler, a social media app for conservatives who feel spurned by Twitter and which has predictably served as a venue for hate speech, Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs wrote, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy”. Within an hour of Trump’s comments, one of the group’s official channels on Telegram posted a version of their logo with the text “STAND BACK / STAND BY” imposed on it, and by Wednesday morning they were selling t-shirts.
“Fuck it, let’s go back to Portland,” another Telegram channel run by the Proud Boys posted. “... Leftist f*gs are seething right now lol. It’s glorious.”
Per the Miami New Times, Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio tweeted that while he didn’t take the president’s comment as a “direct endorsement,” “stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done” and he is “extremely PROUD” of Trump’s debate performance. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Tarrio said it was likely “stand back and stand by” would become one of the group’s new slogans, joining prior ones like “The West is the Best” and “Fuck Around and Find Out.”
A Proud Boys channel affiliated with a Seattle chapter posted a clip from a debate livestream featuring the organization’s creator, Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who has espoused rhetoric indistinguishable from white supremacy in the past. McInnes reacted with apparent surprise, asking, “Did he say Proud Boys? ... Really?”
Members of Proud Boys channels on Telegram also speculated about a rise in “new recruits,” according to the New York Times, though estimates of Proud Boys’ membership across its U.S. chapters have always been hazy (ranging from the hundreds to thousands). According to tgstat.com, a major Proud Boys channel that had around 7,725 subscribers on Tuesday had added nearly 660 subscribers by mid-Wednesday afternoon. It used the publicity in part to direct new users to a crowdfunding effort for members in prison.
“I think the Proud Boys are sharing it, without a doubt, as a call to action,” Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has closely tracked the group, told Gizmodo in a phone interview. “You know, this is something they were thrilled to hear and something that they’ve been hoping to hear from him since 2016... Throughout the years that they’ve been out on the streets organizing and holding rallies, a lot of what they’ve been doing is trying to get recognition from the president.”
“You know, their whole project essentially is to demonize the left and to normalize political violence,” Miller said. “And for Trump to essentially tell them to stand by? You know, it’s recognition of that political project. And so they have immediately begun to organize around it.”
Trump’s comments lit up the far-right web ranging from venues like 4chan’s /pol/ board to Telegram channels affiliated with other groups, but it also gained the group major exposure on Twitter. Clemson University social media researcher Darren Linvill told the Washington Post the group had been mentioned more than 1 million times on the site and was continuing to rack up 75,000 mentions per hour on Wednesday morning.
Trump insisted on Wednesday that he did not know who the Proud Boys were, but that they should allow police to do their jobs, according to reporters.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. You’ll have to give me a definition, because I really don’t know who they are,” Trump said. “I can only say they have to stand down.”
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who maps online extremism, said in a phone interview that Trump’s remarks at the debate fit into his long history of encouraging violence against political opponents. Some of the president’s prior actions, such as declaring antifa a terrorist organization, have directly resulted in waves of harassment and threats including against researchers and analysts studying extremism, Squire said. And on Telegram, the Proud Boys are already seeing “increased numbers, increased traffic, increased views.” Squire added the president’s remarks on Tuesday are especially alarming, given he has called for supporters to show up at poll sites during federal elections on Nov. 3 and take matters into their own hands.
Trump has “done this before with, like, Bikers for Trump, for example,” Squire said. “And, you know, he’s talking about, ‘I’ve got the strongest people on my side.’ He’s kind of got this fantasy that he’s going to be defended by this working-class male, some kind of cadre or something.”
“This kind of fits with his longer-term pattern of looking forward to people defending his presidency and his authoritarianism and using their physical bodies and using street violence,” Squire added, saying it would be “extremely concerning” if the Proud Boys started “standing out in front of the polling places and watching, and that kind of voter intimidation.”
Miller told Gizmodo that the far right is “becoming more mobilized” and increasingly reactionary towards protest movements like Black Lives Matters. At a rally on Sept. 26 in Portland, she said, one speaker said that Proud Boys were going to show up to election sites to monitor.
“... They’re more riled up and more willing to go out in the streets to stand in opposition to them or ostensibly to protect a political property, or a private property, or to stand for what they feel is law and order,” Miller said. “I think that this is going to kind of galvanize not just the Proud Boys, but other varieties of extremists to go out into the streets. You know, they’ve been waiting for a signal from Trump, this is something that they’ve been saying for years. And now it seems like they have it.”
“This is all very much in response to Trump’s constant spread of misinformation about mail-in ballots, she added. “... The danger is very real that they will be out at the polls and that that could result in some voter intimidation or harassment or voter suppression.”
“I think that was an incredibly critical moment in this debate,” Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s communications director, told reporters on a conference call, according to the Daily Beast. “[Trump] had multiple opportunities to say he disowns white supremacy. He was asked explicitly to do so and once again he openly refused. Even after citing the Proud Boys by name, he refused to condemn that group and to condemn white supremacy.”
The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, told CNN on Wednesday that the Proud Boys are a “hate group through and through” that “traffic in misogyny, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim bias. They’re violent... More than anything they have links to other white supremacist groups on the so-called alt-right.”
“This wasn’t an opportunity to condemn, this was a clarification,” Greenblatt added. “He sees these groups as his allies.”
“They’re using it to promote themselves and to legitimize themselves,” Miller told Gizmodo. “You know, one of their main strengths already is that they are able to enter more mainstream spaces than a lot of other extremist groups. They’ve had a pretty cozy relationship with the GOP. And I think this is going to help them kind of further cement that and further normalize their views.”
Update: 6:15 p.m. ET: This article has been updated with comments from the SPLC’s Cassie Miller.