The question should’ve been an easy one. At the first debate between the major-party presidential candidates Tuesday night, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked President Donald Trump whether he would denounce white supremacists; instead of offering an unequivocal “No,” Trump told the Proud Boys hate group to “stand back and stand by.”
The Proud Boys, an organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a long history of violence, hateful rhetoric, and coziness with GOP stars and operatives, most notably Trump confidant, Republican fixer, and convicted felon Roger Stone. The group, founded by Canadian media personality Gavin McInnes and currently led by Enrique Tarrio, held a Sept. 26 rally in Portland, Oregon, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. Although the rally attracted far fewer attendees than anticipated, the event was spun by Tarrio with expressions of pride in having not incited violence—an effort to make their group more palatable. The group is, of course, better known for its members’ attendance at the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which counterprotester Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist.
At Tuesday’s debate, which devolved into chaos with Trump interrupting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at every turn, Wallace turned to a question about race, policing, and riots, and challenged the president to condemn white supremacist and militia groups.
“You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other extremist groups,” Wallace said. “Are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and say they need to stand down and not to add to the violence in these cities as we saw in Kenosha and in Portland?”
“Give me a name,” Trump said, to which Biden called out “Proud Boys.”
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem,” Trump said.
Different subgroups of the extreme right have fear-mongered about socialism, antifa (short-hand for anti-fascist demonstrators), baseless warnings of a “rigged” election and either called for violence or hinted at it—from radical right-wing commentator Josh Bernstein calling for Ilhan Omar to be executed for alleged ballot harvesting (for which there’s no verifiable evidence), to right-wing pastor Rick Joyner calling on military veterans to head up Christian militias to fight against the “tyranny of Marxism.”
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the president who said that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a 2017 white supremacist melee would call on a hate group to “stand by” and wait to be called on in the same debate he fear-mongered about anti-fascist activists, ballot harvesting, and unfounded claims of mail carriers selling ballots and dumping them into a river.
On the social media platform Telegram, the hate group took Trump’s comments as marching orders.
“Standing by sir,” Tarrio wrote.
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy,” wrote Joe Biggs, a Proud Boys leader. “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA…well sir! we’re ready!”
Before the end of the night, the self-described “western chauvinist” group had shared an image with the president’s words as a slogan around their logo.
The Proud Boys are well-known for showing up at events for left-wing causes, where they often attempt to escalate and incite violence.
And though the group claims no connection to the racist “alt-right,” Proud Boys founder McInnes (who abandoned the group in 2018 after its members assaulted people who protested a McInnes speech to the New York Metropolitan Republican Club), seems to have an affinity for Nazis. On McInnes’ web broadcast program CRTV, he has hosted countless white supremacists and bigots in favorable contexts.
In 2018, he told listeners to his web broadcast show that he believed it should be considered a hate crime if a person is called a “Nazi” while they are being hit. Earlier that year, Right Wing Watch’s Jared Holt reported that in 2016, McInnes said, “I want violence. I want punching in the face. I’m disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough [protesters].”
As Holt reported then, “The qualifier for the highest rank of Proud Boy—known as the ‘Fourth Degree’—necessitates entering a physical conflict for their cause. Members of the Proud Boys have joked about wanting to shoot and kill ‘antifa.’”
Now the group is emboldened by the incumbent president, who refuses to say whether, should he lose the election, he will respect the Constitution’s prescription for a peaceful transfer of power.