On Tuesday night, America bore witness to an unprecedented debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Aside from the childish theatrics from the President as he interrupted his opponent, whined about the moderator, and generally lied through his teeth, the biggest bombshell occurred when President Trump was pressed to condemn white supremacy and label them a domestic terrorist organization.
The moderator, Chris Wallace, asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacists and not add to the violence in various cities around the country. Trump said he was willing to do it, but when pressed, he backed down and instead said, “Proud Boys stand back and stand by.” Far from a condemnation of racist and bigoted violence, this was a call to action.
The Proud Boys have been around since 2016 and describe themselves as “a pro-Western fraternal organization; aka Western Chauvinists.” They are widely considered a violent extremist organization with a rap sheet miles long. They have been connected to violent protests, often in support of the president, and are usually heavily armed. And on Tuesday night, the president gave them airtime and a green light to take up arms.
But the Proud Boys are not the only group in America touting white supremacist views and looking to start a race war to achieve a white ethnostate. Other organizations such as Affirmative Right, the American Identity Movement, American Freedom Party, Boogaloos, EURO, the KKK, Patriot Front, White Aryan Resistance, and Volksfront are all white nationalist groups who believe “white identity should be the organizing principle of the countries that make up Western civilization.”
Some on the right claim, bizarrely, that Trump’s “stand back” comment was a condemnation Others, like Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), excuse it, preferring to think that Trump “misspoke”. They argue that Trump is never a good speaker, and he often bumbles questions.
But Trump has no issue calling out things he doesn’t agree with or thinks are unfair. From condemning the mainstream media as fake news to calling out the radical left. Trump knew exactly what he was doing. He’s had no problem explaining in detail his condemnations of his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. His hemming and hawing about racist groups, by contrast, speaks volumes.
Trump’s remarks aimed at the “Proud Boys” was anything but a condemnation, and he certainly didn’t misspeak. Instead, he asked violent members of his base to “stand by,” presumably for a time when he feels their actions are needed. That kind of intentionally mixed messaging is dangerous for any democracy, and given recent rises in white supremacist ideology, it’s potentially deadly for Americans.
Since taking office, white supremacy has grown by 55% in the Trump era. This is not a coincidence. While Trump has, a handful of times, read a condemnation of major white supremacist attacks, his unwillingness to directly confront racist movements that support him in other moments speak much louder. And his official actions as president are actively enabling the growth of White Supremacy in America. Whether it be at Tuesday night’s presidential debate or through his tweets, he stokes racial division in our nation. During a rally in Minnesota in September, Trump told the crowd, Joe Biden would “turn Minnesota into a refugee camp.“
Following the 2019 New Zealand attack, Trump tried to downplay the threat of white nationalism. However, data from the New York-based Anti-Defamation League found white supremacist propaganda efforts nearly tripled last year from 2017. Early into Trump’s presidency, the administration gutted funding for the Department of Homeland Security that focused on violent extremism in the United States and removed funding for grants which went to organizations that countered neo-Nazis, white supremacists, as well as other like-minded groups.
Some may argue white supremacists do not pose a threat to Americans. But in 2018, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the United States, up from 37 in 2017. The Anti-Defamation League noted that “white supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case.”
The president’s blatant refusal to denounce white supremacy is a danger to all Americans. According to a report issued in 2020 by the Department of Homeland Security, noted white supremacy is the gravest terrorist threat our nation faces. The report states, “We judge that ideologically-motivated lone offenders and small groups will pose the greatest terrorist threat to the Homeland through 2021, with white supremacist extremists presenting the most lethal threat.”
During a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Ken Cucinelli pointed out, “when white supremacists act as terrorists, more people per incident are killed.” In fact, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found that white supremacists overtook salafist and jihadist killings in the United States for the most ideologically inspired extremist homicides in recent years.
Instead of denouncing them, Trump gave them their 15 minutes of fame, by naming them on national television. Within an hour of his call to “stand back and stand by,” the group had created a new logo and shoulder patches, including the president’s words.
While the threat of white supremacists in our cities may feel like the stuff of nightmares, the growing unrest and fear stoked by the president is real. This election will have consequences. But the good news is, you have control over the outcome.
In just over a month, Election Day will be upon our nation, and the only way to course correct the doom loop that is the Trump presidency is to vote to replace him.
Trump’s goal since the onset of the 2020 election has been to delegitimize the vote by attacking vote-by-mail and making false claims that vote-by-mail is ripe with fraud. It is hard to read his “stand by” comments as anything other than a call for groups like the Proud Boys to act if the election does not turn out in his favor. Trump’s statement is already being used as a recruiting tool for white supremacist groups, leading to concerns over possible voter intimidation on Election Day, and a recourse to hold on to power if he loses. We are at a dangerous crossroads in our nation’s history, and American democracy is caught in the crosshairs.