When the president was asked to condemn white supremacists during Tuesday’s debate, Trump demured. Instead, his answer targeted leftwing violence and told the Proud Boys, a neofascist group that supports him, to “stand back and stand by.”
In their publicly viewable Telegram channels, the Proud Boys immediately responded to Trump’s words with an eruption of praise. “Stand by!!! PROUD BOYS ARE HEROES!!!” one member of a large channel wrote. “They begged him to stab us in the back and he didn’t,” another wrote in a different channel.
Dozens of other members of Proud Boy groups responded with waves of praise for Trump’s comment, approvingly and repeatedly quoting the phrase “stand back and stand by.” In one major group, the users made their pinned post an image of the words surrounding a golden wreath that the Proud Boys have taken as their logo.
Trump’s decision to not clearly condemn white supremacy and the Proud Boys in particular could have dangerous consequences. Proud Boys have already exhibited a pattern of violence by routinely assaulting protesters they see as not on their side, often without any physical provocation. According to the Daily Beast, Joey Biggs, a Proud Boys leader, chimed in on the right-wing social media app Parler with his interpretation of the president’s remarks: “Trump basically said to go fuck them up!…this makes me so happy.”
Adjacent extremist groups could also take Trump’s refusal to disavow white supremacists as a tacit endorsement. The investigative news site Bellingcat recently reported on a leaked trove of chat messages shared by right-wing activists in Oregon. It includes a message from a user named Paige discussing when would be an appropriate time to use violence: “I’m waiting for the presidential go to start open firing.”
Donald Trump just had an opportunity to denounce white supremacy. He did not do it. pic.twitter.com/nILEUAfzMT
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) September 30, 2020