President Donald Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization with a history of instigating violence, to “stand back and stand by,” after being asked to condemn white supremacists and self-described militia groups during the first presidential debate Tuesday night.
Minutes later, he said he was “urging my people” who are “poll watchers” to go to voting locations across the country — to do what, he wouldn’t exactly say — as he baselessly claimed the election is rife with “fraud.”
Trump’s comments are part of his campaign’s pattern of dog whistles and overt appeals to violent groups, white supremacists, and his most fervent supporters to take matters into their own hands and defend him and his divisive ideologies at all costs. The Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says has “affiliations with known extremists,” celebrated Trump’s shoutout before the debate had even ended.
In a recent campaign ad, the president's son, Donald Trump Jr. called for an “army” of “able-bodied” men and women to watch the polls on Election Day: “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join [the] Army for Trump’s election security operation," he said. “We need you to help us watch them.”
And several weeks ago, a 17-year-old law-enforcement-obsessed Trump supporter showed up at protests in Kenosha — after police shot and severely injured a Black man — and opened fire, killing two people and injuring a third.
Trump’s statement about the Proud Boys came at the end of a long line of questioning over racism amid civil unrest over the police killings of Black people.
“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 and as we’ve seen in Portland?” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked.
Trump responded, “sure, I’m willing to do that,” but added the caveat that “everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.” He then asked who exactly he was supposed to condemn, asking Wallace to “give me a name.”
Wallace again asked Trump to condemn white supremacists and “right-wing militia,” as former vice president Joe Biden chimed in, saying “Proud Boys.”
Trump then said, “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, this is a left-wing problem,” Trump added. Trump and the right often incorrectly use the word "antifa" as a catchall for anything from peaceful protests to riots, insinuating it is a group that commits coordinated, far-left violence.
Biden responded, “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.”
On Wednesday, however, Trump told reporters, "I don't know who the Proud Boys are. I mean you'll have to give me a definition because I really don't know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work." He again called on Biden to condemn "antifa," saying, "Antifa is a real problem because the problem is on the left."
During the debate, Biden also brought up the president’s “very fine people on both sides” comments. Trump has also called supporters for the QAnon mass delusion, who have perpetrated violent acts, “people who love our country.”
The president’s comment energized the Proud Boys and its supporters. On Telegram, one person posted, in all caps, “Trump didn’t disavow the Proud Boys.” The official channel for the group posted a GIF of a wide-eyed cat, a clip from the debate, and a message, saying, “Standing down and standing by sir.” One person posted a video of him cheering. The Seattle chapter of the group quickly wrapped the president’s words around their logo, like a slogan. On Parler, another organizer said the president “basically said to go fuck them up,” saying the remarks made them “so happy.”
Later in the debate, Trump called on his supporters to go to polling locations as he sowed mass panic over the integrity of the vote. Trump — who called the presidential election he won rigged against him — is trailing in the polls to Biden.
Continuing his and his campaign’s baseless claims about mass ballot fraud, Trump called on supporters to watch the polls and “defend” the ballot. The messages have provoked concerns about voter intimidation.
“I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen,” Trump said. He then made reference to an incident in Philadelphia earlier Tuesday where his poll watchers were allegedly not allowed to observe early voting. A lot remains unknown about the incident.
“And I am urging, I am urging my people, I hope it's going to be a fair election. If it's a fair election, I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” he said.
Trump has a history of instigating his followers to violence. During his campaign for the 2016 election, he would encourage supporters at his rallies to get physical with protesters. At one event, a Trump supporter squarely punched another man in the face.