National News

Trump's debate comments energize white supremacist group

Posted September 30, 2020 8:17 p.m. EDT
Updated October 1, 2020 9:27 a.m. EDT

— The Proud Boys were certainly proud on Tuesday night when their name came up in the debate between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

When asked if he would denounce white supremacist groups, such as the Proud Boys, Trump simply said, "stand back and stand by."

The words quickly were put on T-shirts sold online by the organization, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as a hate group.

"They were very energized by the president’s remarks. They feel validated by what they’ve done already that was violent," said Megan Squire, an Elon University professor who researches how far-right and white supremacist groups act online.

"They were already violent before this time, and there have been a lot of people raising flags about this group because of that violence and hatred," Squire said. "They do not need any encouragement to continue that or, what I’m worried about, make it worse."

W. Russell Robinson, an assistant professor of mass communications at North Carolina Central University, said Trump's "stand back and stand by" comment was a message to white supremacists.

"I think he’s telling his grassroots base, those who may be somewhat economically disenfranchised, he’s telling them, 'This is the time. I’m going to need you to do things,'" Robinson said. "The statement he made last night was just throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire."

Trump tried to clarify his comments for reporters on Wednesday.

"I don't know who the Proud Boys are. You have to give me the definition because I don't really know who they are," he said. "I can only say they have to stand down [and] let law enforcement do their work."

"The president clearly condemned white supremacists in the debate last night, as he has clearly done so throughout his campaign and presidency," Tim Wigginton, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement.

Proud Boys

The Proud Boys have chapters across the country, including several in North Carolina, Squire said. Members have been at demonstrators in Pittsboro, Fayetteville and, during the protests in late May and early June following George Floyd's death in police custody in Minnesota, in downtown Raleigh.

"This is a group that has a long history of violence," said Cassie Miller, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It’s a pretty robust, well-organized group."

Miller noted the Proud Boys, which formed in 2016 in the run-up to Trump's election, declare themselves a men's drinking organization, but they engage in misogynistic, xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Members also hold rallies in progressive areas, hoping to attract counter-protests and incite violence, she said.

"They tend to go where the larger groups are going to be," Squire said. "I’m worried they’re going to be looking forward at things they can engage in from here to the election."

Robinson said Trump's "call to action" by the Proud Boys is part of the president's political strategy.

"It was a political dog whistle," he said. "This man, who had the opportunity to at least topically denounce racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, instead pivoted.

"There is a legitimate concern on the table," he added. "I think people of color, particularly Black people right now, we have a reason to be scared, and we don’t know what will or will not happen."

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