On Tuesday, September 29, 2020, the first of three Presidential debates took place and there were numerous moments that evoked a sense of anger and in some cases, shock from many viewers. Notably, President Trump refused to clearly condemn white supremacy when asked to do so.
The question posed by moderator Chris Wallace to President Trump was crystal clear.
“Are you willing tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down?”
The President then shrugged and said, “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right-wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
Wallace then put pressure on Trump to answer the question directly. “Well, then, do it, sir.”
Trump then paused, which was something very rare for a night full of interruptions and arguments.
“What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name.” White supremacists, Wallace answered. “The Proud Boys,” Biden added, referring to the far-right group founded by Gaven McInnes in 2016 that promotes and engages in political violence and is classified as a hate group by civil rights organizations.
“Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by,” Trump said.
Emboldening the Proud Boys
Minutes after, members of the Proud Boys became both ecstatic and emboldened because of the words of the President. Proud Boys leaders posted on Telegram and Parler, two social media platforms that are popular among far-right groups, stating that they would follow Trump’s order to “stand down and stand by.”
“I will stand down sir!!!” Proud Boys national chairmen Enrique Tarrio wrote on Parler. “Standing by sir. So Proud of my guys right now.”
In addition to this, Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs saw Trump’s remarks as permission to “f**k up” the group’s foes.
“Trump basically said to go f**k them up!”, Biggs wrote on Telegram. “This makes me so happy.”
The Proud Boys are ecstatic tonight about getting mentioned in the debate tonight.
"Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy," writes one prominent Proud Boy. pic.twitter.com/hYA7yQVAOn
— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) September 30, 2020
This scene is eerily familiar. In 2016, Trump was asked about David Duke, the former KKK leader’s endorsement of his presidential bid.
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK?” Trump stated. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know.”
“Very Fine People on Both Sides”
It happened again in 2017. President Trump stated that there were “some very fine people on both sides” when discussing a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. And again when Trump offered no condemnation when told that one of his supporters, Kyle Rittenhouse, had been charged with the murder of Black Lives Matter protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In fact, Trump indicated that he thought Rittenhouse’s actions might have been warranted.
“That was an interesting situation,” he said, “You saw the same tape as I saw. And he was trying to get away from them. I guess it looks like he fell and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now, and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been — probably would have been killed, but it’s under investigation.”
Consistently, when directly asked about white supremacy, President Trump seems to have a problem with clearly condemning it. What comes easily to most other politicians seems to turn into pulling teeth with the President. Overall, this is very harmful and has actively ignited the flames of hatred that are already so prevalent within our country.
A Major Uptick by Far Right Groups
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, between 2016 and 2018, there was a major uptick in street mobilization by far right groups, making it one of the most active periods of on-the-ground extremist activity in decades.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 125 rallies, marches, and protests nationwide. These rallies were organized and attended by far-right extremists, notably white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the “alt-right,” and right-wing reactionaries. There were 74 of these events in 2017 alone, the SPLC found.
Before the Trump presidency, far-right rallies were uncommon. Members of these groups normally congregated on the Internet, using it as a tool to further spread their message and hoping that it would become mainstream. Now, in the rise of the Trump era, their tactics have transformed, as they have been emboldened by a leader who has relied on divisive rhetoric to further fuel his campaign.
With the rise of President Trump came the rise of white nationalism and the mainstream crossover that is present today. Because of this, these groups have gotten larger and have taken their message to the streets through rallies, which has led to disastrous effects.
Trump’s rhetoric has actively emboldened the ideas of white supremacists. It has made them take their ideas to the streets and host events, which they previously did not occur, according to the SPLC.
A Homeland Security Official Speaks Out
Elizabeth Neumann, a former top Department of Homeland Security official who resigned in April stated that the Trump administration is creating the conditions for domestic extremism to flourish within the United States.
A lifelong Republican who voted for Trump in 2016, Neumann notes that she saw signs of rising domestic extremism soon after she arrived at DHS in February of 2017. She then went on to say that she sees how Trump’s rhetoric has led to acts of violence, particularly citing the 2019 El Paso mass shooting (where gunman Patrick Crusius is accused of shooting up a Wal-Mart filled with Hispanic customers) and drawing on the similarities between the rhetoric of the shooter and the President.
“He uses rhetoric to scare people. This is a known psychological tactic that if you get people to fear, they tend to follow you to the solution of ‘How are we going to save ourselves?’ And his answer is, ‘It’s me. If you vote for me, I will save you,’ ” Neumann states. “Well, for some people, the way that they think that they need to protect themselves, it’s more than just a vote for a president. It’s ‘let me go kill people.'”
This movement and surge of acts of violence deeply troubles me. As I read the comments of the Proud Boys while scrolling on Twitter, I became fearful for the days and months to come.
Proud Boys Mobilize on Twitter
Soon enough, videos of the Proud Boys promising violence flooded my timeline as people became increasingly aware of what the President said. All I could think of was, what would the implications of this be? Would their boldness impact my friends? My family? Other members of our country? Would I have to survey my surroundings more carefully when walking down the street? Would I avoid downtown areas when protests are taking place?
In our current world, it is already scary enough to be Black, and President Trump’s comments have made me more fearful. Throughout the last four years, I have experienced a shift like no other when it comes to overt racism and bigotry. Before, people seemed to be quieter about their feelings of racism. But, Trump has emboldened many, leading people to be outright with their views of racism. Overall, I have seen the ramifications of this and the toll that it has taken on my peers and other members of the Black community in particular. Harmful rhetoric like the ideas expressed from the debate will heighten the tension that has been occurring over the last few months due to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
As we move forward, it is important to pay close attention to these actions. Rather than clearly condemning white supremacy head-on, the President has seemed to have to be backed into a corner in order to do so.
Time and time again, it seems that communities that don’t overwhelmingly support the President get his disdain. But, the President must remember that he is the President of everyone in the country, not just those who voted for him.