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Presidential debate raises the specter of election violence

Presidential debate raises the specter of election violence

The Proud Boys have a new slogan: “Stand back, and stand by.” The president gave them this directive in the Sept. 29 presidential debate. Trump uttered the statement in response to moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceTrump calls Fox 'disappointing' for airing Obama speech Fox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Republican National Committee chair warns of 'most progressive, radical takeover of our country' if Biden wins MORE’s request that he condemns White supremacist and militia groups

To most listeners, and certainly to the far-right extremist group, it sounded more like a call to arms than a condemnation. “That’s my president. Standing by, sir,” Proud Boy Chairman Enrique Tarrio posted. Members have added “stand back, stand by” to the groups logo.” Another Proud Boy leader made an even more inflammatory comment on the social media site Parler: “Trump basically said to go f--- them up.” “Them” presumably refers to those on the left the president demonizes.

The Proud Boys have become emblematic of the new-style hate groups. Founded in 2016, the group embraces the full range of prejudices from xenophobia to racism and misogyny. However, it cloaks its bigotry in a language that celebrates western heritage and traditional values. Rather than condemn feminism, it calls for “venerating the housewife.” The group claims to be antiracist, but rejects “anti-racial guilt” and commits to “reinstating a spirit of Western Chauvinism,” proclaiming proudly that the “West is the best.” 

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Proud Boys have taken their beliefs into American streets, engaging in violent acts against protestors with whom they disagree. In October 2018, members of the group attacked people protesting a speech by Proud Boy founder Gavin McInnes in New York City. Two of the perpetrators were convicted for their actions during the incident. In August 2019, Proud Boys squared off against antifa members in Portland Oregon, but a heavy police presence prevented all but isolated clashes. On Sept. 26, 2020, some 1,500 group members rallied in Portland. Although some came armed and others carried baseball bats, the gathering took place without serious incident thanks again to good police work.

The president’s comment at last night’s debate is the latest example of his dangerous flirtation with far-right extremists, many of whom have been among his staunchest supporters. At the 2017 Unite-the-Right rally in Charlottesville, N.C., torch-wielding marchers chanted, “White lives matter,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Fights between the White supremacists and counter-demonstrators broke out, and James Fields, Jr. murdered peaceful protestor, Heather Heyer. Asked to comment on the rally, Trump would only say that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”

Throughout his presidency, Trump has steadfastly refused to condemn unequivocally far-right extremist groups. When armed Michigan militia members entered the state capital last May, the president described them as “very good people.” More recently Trump has defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the self-proclaimed militiamen accused of murdering three people during the August 2020 protests in Kenosha, Wisc.

This reticence to condemn the violence perpetrated by those on the far-right contrasts markedly with the president’s vociferous attacks on left-wing radicals, which he repeated during the debate: Somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem — this is a left-wing problem.” His conclusion contradicts the congressional testimony of FBI Director Christopher Wray, who insisted that White supremacists and anti-government groups currently pose the most serious domestic security threat

Wray described Antifa (short for “Anti-Fascists”) as an ideological movement rather than an organized group while acknowledging that violence perpetrated by its followers was a cause for concern. On August 29, an Antifa activist allegedly shot and killed a man attending a pro-Trump rally in Portland, although reports indicate that the victim was himself armed. Even if this incident proves to be an unprovoked murder, it pales in comparison to the 64 Americans killed by White supremacists between 2015 and 2019.

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Violence in any form perpetrated by any group in the name of whatever ideology is deeply disturbing and to be unequivocally condemned by the president and everyone in government. Trump’s failure to openly condemn White supremacy is disturbing in its own right. Combined with his repeated refusal to guarantee a peaceful transition if he loses the election, it is deeply troubling. 

Last week a reporter asked the president if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” is all he would say. At the debate, Wallace asked for a similar assurance: Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period [of vote counting], not to engage in any civil unrest? He didn’t get it. Instead the president said he would “urge his supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” raising concerns that his statement might be interpreted as a call for voter intimidation.

The president’s repeated failure to condemn White supremacist and militia groups combined with his refusal to assure a peaceful transition of power unless he wins raise the distinct possibility of post-election violence perpetrated by his disgruntled supporters. Trump’s narrative now seems to be that any election he does not win is by definition fraudulent, a claim increasingly believed by those on the far right. With that message in mind, Proud Boys and other extremist groups will indeed be “standing by” if Biden wins. 

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of History at DePaul University and author of Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.