Members of the far-right organisation, Proud Boys, posted triumphant messages on social media after Donald Trump appeared to endorse their activities during the first presidential debate, telling the group to “stand back and stand by”.
Asked to condemn white supremacy, Mr Trump initially replied, “sure”, before saying, “almost everything I see is from the leftwing not . . . the rightwing”.
When pressed further, the US president asked the moderator for a name, prompting Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, to mention the Proud Boys, an organisation that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a far-right hate group.
Mr Trump’s response provoked condemnation from Democrats and a few Republicans. It echoed his comment in 2017 when he spoke of “fine people on both sides” in referring to a white-supremacist protest in Charlottesville.
The Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed fraternal organisation founded in 2016 when Mr Trump was running for president, refers to its members as “western chauvinists”.
“President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA . . . well sir! we’re ready!!" Joe Biggs, a Proud Boys member, wrote on Parler, an alternative social media network, in a reference to radical anti-fascist protesters.
Proud Boys was banned from Facebook in 2018, but has repeatedly tried to rebuild its base on the platform. The group is best known for street fighting, strange rituals and wearing black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo shirts. The movement has chapters across America and elsewhere, including in the UK. Facebook removed a network of accounts linked to the group in June.
Oren Segal, an expert on extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said membership of the group ranged from white supremacists to ethnic minorities, who had increasingly coalesced around the idea of being the “frontline in the fight against the radical left”. Mr Trump has repeatedly claimed that Mr Biden supports anarchists and radical protesters in his campaign for re-election.
After returning to the White House on Wednesday, Mr Trump sought to distance himself from his own comments, claiming he was not familiar with the group. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he told reporters. “Whoever they are they need to stand down.”
Mr Biden and campaign surrogates kept up the pressure, however. Mr Biden retweeted a post by a journalist who had posted screenshots of rapturous comments from members of the group, including Mr Biggs. “This is Donald Trump’s America,” tweeted Mr Biden, who has previously said his decision to run for president was partly a response to the way Mr Trump had responded to the situation in Charlottesville three years ago.
On Telegram groups belonging to Proud Boys chapters, members celebrated Mr Trump’s words and the media attention. On Wednesday, an affiliated storefront had already begun to list T-shirts featuring the words “Proud Boys Standing By”.
“This may act as a recruiting tool,” warned Mr Segal. “Some people who would never have thought of or heard of the Proud Boys just did.”
Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said Mr Trump’s remarks had made it more likely that there would be violence surrounding the election.
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“It certainly does indicate a higher likelihood of election or post-election violence coming from the far-right,” Mr Burghart said. “The Proud Boys are the engine of racist street violence and last night Trump gave a big nitro boost to their cause.”
But Mr Segal said it was hard to draw a direct connection between Mr Trump and the Proud Boys’ street violence. Still, he said the president’s comments in the debate were the “logical conclusion” to his rhetoric over the past couple of years. “They have viewed themselves as pro-Trump protectors on the ground.”
Some of Mr Trump’s fans who bemoaned his overall debate performance defended his comments about the Proud Boys. Chris Vitale, an auto worker from Michigan, said the president had responded “sure” when asked to condemn white supremacists.
But Ben Travis, a millennial Midwest voter who chose Mr Trump in 2016 but has been wavering since, criticised the president for a missed opportunity. “He had an outstanding opportunity to put to bed a lot of the talk regarding his position on these types of extremist groups.”
Additional reporting by Claire Bushey in Chicago
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