During the September 29, 2020 presidential debate, President Donald Trump gave his White nationalist and militia base a jolt of inspiration, refusing to condemn White supremacy and recent acts of violence and intimidation against widespread Black Lives Matter protests, and calling on the Proud Boys, a far-right street fighting group, to “stand back and stand by.” For militia, Patriot, vigilante, and White nationalist groups across the country, the message was clear: they were being conscripted to serve as a paramilitary force in defense of the Trump presidency, called, in a tense and high-stakes election season, to enact further violence against political opponents across the country.
Within minutes after the debate had ended, the Proud Boys had emblazoned their logo with the words of Trump’s command, and White nationalist platforms on sites like 4chan were awash with memes proclaiming “Kill squads standing by,” glorifications of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, and other celebrations of far-right violence. They exulted that “Trump’s mask slipped,” claiming he had finally assumed his rightful role as “Reich Leader,” mobilizing his army to battle.
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up!” said Florida-based organizer Joe Biggs. “This makes me so happy…President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with antifa…well sir! We’re ready!” In the day that followed, calls for recruitment proliferated across Proud Boys websites and pages on alternative social media sites like Telegram and Parler, alongside a flood of memes, T-shirts, and other material juxtaposing Trump’s words with images of far-right street brawls. Other Proud Boys channels exclaimed “Let’s go back to Portland,” enticing the followers to continue attacking protestors in the city.
White nationalist leaders, meanwhile, were pleased that Trump has refused to straightforwardly denounce their movement, a rhetorical dodge at the debate with clear parallels to Trump’s 2017 refusal to condemn the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. “Trump didn’t denounce ‘white supremacy’,” celebrated alt-right leader Richard Spencer. “The fact that he didn’t take the bait is quite strong.” After the debate, while some Fox News contributors claimed Trump should have condemned White supremacists, others disagreed, claiming that “Trump’s strategy was executed brilliantly” and celebrating Trump as an “apex predator” and “lion king” who successfully inflamed his base. Meanwhile, voices across the Right, echoing a familiar refrain, were quick to concur with Trump that the Left and ‘antifa’ remains the primary instigator of violence and aggression on America’s streets.
Founded by far-right pundit Gavin McInnes in 2016, the Proud Boys are a self-proclaimed ‘Western chauvinist’ all-male street-fighting group, motivated by a zealous brew of xenophobia, misogyny, ‘America First’ nationalism, libertarianism, cultural conservatism, and an internal culture which glorifies physical violence against political opponents. Beginning in 2017, the Proud Boys were lead organizers of a wave of far-right street mobilizations, and repeatedly assaulted progressive protestors. Serving as what writer Emily Gorcenski called “mainstream Republicanism’s militant arm,” Proud Boys activists have run for elected office, headlined Republican Party speaking events, turned out for GOP rallies, been identified as sheriff’s deputies and police officers, served as personal security for Trump associate Roger Stone, and in other ways dwelt in close proximity to the conservative establishment and state power.
While the Proud Boys advance a White identitarian platform, their multiracial membership sometimes obscures their ultranationalism, xenophobia and culture of violent misogyny. Groups like Proud Boys navigate what PRA research analyst Cloee Cooper and activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins called an “uneasy alliance” with White nationalism, often appearing alongside White nationalists at rallies, and holding numerous White nationalist members in their ranks. For example, the operator of the largest Proud Boys channel on Telegram identifies openly as a neo-Nazi, and uses the channel to introduce followers to neo-Nazi podcasts and antisemitic conspiracy theories. In this way, the group, like many so-called ‘alt-lite’ organizations, functions for many as a bridge into explicit White nationalist ideology and organizing.
By calling upon the Proud Boys to “do something about antifa and the Left”, President Trump engaged in a long-familiar pattern of call-and-response to the militant, street-fighting portion of his base, eager to work alongside police to suppress protests with force. “Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them,” wrote antifascist researcher Matthew Lyons in early September, “far right vigilantes dramatize Trump’s claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, [Trump’s] fearmongering offers…paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.”
Meanwhile, leading conservatives combine calls for militance and voter intimidation with accusations that a shadowy and all-powerful conspiracy of antifa, George Soros, Democrats, and ‘deep state’ actors plan to launch a coup against President Trump. On September 25, for example, Donald Trump Jr. raised a stark cry of alarm, insisting that “the radical Left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father…we need every able-bodied man and woman to join an army for Trump’s election security operation”.
With the November election on the horizon, Trump’s directive for far-right supporters to “stand by,” alongside allegations of voter fraud and calls, later in the debate, for supporters to “go in” to polling places and “watch very carefully”, offers an ominous foreshadowing of the political violence that could transpire. “I got shivers,” wrote neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin the day after the debate. “I still have shivers. He is telling the people to stand by. As in: Get ready for war.” Trump’s election security comments aren’t the first time he has signaled voter intimidation. On September 20, for example, Trump claimed on Fox News that he wants to use sheriffs as poll watchers on Election Day. Trump and other leading conservatives threaten the safety of marginalized communities and the broader U.S. public, and the future of multiracial democracy itself.