Within minutes of President Donald Trump telling the violent nationalist group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, white nationalists embraced the statement as a slogan and celebrated what they saw as a direct endorsement from the president.
“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” said Trump after moderator Chris Wallace mentioned Proud Boys among white supremacist groups he might want to condemn. “But I'll tell you what, somebody's gotta do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem.”
On websites like the right-wing social network Parler, fringe message board 4chan, and encrypted messaging app Telegram, Proud Boys members interpreted Trump’s comments as a call to action.
On one Telegram channel, a user called LO decoded the meaning of Trump’s comments:
“Stand back and stand by for when the commies start a full escalation of war and he can call on us to essentially ‘let loose the dogs of war.’”
On Parler, prominent Proud Boys member Joe Biggs echoed that sentiment: “Trump basically said to go fuck them up. This makes me so happy.”
“Fuck it, let’s go back to Portland,” a post in another Telegram channel read, referring to the rally the group held in the city this past weekend.
The New York Times reported that one Telegram user said the group was already seeing a spike in “new recruits.”
Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio initially responded to Trump’s comment by saying he was “standing by sir.” Later, however, he said that Trump’s comments did not amount to an endorsement because the question was about white supremacy, “which we are not.”
Multiple Parler users echoed Tarrio’s comment that the Proud Boys, who describe themselves as Western chauvinists, are not white supremacists.
On the Telegram channel run by the Proud Boys leadership, the group initially misquoted Trump’s comments, saying “standing down and standing by sir” but in a subsequent post, the group shared a redesigned version of its logo, which included the correct wording:
As well as celebrating their mention by the president, Proud Boys members sought to take advantage of their notoriety and an online Proud Boys store is already selling a T-shirt with the new logo emblazoned across the front.
The Michigan branch of the Proud Boys posted a meme on their Telegram channel that shows a group of bearded men holding U.S. flags and ready to fight, alongside Trump’s comment.
In the aftermath of the debate, theTrump campaign attempted to walk back the president’s comments. Asked about Trump’s “stand by” comment by the New York Times, Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the president’s campaign, said it was “very clear he wants them to knock it off.”
Meanwhile Trump campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh spoke to Fox News and said the president had “repeatedly, over the course of years now, denounced white supremacists and has been consistent in doing that.”
While Trump is viewed positively by most white nationalists, some hardline racist groups believe the president is “anti-white” — but Tuesday night’s comments appear to have changed some minds.
“Damn… hate to say this but I’m voting trump now,” one user of fringe message board 4chan said, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks far-right groups.
Neo-Nazi and white supremacist Telegram channels also lit up on Tuesday night. While they are not affiliated with the Proud Boys and typically view them with derision, this activity indicates that those groups also saw a signal of support in Trump’s comments.
Experts in extremism, as well as Democrats, were quick to condemn Trump’s comments as dangerous.
The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which refers to the Proud Boys as “hard-core white supremacists,” said Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists as astonishing.
Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that he was “trying to determine if this was an answer or an admission” by the president, but either way, Trump “owes America an apology or an explanation. Now.”
Experts also pointed out that Trump’s comments are only going to increase the belief Proud Boys members have in their so-called mission to protect the U.S. from groups like antifa.
“To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement," Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who tracks online extremism, told NBC. “They were pro-Trump before this shoutout, and they are absolutely over the moon now. Their fantasy is to fight antifa in his defense, and he apparently just asked them to do just that.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) didn’t hold back, saying that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist” and that “this is fascism at our door.”
Other Democrats also weighed in on Twitter:
And Democratic nominee Joe Biden highlighted the reaction among Proud Boys members, adding: “This. This is Donald Trump's America.”
Cover: President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)