At the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, President Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists. Instead, he said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. 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.”
The full exchange was as follows:
“What do you want to call them, give me a name, give me a name,” Trump said.
“White supremacist, racists,” Chris Wallace, the moderator, said.
“Proud Boys,” Biden said.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. “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.”
So, who are the Proud Boys? What are the consequences of Trump telling them to “stand by”? What is Trump’s history with white supremacists? Let’s break it down.
Who are the Proud Boys?
The Proud Boys are a white nationalist hate group founded by Gaven McInnes in 2016. They are violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic, and have openly endorsed violence. Plus, McInnes himself has espoused many anti-Semitic views. (We’ll get to that in a bit.)
Let’s let Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) explain: “Rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville.” (McInnes filed a defamation lawsuit against the SPLC for designating Proud Boys a hate group, saying they are a “western chauvinist” group instead. We’ll also get to that.)
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) estimates the group has around several hundred members.
Who is Gavin McInnes?
McInnes was born in England, raised in Canada, and has become a face of mainstream American “alt-lite.” In 1994, he co-founded Vice magazine, and left in 2008. Throughout his career, he’s focused on hatred of women, liberals, trans people, and more. In 2016, he founded the Proud Boys, which he describes as a men’s club for “western chauvinists.”
The Proud Boys are regularly involved in violent street fights. They are “accompanied by skinheads, neo-Nazis, modern-day Confederates and outfits like the Oath Keepers, an association of law-enforcement officers and military veterans,” according to the New York Times. Plus, many members were involved in the biggest neo-Nazi rally in recent history: the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.
How were the Proud Boys involved in “Unite the Right”?
Well, former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler helped organize the 2017 white supremacist rally.
Two days after the death of Heather Heyer, the protestor killed in Charlottesville, Kessler said, “It was payback time.” Kessler was only technically “expelled” from the group after the condemnation of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville — but let’s be clear: His ideology is aligned with the Proud Boys, and many Proud Boys marched in Charlottesville.
And lest we forget, after Charlottesville, President Trump refused to condemn the violence. Instead, he said, “You had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, conversely, has said Charlottesville — and Trump’s reaction to it — is the reason he decided to run for president in 2020.
Wait, can we go back to “western chauvinist”? What does that mean?
McInnes describes the Proud Boys as “western chauvinist,” a “fraternal group” spreading “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt.” It’s essentially a cover for alt-right views, and has allowed McInnes to gain more acceptance by the mainstream Republican right.
“Let’s not bullshit,” Brian Brathovd told his co-hosts on the anti-Semitic podcast The Daily Shoah (a popular alt-right podcast). If the Proud Boys “were pressed on the issue, I guarantee you that like 90% of them would tell you something along the lines of ‘Hitler was right. Gas the Jews.’”
So the Proud Boys are also anti-Semitic?
Yes. All white supremacist roads lead to anti-Semitism.
As JTA reported, in 2017, McInnes defended Holocaust denial and repeated anti-Semitic stereotypes in a video initially called “10 things I hate about the Jews.”
McInnes said: “I felt myself defending the super far-right Nazis just because I was sick of so much brainwashing and I felt like going, ‘Well, they never said it didn’t happen. What they’re saying is it was much less than 6 million and that they starved to death and weren’t gassed, that they didn’t have supplies.'” He then clarified “I’m not saying it wasn’t gassing.” (McInnes, that’s exactly what you’re saying.)
In the same video, he blamed Jews for Josef Stalin’s starvation of millions of Ukrainians. “I think it was 10 million Ukrainians who were killed,” he said. “That was by Jews. That was by Marxist, Stalinist, left-wing, commie, socialist Jews.”
He continued, saying Jews have a “whiny paranoid fear of Nazis.”
So yes, this is the leader of the group that Donald Trump told to “stand by” last night.
What else should we know about the Proud Boys?
The group is easily recognizable. They tend to wear black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts along with red “Make America Great Again” caps.
Last week, the British company Fred Perry announced they would stop selling the shirts, condemning the Proud Boys.
“Despite its lineage, we have seen that the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt is taking on a new and very different meaning in North America as a result of its association with the Proud Boys. That association is something we must do our best to end,” the brand said.
So what was the Proud Boys’ reaction to Trump’s comments during the debate?
Prominent Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs posted after the debate that he was “standing by.” He continued, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up! 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
The group is now sharing a logo with the phrase “Stand Back / Stand By” and selling t-shirts with that message. In addition, in a private messaging thread on Telegram, a member wrote the group was seeing a spike in “new recruits,” AKA new members.
Many analysts and scholars are sounding the alarm.
Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst, told The Daily Beast that “within the context of Trump’s statements which insinuate future voter fraud, a rigged election, etc., [it] sounds like a subtle endorsement of future use violence by the Proud Boys. Again, another statement by the president that fans the flames of fear and seems to support violent far right groups, rather than condemn them.”
Historian Kathleen Belew, whose book Bring the War Home is a primer on the white power movement, shared a thread on Twitter warning of “increasing violence from now through the election, and after, regardless of winner.”
“This is a movement that has sought not only poll intimidation — although it has done that — but also major mass casualties. There is no reason to think that strategy will change,” Belew wrote. “We are decades, if not generations, into this problem. A green light like ‘stand back and stand by’ is catastrophic.”
Trump, the sitting president of the United States, told a white supremacist extremist group to “stand by.” That’s really all you need to know.
Header Image: Members of the alt-right group, Proud Boys, shake hands on August 17, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images.