Moderator Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump if he was willing to “condemn white supremacists and militia groups.” He referenced cities such as Kenosha and Portland, hotbeds of civil unrest where much of the violence been initiated by far-right extremists and militia members.
At first, Trump appeared to be receptive to condemning far-right extremists, but when pressed by Sen. Joe Biden and Wallace, he didn’t exactly do that:
Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and in Portland?
Sure I’m prepared to do that. (Biden interjects: Do it.) But I would say, I would say, almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.
Wallace: So what are you, what are you saying — Trump: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace. Wallace: Then do it, sir. Biden: Do it. Say it.
Trump: You wanna call ’em — what do you wanna call ’em? Hold on – Give me a name, give me a name. Go ahead, who would you like me to condemn? Wallace: White supremacists — white supremacists and right-wing militia. (Biden interjects: Proud Boys, Proud Boys.)
Trump: Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, 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.”
(Trump’s own FBI director Christopher Wray issued a report in 2019 referring to white supremacists as a domestic terror threat, calling them a “persistent” and “pervasive” threat.)
Classified as a violent extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Proud Boys are notorious for appearing at rallies armed and instigating conflict, as previously reported by Rolling Stone; most recently, they’ve made their presence known at a rally in Portland, where they toted weapons and donned tactical gear. (Although the police were on standby, few arrests were ultimately made.) They have also been seen attacking protestors with baseball bats and pepper spray at pro-Trump rallies.
Due to its established racist, sexist, and homophobic views, the Proud Boys as an organization — as well as its cofounder Gavin McInnes — have been scrubbed from numerous social media platforms for violating user guidelines. On the few social media channels where they still maintain a presence, however, the response to Trump’s comments was nothing short of jubilant.
“Standing by sir,” co-chairman Enrique Tarrio said on the platform Parler, which is known for hosting far-right and extremist groups. “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA… well sir! we’re ready!!,” organizer Joe Biggs also wrote on Parler. On one of its channels on Telegram, the Proud Boys wrote, “standing down and standing by, sir,” and posted its logo emblazoned with Trump’s words.
Wallace’s question followed a discussion of how far Trump has come since he referred to the white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville as “very fine people” in 2017. And when given the opportunity, again, to condemn racists, Trump somehow got even worse on Tuesday, going past excusing their violence and moving toward inciting it.
It’s not clear exactly what Trump meant by “stand by,” but he offered some clues later in the evening, when, near the debate’s close, he refused to pledge a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election. Instead, he issued a semi-coherent, conspiracy theory-laden rant about stolen ballots and fraud — and called on his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”