During the first presidential debate of the season, Donald Trump openly encouraged right-wing violence, first by refusing to condemn white supremacists and armed right-wing militias, and then by suggesting he would not ask his supporters to refrain from political violence in November. This is some of the boldest rhetoric we’ve seen from Trump embracing the phenomenon of right-wing violence. If you’re concerned about it, you’re right.
In response to a question related to racism and racial division, Joe Biden recalled Trump’s comments in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, when Trump said there were “fine people on both sides.” By invoking the horrifying image of open white supremacists marching with torches in hand and even killing a protester, emboldened by Trump’s victory, Biden clearly hoped to remind viewers of Trump’s tolerance of right-wing violence, which has reappeared on American streets in response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Moderator Chris Wallace put a finer point on it when he said to Trump, “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups.
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 as we’ve seen in Portland?”
Trump answered that he would be willing, but he didn’t follow through. Instead he immediately changed the topic, saying, “Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.” Trump then reiterated that he’s “willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
“Well then do it, sir,” Wallace challenged.
“Say it, do it, say it,” Biden joined in.
“What would you like me to call them?” Trump asked. “Give me a name. Who would you like me to condemn?”
“White supremacists and right-wing militias,” said Wallace.
“The Proud Boys,” suggested Joe Biden, referring to a far-right group that espouses what they call “western chauvinist” views, meaning fascist ideology, and frequently engages in political violence.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said in response.
The comment was obviously unscripted — rather, it was disturbingly instinctual. “Stand by” is a military term that means waiting, fully ready to engage in combat, for further orders from a superior. When Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand by,” it gave the impression that he regarded them as an army under his command — and that he would have future instructions for them.
Trump ran out the clock talking about antifa. By the end of the exchange, he still had not condemned white supremacists or armed right-wing militias.
If Trump didn’t mean to tell the Proud Boys to stand at the ready, he should swiftly clarify what he meant. In the meantime, the Proud Boys themselves are ecstatic. On Telegram, a social media network known for lax moderation which has become a hub for the alt-right (with subsections of the site known as “Terrorgram,” denoting places aspiring right-wing terrorists congregate), the Proud Boys immediately posted an image of the group’s logo emblazoned with the words, “Stand back, stand by.” As Ezra Kaplan of NBC observed, “They are basically seeing it as acknowledgment and a call to arms.”
If this weren’t alarming enough, later on in the debate, Trump gave another answer signaling an endorsement of right-wing violence.
“It could be days, it could be weeks before we find out who the president is,” said Wallace, referring to the slow process of counting mail-in ballots, which will see a major uptick due to the coronavirus pandemic.” Wallace addressed Trump first, asking, “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest, and will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”
Trump responded, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I’m urging them to do it… I hope it’s gonna be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I’m 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
Trump then began speaking of a vast ballot manipulation conspiracy that he claimed was already underway, intended specifically to rob Trump of votes. What he was saying to supporters, then, is that if the election is not fair they’re under no obligation to refrain from “civil unrest,” and the election is already not fair.
Over the course of this response, Trump continued his campaign’s multimillion-dollar effort to recruit some 50,000 of his supporters to be poll watchers, with a mandate from the campaign to combat fraud on election day. Voting rights advocates are concerned that these recruits will actually show up with the aim of intimidating voters whom they suspect of bringing anti-Trump views to the polls — and thus potentially engaging in voter fraud, per the story Trump is telling — calling the coordinated effort a “voter suppression war machine.”
Many other revealing, frustrating, and bewildering exchanges transpired during the first debate, but these two answers seeming to condone or even encourage right-wing violence were by far the most disturbing. As a chaotic summer of protest and counter-protest blends into an electoral season marked by unprecedented uncertainty, concerns about political violence are not unfounded. Trump seems perfectly comfortable with the prospect, as long as it’s happening on his behalf.