U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned a white nationalist group, the Proud Boys, during the debate Tuesday evening, calling on them to “stand back and stand by.”
On Wednesday, Trump claimed to not know of the group he mentioned by name. But observers say the damage has been done.
Trump’s mention of the Proud Boys, an alt-right group that promotes anti-immigration rhetoric, seemed to have “legitimized and emboldened the group,” according to Richard Moon, a law professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in hate speech and freedom of expression.
“It’s incredibly disturbing,” Moon said. “The reaction of the group has been excitement … after what the president said, it feels like they matter and have a role to play.”
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The president then mentioned the Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he said, before shifting his focus to Antifa.
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Members of the Proud Boy took note of Trump’s remarks.
At least one Proud Boy organizer celebrated the group’s mention on the social media platform Parler, saying: “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA…well sir! we’re ready!!” according to screenshots posted by a New York Times reporter on Twitter.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, on Twitter called Trump’s response “astonishing.”
“Trying to determine if this was an answer or an admission. @POTUS owes America an apology or an explanation. Now,” Greenblatt wrote, tagging Trump’s official presidential Twitter handle.
“They received the message loud and clear here too, posting images with messages promising that they are on ‘stand by’ for Trump. It also gave them a shot in the arm – people are asking how to join,” Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told Global News.
“His order activating them … will spur the Canadian groups into action too,” he said.
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Who are the Proud Boys?
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Proud Boys started in 2016 and was founded by Gavin McInnes, a Canadian-British right-wing activist and co-founder of VICE Media.
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The group is made up of self-described “western chauvinists” who “deny any connection to the racist alt-right,” and say they are a “fraternal group spreading anti-political correctness and anti-white guilt agenda,” the law center stated.
They have multiple chapters across Canada, including in Brantford, Ont., Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., Calgary, Alta., and Winnipeg, Man., according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
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The law group classifies the Proud Boys as a hate group, and the Anti-Defamation League refers to them as “hard-core white supremacists.”
The Proud Boys dispute those descriptions. However, the group has been banned from social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter due to its messaging on hate speech.
“The group has been described as misogynistic, xenophobic and white supremacist in character,” Moon said. “It’s also been involved in street violence. And we know Trump knows this.”
In 2018, McInnes announced he was disassociating himself from the group, saying that he was taking the advice of his legal team.
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Did Trump mean it?
Speaking with reporters a day after the debate, Trump said he was not familiar with the group at all.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are, you’ll have to give me a definition, cause I really don’t know who they are,” Trump said Wednesday. “I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
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That’s also a change in messaging from what Trump’s campaign team has said.
Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the president’s campaign, told the New York Times Tuesday, Trump was “very clear he wants them to knock it off.”
Moon questioned whether Trump meant “stand by” in another context.
“Did he in fact mean to say that? Or did he intend to say ‘stand-down’? Even if he meant to say something else … he could have corrected himself by now, but he hasn’t,” Moon said.
He said Trump’s use of the phrase “stand by” is particularly concerning, as it suggests a “command” to an organization that is prepared to follow him.
“It suggests a relationship,” he explained.
“What does it mean if the president seems to be in communication with a racist, white supremacist organization, saying they should ‘stand by’? Does it mean they are waiting for events to follow? Or the election itself? It really does raise the question of what will happen,” Moon said.
Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Cente told the Washington Post that Trump’s acknowledgment of the group set a “pretense” for increased white vigilantism.
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“This is a group that has organized street brawls using social media, has targeted people in their homes, and now believes their crusade against protesters is legitimate,” she said.
Moon said he worries Trump’s remarks may lead to violence, as groups like the Proud Boys have gained “confidence” as the “message” is coming from the president.
Balgord agreed, saying he expects more violence will stem from this as many groups, even in Canada, are very loyal to Trump and expect some will “activate” around the election.
“The Proud Boys are going to see an uptick in recruitment both in the USA and here [Canada],” he said. “They are going to feel more emboldened to use violence, particularly when Trump tells them to go on the attack.”
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