The 59-second exchange between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden last night over white supremacy groups has spread like wildfire across news platforms and social media, and given at least one of those groups a new rallying cry.
When debate moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, repeatedly asked Trump to condemn the violence “by white supremacists and rightwing groups,” like armed militias, Trump at first responded, “Sure.”
Then he asked Wallace whom specifically he should condemn. Wallace offered “white supremacists and Proud Boys,” prompting Trump to echo, “Proud Boys: stand back and stand by.”
The comment was immediately picked up by the group, and emblazoned on their Telegram and Parler media channels.
“PROUD BOYS ARE HEROES!!!” one member of a large channel wrote, Mother Jones reported.
“They begged him to stab us in the back and he didn’t,” another wrote in a different channel.
At the same time, Trump insisted that the real threat of violence came from far-left activists, saying, “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”
As quoted by the BBC News, Joe Biden answered back, “Antifa is an idea, not an organization. That is what [President Trump’s] FBI director said,” referring to the president’s current FBI director Christopher Wray’s ideology comments.
So, who are the Proud Boys and antifa, and why is the exchange such a critical moment in last night’s debate?
Freshly brought to America’s attention following Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups and their violence, the Proud Boys were created in 2016 during the lead-up to Trump’s election as the U.S. president by the Canadian-British rightwing activist and Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes.
The group, which admits only men, has been classified as an “extremist group” by the FBI in 2018, while the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists it as a hate group. For further context, the Guardian notes that The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes the group as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration.”
To be initiated into the group, the men must take an oath: “I am a proud western chauvinist, I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” Members are typically pro-gun rights and they are against feminism and gender equality, according to the Guardian and the New York Times
The Guardian notes that the public will remember the group most prominently because of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that took place in August of 2017. The Proud Boys were among the attendees, along with the Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazi groups.
This was the rally that led to the tragic killing of Heather Heyer, a young woman who was killed as a car being driven by a white supremacist drove into the crowd of counter-protesters.
The extremist group has made recent headlines — most notably in Oregon, Washington and New York — as two of the Proud Boy’s members were jailed last year after beating up antifa activists, reports the BBC News.
Moreover, the Guardian explains how the group has shown up and antagonized Black Lives Matter demonstrators across the country, often sparking violent clashes.
And now, many are concerned that they will continue to make the headlines, as the Proud Boys immediately celebrated the president’s comments by taking to the encrypted social app Telegram and alternative discussion network Parler.
One user said that the group is “Standing by sir…” while another supporter on Parler said Trump “appeared to give permission for attacks on protesters, adding that ‘this makes me so happy,’ ” as quoted by the Washington Post.
In another message, the New York Times notes that one member commented saying the group has already seen an increase in “new recruits” as they celebrated their shout-out by adding the phrase “Stand Back, Stand By” to their group’s logo.
Following Trump’s comments that said, “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left,” Joe Biden responded saying “Antifa is an idea, not an organization. That is what [President Trump’s] FBI director said.”
Antifa, which is short for “anti-facist” is a “loose affiliation” for most of the far-left leaning activists, which some say include the gamut of anarchists, communists, and social democrats, according to BBC News.
There is no “unifying body” for antifa, the ADL notes, citing that their “ideology is rooted in the assumption that the Nazi party would never have been able to come to power in Germany if people had more aggressively fought them in the streets in the 1920s and 30s.”
Antifa members reject racism, however, many use “unacceptable tactics” when trying to get their point across.
Subsequently, today, they are active aggressors in opposition to far right-wing movements. For some antifa members, this means traveling hundreds of miles to join protests and throwing homemade projectiles or deploying noxious gases at their opponents — whether that be law enforcement or white supremacists.
Away from rallies, the ADL mentions that some antifa members prefer to engage in online “doxxing” — when they expose their adversary’s “identities, addresses, jobs and other private information,” leading to real-world consequences for the extremists.
“Both [the Proud Boys and Antifa] are relatively small — and can count on, at the most, a few thousand active supporters,” the BBC News wrote. “But their propensity for violence, particularly when they confront each other on American streets, has made them a much bigger topic of conversation than those numbers suggest.”
Activists and the public alike were quick to point out that Trump’s “stand by” comment from last night’s debate does not hold the same meaning as “stand down.”
In fact, so many Americans took to social media to express their feelings over the exchange, that the official twitter of the Merriam-Webster dictionary tweeted out the difference, saying: “ ‘Stand back’: to take a few steps backwards ‘Stand by’: to be or to get ready to act #Debates2020.”
Prominent critics of Trump, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also took to twitter saying this was a pinnacle moment because “People have been warning about this for a long time.”
Ocasio-Cortez continued, “They were ridiculed, called hyperbolic & radical – not bc they were wrong, but bc others couldn’t accept that our country elected a supremacist as President.”
The online furor over Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists continues, with debate topics and hashtags still trending the following morning.
This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.