Donald Trump’s incendiary endorsement of the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate has predictably electrified the far-right street-fighting group, while elevating concerns about the potential for his supporters to disrupt the election as the president seeks to undermine trust in the legitimacy of the process.
Pressed by moderator Chris Wallace and Democratic opponent Joe Biden during the debate on Tuesday night to condemn “white supremacist and militia groups,” Trump uttered the seven words that almost instantly became a far-right meme — “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by” — before angrily marshaling his supporters to target left-wing protesters. “I’ll tell you what,” Trump said. “Somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem.”
Reaction from members of the all-male far-right “fraternity” was nothing short of euphoric.
On Parler — where many members have migrated since Facebook and other major social-media companies de-platformed the Proud Boys over the summer — prominent member Joe Biggs enthused, “President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with antifa. Well, sir, we’re ready!” Enrique Tarrio, the national chairman, responded, “Standing by, sir.” By 8:22 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the Proud Boys were marketing tee-shirts with the words “Standing By” incorporated into their logo.
Since its inception in 2016, the Proud Boys have built a long track record of violence while sidestepping much of the stigma attached to their alt-right peers by repackaging white supremacy as “Western chauvinism.” While deflecting accusations of racism through a membership, including its chairman, that includes a fair number of men of color, Proud Boys typically deploy inflammatory anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric to provoke left-wing opponents. In North Carolina, Proud Boys have also been involved in clashes with antiracists over the fate of Confederate monuments, and built relationships with overtly white supremacist outfits like the League of the South.
The string of violent incidents associated with the Proud Boys includes an assault by Donovan Flippo and Tusitala “Tiny” Toese in Portland, Ore. in July 2018, and assaults against antifascists outside the Metropolitan Republican Club New York City in October 2018 that resulted in convictions for 10 members, among many other incidents. Most recently, on Wednesday, Proud Boy Alan Swinney was charged with assault and menacing for shooting paintballs and pointing a firearm at left-wing opponents during an Aug. 15 protest in Portland.
“They announce and hold a rally in a city that is historically pretty progressive, some place like Portland, in the hopes of getting counter-protesters to come out and inciting violence,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They use that violence to their advantage — to argue that the left is inherently violent and to argue that any violence on their side is self-defensive and it is justified. And they use this to create this narrative that repression and retaliation against the people that they consider to be their enemies is justified. They have a long list of political adversaries, but at the top are leftists and antifascist counter-protesters.”
Proud Boys have openly expressed support for political violence with members wearing tee-shirts declaring “Pinochet did nothing wrong,” referring to the Chilean dictator whose regime carried out extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention and assassination attempts against tens of thousands of victims during and after a 1973 coup. Recently, members have started donning a new shirt that valorizes a more recent and homegrown hero of the far right. It says, “Kyle Rittenhouse did nothing wrong,” referencing the 17-year-old from Illinois who fatally shot two antiracist protesters in Kenosha, Wis. During a rally organized by the Proud Boys in Portland last weekend, members chanted, “Free Kyle,” after Tarrio invoked his name from the stage.
As the debate wrapped up on Tuesday night, Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago who has researched the history of the far right, warned about President Trump’s “stand back and stand by” remark on Tuesday night: “People who work in monitoring and de-radicalization and otherwise studying white power groups are sounding red alerts and sending emergency signals about 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 casualties. There is no reason to think that strategy will change.” Citing the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as the “largest deliberate mass casualty on American soil between Pearl Harbor and 9/11,” Belew wrote, “We are decades, if not generations, into this problem. A green light like ‘stand back and stand by’ is catastrophic.”
Trump’s words of encouragement towards the Proud Boys came during a debate in which he repeated unfounded charges of widespread mail-in ballot fraud and declined to commit that he will respect the results of the election if it does not go in his favor. The Proud Boys and other far-right groups, along with mainstream Republicans, have signaled that they are paying close attention to Trump’s messaging.
Less than three hours before the start of the debate, the Philadelphia Proud Boys chapter shared a Trump tweet accusing local election officials in that city of “corruption” for restricting access to an election office on its Telegram channel. The Telegram message included the jesting exclamation, “There goes our plans!”
Trump repeated the baseless charge near the conclusion of the debate, saying, “In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer characterized the president’s statement as a “false claim,” reporting that a woman who declined to provide her name told the newspaper she was “hired by the Trump campaign to oversee the election.” The woman reportedly attempted to enter a satellite election office in West Philadelphia where absentee ballots were being received on Tuesday, but was barred from doing so because of coronavirus regulations that limit the number of people indoors. Pennsylvania law allows campaigns to appoint poll watchers inside polling places and, in some situations, to raise legal objections, but a city official told the Inquirer that no poll watchers have yet been certified for the Trump campaign.
During a Sept. 8 campaign stop in North Carolina — a crucial battleground state — Trump urged supporters to monitor polling places.
“Got to be careful with those ballots,” he said. “I don’t know, you have a Democratic governor. You have all those Democrats watching that…. Watch it. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing they do.”
During the debate on Tuesday, Trump repeated his call for volunteers to show up at the polls, predicting, “This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” He said, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully….”
Trump supporters reportedly crowded the entrance of an early-voting location in Fairfax County, in Virginia, on Sept. 19.
“The primary thing for voter intimidation, in my view, was driving around the parking lot… with motorcycles, big vehicles and flags, honking their horns and yelling, Fairfax County Democratic Party Chair Bryan Graham told a local NBC affiliate.
“There is a real possibility that we could get far-right groups going out to polling places, to ballot boxes, and engaging in voter suppression or intimidation,” said Cassie Miller, with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We have already seen them signal that they plan to monitor the polls or be active on Election Day. It’s clearly something that has been used to mobilize them. I think it’s part of a larger mobilization on the far right and the Proud Boys in particular.”
No far-right group has made more inroads with the GOP than the Proud Boys. The group’s members have found a welcoming audience and willing partners among GOP activists and officials across the country over the past two years.
Most notoriously, it was founder Gavin McGinnis’ speaking engagement at the Metropolitan Republican Club that occasioned clashes with antifascist adversaries. During that speech, McGinnis reenacted the 1960 assassination of the head of the Japanese Socialist Party by Otoya Yamaguchi, an ultranationalist who plunged a sword into his victim during a live television broadcast. In another example of overlap between the street-fighting group and the GOP, Hussein Hill, who has been active with the Proud Boys in North Carolina, canvassed for Republican state legislative candidates during the 2018 election and posed for a photo with the state Republican Party’s executive director. And last month, Proud Boys from Philadelphia to South Carolina converged in Fayetteville, NC to attend an anti-pedophilia march that was promoted by the Cumberland County Republican Party. Two Republican candidates for North Carolina General Assembly spoke at the rally, and the Proud Boys upstaged the group photo by shouting their ironic catchphrase “Uhuru!” during a group photo in place of the designated slogan “Save our children.”
Members of Oregon Women for Trump joined the Proud Boys for their rally in Portland last weekend.
“We love Oregon, and we want Oregon to stay American,” an Oregon Women member named Carol said during the rally. “And we support the Proud Boys…. We need more men like the Proud Boys.
“This is our time to stand up, stand out, stand against not only Marxism, but to anarchy and Black supremacy,” she continued. “This is a war, folks, that we have got to fight back. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough from all these punks, evildoers, including our [Democratic] governor and our mayor and all their ilk.”
Representatives of both groups pledged that their members will be at ballot-drop boxes during the election.
“We will be — the Proud Boys from the Portland chapter, for Oregonians — we will try to do the best we can to secure some of those most strategic ballot places that are going to be dropped off,” said Flip Todd, the chapter vice president.
While pledging to monitor ballot-drop sites, Oregon Women for Trump also solicited funds to support the Proud Boys.
“It will come back for your safety because we love to stand on the frontlines,” Todd said, as supporters handed cash up to the stage. “We love to be your wall. We love to see people geared up. We like this kind of thing. It’s great. We appreciate it. And, like I said, every single dime goes towards pepper spray, things that we need, whether it’s body armor, helmets, first-aid equipment, tourniquets, things like that.
“Even the paintballs,” he continued. “You know the little CS […]? They’re $2.75 apiece to fucking have pepper spray, okay? Anyway, that’s what stuff like that goes for — so you guys are safe, in a worst-case scenario.”
Cassie Miller with the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that the Proud Boys view themselves as an extension of law enforcement in holding a line between order and chaos.
“That’s something that is getting people out on the ground, especially after the election,” she said. “The possibility that we won’t know what the results are is very real, and during that really crucial, really sensitive time, I think we need to be aware of what is happening among the far right…. It’s a combustible situation.
“With the Proud Boys, I think their ultimate goal is to normalize political violence,” she continued. “This has been at the core of their project since they started. When they go out and they try to instigate violence on the ground, what they want to do is blame it on the other side and build up this narrative that the left is inherently violent, that it’s unhinged, and that repressive measures need to be taken. And President Trump has clearly signaled to them that he is in some form of agreement.”