Donald Trump invoked a far-right group tied to violence after refusing to condemn white supremacism during his first debate appearance with Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
In a stunning and rare quiet moment in the chaotic debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked the president whether he is “willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and they need to stand down.”
“I’m willing to do that,” the president said, adding that “almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right-wing. … I want to see peace.”
Pressed by Mr Wallace to denounce violent white nationalism, the president paused, then asked for a name.
He said: "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."
The self-described “western chauvinist” Proud Boys, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a hate group, was established by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016.
Though the group has claimed it represents an “anti-white guilt agenda” against “political correctness" as well as the “alt-right” label, the group’s founder and members have embraced white nationalism and espoused fascist views, including anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric, often turning to violence.
The Proud Boys are among a “fascistic, right-wing political bloc” galvanised by the president and encouraged by his supporters, according to SPLC senior research analyst Cassie Miller.
“They work symbiotically with right-wing media and a power structure – helmed by Trump – that is eager to clamp down on protesters and enact political revenge on progressive constituencies like Portland,” wrote Ms Miller, arguing that the group and similarly motivated far-right groups are among political cudgels for the administration’s street-level election campaign.
On the right-wing social media app Parler, Proud Boys members celebrated the recognition on the debate stage.
FBI director Christopher Wray warned in February that “racially motivated violent extremism” in the US, particularly from white nationalists, is as significant a threat as Isis and other foreign terror groups.
Mr Biden pointed that out to Mr Trump during the debate, as the candidates moved on.
The president has repeatedly refused to condemn the rise of white supremacist violence in the US.
In his 2016 campaign, he refused to denounce former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and insisted there were “very fine people” on both sides of a white supremacist “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, where a neo-Nazi killed antiracist protester Heather Heyer after driving into a crowd.
“Dog whistling through a bullhorn is what he’s doing," vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris told MSNBC after the debate.
“Donald Trump is not pretending to be anything than what he is,” she said. "Someone who will not condemn white supremacists, someone who can’t say the phrase Black Lives Matter, someone who is getting rid of training of federal employees around the issue of race and the need to be aware of implicit bias. It’s not a dogwhistle."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies