The Proud Boys heard Trump last night. Their reaction tells you everything you need to know

Many were shocked to hear the president say ‘Stand up and stand by’ — but members of the far-right group were elated

Hannah Selinger
New York
Wednesday 30 September 2020 19:42 BST
Many were shocked to hear the president say ‘Stand back and stand by’
Many were shocked to hear the president say ‘Stand back and stand by’ (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


There’s been plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking today regarding who won the presidential debate between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. That debate, which featured plenty of squabbling, overtalk, and minimal moderation, likely fell in Biden’s favour, and that’s because one moment will capture the public’s attention for weeks to come.

When asked if he would unconditionally condemn white supremacy, Trump agreed, but then, bafflingly, recited a line that was in no way a condemnation. Five words came out instead: “Stand back and stand by.” The president then launched into an attack, instead, on antifa, which, as Biden pointed out, even the FBI has determined is a set of ideas and not an actual organisation. 

Stand back and stand by. These five words have echoed across America since they were spoken on a debate stage in Cleveland. Within minutes of the non-condemnation, the Proud Boys – an all-male, far-right group that promotes anti-immigrant ideas and often resorts to violence – had taken Trump’s words and crafted from them a logo. Stand back and stand by. The new logo is an adaptation of the Proud Boys’ old logo, featuring a black background with gold writing. Merchandise is being sold with “Stand Back Stand By” and “Proud Boys Standing By” emblazoned upon it.

On private social media channels, the group referred to the president’s comments as “historic”, and, on one particular private messaging app, members of the group called the comment an endorsement of their own use of violence. The New York Times reported a spike in people identifying themselves as new members after the debate, which has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a hate group. The Anti-Defamation League has also defined the Proud Boys as a white supremacist organisation. Even Twitter has booted the Proud Boys from its platform, after one too many hateful incidences. Our own president, however, will not take a public stand against them.

Trump, of course, has not backtracked, and, in fact, his surrogates have defended his message. Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the president’s campaign, has said that Trump’s remark was the opposite of what it was: him telling white supremacists to “knock it off”. But you could tell, watching the postmortem, that Republicans mostly didn’t agree. Even a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like former senator Rick Santorum squirmed uneasily in his seat on CNN. There was no reasonable way to defend “Stand back and stand by,” and so he didn’t bother knotting himself into a pretzel to try.

For the next five weeks, the American people can expect more of this: Trump will continue to court the white supremacist vote in this election cycle, because he feeds on acceptance and because he believes that these votes – irrespective of where they come from – matter. In a full-throated “inclusive” Trump Party, everyone is welcome – even the Proud Boys. And that should make everyone think really profoundly about what the Republican Party actually is right now.

In fact, former vice president Biden may have made the point most clearly last night when he said this: “I am the Democratic Party.” And he is, for the meantime, because he is the rightfully elected stand-in for the party’s values, at least for the next five weeks. To that end, Donald Trump, too, is the rightful heir of his party’s mantle. When he speaks, endorses, condemns – or fails to – it is all a representation of the party that led him to the podium.

And so every moment in the limelight is a moment that is brought to us by the Republican Party. Donald Trump is the Republican Party, and he’s also the Republican Party’s problem now. He was tossed a juicy softball right to the middle of his bat, but he didn’t swing at it, and now the entire team must attach itself to these five words: stand back and stand by.

Welcome to the party, Proud Boys. The Republicans are happy to have you aboard.

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