Proud Boys is Just the Latest: Trump’s Refusal to Denounce White Supremacy is Part of a Pattern

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In last night’s debate, which CNN’s Jake Tapper on-air called a “hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck” and that his on-air colleague Dana Bash called a “shit show,” Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacy.

That’s not a surprise. It’s part of a pattern.

In my latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I document Trump’s pattern of deflecting calls to denounce white supremacists, followed by a weak denunciation, then reverting back to his prior language.

Trump’s Pattern of Deflection

When asked to denounce white supremacy, both during the campaign and during his presidency, Trump’s response typically includes the four elements below.

1. Deflect. He does this in several ways. He ignores the call to denounce. He changes the subject. He professes ignorance about the event. He characterizes the event differently. Sometimes he expresses sympathy for victims while not addressing the event that caused them to be become victims.

2. Diminish. If pressed he diminishes the significance of the event or attempts to create a false equivalence between the event and more benign topics, or between the group in question and his political rivals.

3. Denounce. After an interval, sometimes of hours, but often of days, Trump issues a written denunciation or reads a statement denouncing the event or person, often in a tone of rote recitation.

4. Revert. Not long after the denunciation, Trump reverts to his earlier language and behavior, as if his denunciation never happened. This is a constant; it happens after every denunciation.

We can expect that pattern to play out here.

Proud Boys

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Toward the end of the debate, the moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, asked,

Trump immediately went to Step 1, Deflect:

Wallace replied,

Trump’s debate opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, prodded Trump:

Trump seemed confused, and stalled for time:

Vice President Biden, referring to a violent right supremacist group, said,

Trump took the bait, and then went to Step 2, Diminish, and attempted a false equivalence:

Biden interjected:

Proud Boys, Stand Back and Stand By

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Trump’s deflection and saying that he’d tell the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by” was immediately seized by the Proud Boys themselves, who interpreted it as a sign of support.

NBC News reported that the Proud Boys celebrated after Trump’s call-out:

According to the Washington Post,

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Within an hour there was Stand Back Stand By Merchandise on the Proud Boys site

NBC News reported,

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Following the Pattern, the afternoon after the debate Trump went to Step 3, Denounce, and gave a lukewarm condemnation:

We can expect him to move to Step 4, Revert, any day now.

Trump’s Dance with White Supremacy

The way in which white supremacists respond to the pattern, especially the deflections, is significant. It suggests a kind of dance between Trump and the white supremacist movement. He signals to them; they signal back.

Here are some examples:

In early 2016 former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke told his radio audience,

Duke directed his audience to volunteer to work on Trump’s campaign. Later that day candidate Trump was asked by a reporter how he felt about David Duke’s support.

Trump replied in an impatient and dismissive tone:

Two days after this lukewarm disavowal, Trump interviewed with CNN’s Jake Tapper and feigned ignorance of Duke.

Tapper asked him,

Trump could very easily have said that he had already disavowed Duke, two days earlier. But he did not. Instead, he went to Step 1, Deflect.

Tapper persevered,

Trump continued to profess ignorance:

Tapper interrupted and said that he was speaking specifically about the Ku Klux Klan.

Trump moved to Step 2, Diminish:

Tapper again clarified:

Trump replied,

A few hours after the interview, Trump went to Step 3: Denounce. Trump tweeted a video clip from his press conference two days earlier, with this comment:


We saw the same pattern in President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville that led to the death of a young woman.

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He began by talking about the

While critics condemned the statement, the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer interpreted it as positive, noting that,

The media, critics, and advocacy groups called loudly for Trump to specifically denounce white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.

Trump went to Step 1: Deflect. He remained silent. The White House dispatched Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, to make an explicit denunciation.

Two days later, Trump moved to Step 3, Denounce. Reading from a teleprompter in the White House, Trump condemned white supremacy:

But he went to Step 4, Revert, the next day. Without a teleprompter and speaking without a script, Trump again tried to create an equivalence between the two sides in Charlottesville, saying that there was blame on both sides, and,

This provoked a thank you tweet from David Duke.

The same pattern emerged in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque massacre and after the El Paso shooter.

In late July, 2019, former FBI counter-intelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi wrote in the New York Times about the relationship between Trump’s language and violence, especially by white supremacists. He wrote:

And today the Proud Boys are empowered. Expect more violence.

Written by

Helio Fred Garcia is the author, most recently, of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.

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