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

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

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

Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of cities, as we saw in Kenosha and we’ve seen in Portland

Trump immediately went to Step 1, Deflect:

I’m prepared to do it, but I would say that almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want peace.

Wallace replied,

Well, do it, sir.

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

Say it. Do it. Say it.

Trump seemed confused, and stalled for time:

You want to call them; what do you want call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Who do you want me to condemn?

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

Proud Boys.

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

Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left wing…

Biden interjected:

His own FBI Director said the threat comes from white supremacists. Antifa is an idea, not an organization.

Proud Boys, Stand Back and Stand By

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:

The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, pledged allegiance to President Donald Trump on Tuesday night after he told the group to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate.

Many people on social media who identify with the group echoed that language, saying they were “standing down and standing by.” One known social media account for the group made “Stand back. Stand by” part of its new logo.”

According to the Washington Post,

One prominent Proud Boys supporter on [the right wing-social media site] Parler said Trump appeared to give permission for attacks on protesters, adding that “this makes me so happy.” Other supporters saw a retail opportunity, pushing $30 T-shirts and $40 hoodies bearing the group’s logo and the words, “PROUD BOYS STANDING BY.”

NBC News reported,

On the Proud Boys’ account on the social media app Telegram, the group appeared to take the statement as marching orders.

Standing down and standing by sir,” the account wrote. The account then posted two videos of the answer, including one with the caption “God. Family. Brotherhood,” in which a man howled at the TV in response to Trump’s response.

Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who tracks online extremism, said Trump’s giving the Proud Boys orders was their long-sought “fantasy.”

“To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement,” Squire said. “They were pro-Trump before this shoutout, and they are absolutely over the moon now. Their fantasy is to fight antifa in his defense, and he apparently just asked them to do just that.”

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

I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work

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,

Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage. I’m not saying I endorse everything about Trump, in fact I haven’t formally endorsed him. But I do support his candidacy, and I support voting for him as a strategic action.

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:

I didn’t even know he endorsed me. David Duke endorsed me? Okay, all right. I disavow, Okay?

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

Tapper asked him,

Will you condemn David Duke and say that you do not want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?

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.

Well just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. Did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.

Tapper persevered,

Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and that you don’t want their support?

Trump continued to profess ignorance:

Well I have to look at the group. I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I’d have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong but…

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

Trump moved to Step 2, Diminish:

…you may have groups in there that are totally fine, and it would be very unfair, so give me a list of the groups and I’ll let you know.

Tapper again clarified:

Okay, I’m now just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here but…

Trump replied,

I don’t know anything, honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him, I’m pretty sure I never met him, and I don’t know anything about him.

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:

As I stated at the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke — I disavow.


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

He began by talking about the

egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.

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

when asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.

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:

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans… Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

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,

very fine people, on both sides.

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:

[Trump] empowers hateful and potentially violent individuals with his divisive rhetoric and his unwillingness to unequivocally denounce white supremacy…It doesn’t really matter whether Mr. Trump is truly a racist or merely playing one on television to appeal to his base. Either way, his path can lead to bloodshed.

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

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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