“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” President Donald Trump declared at his first presidential debate with Joe Biden. Trump was asked by Fox News moderator Chris Wallace to denounce white supremacists. Instead, Trump issued a clarion call to the Proud Boys, a growing rightwing extremist group of Trump loyalists formed in 2016, openly promoting political violence.
One clear take away from the debate: Trump is desperate to sow division in the country and distrust of the electoral system, and is eagerly recruiting violent vigilantes to help. “Trump basically said to go f—k them up. This makes me so happy,” prominent Proud Boy Joe Biggs wrote on social media.
“It’s crystal clear to the Proud Boys what he was asking for: continued pressure, continued violence against what he is calling the threat of the left,” Christian Picciolini, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. Picciolini, a former skinhead neo-Nazi, co-founded the Free Radicals Project to prevent global extremism. “There is no threat from the left…over the last 25 years, far-right extremists — everything from neo-Nazis to white supremacists to white nationalists — are responsible for nearly 100% of the violence, 100% of the death and 100% of the fear and rhetoric and propaganda inducing this type of violence.” Two recent reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies indicate that between 1994 and 2020, right-wing extremists killed 335 people in the United States, mostly people of color.
Trump claimed during the debate, “almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” adding, “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” Antifa, short for antifascist, is a movement with its roots in 20th century European antifascist struggles.
This isn’t Trump’s first embrace of violent, rightwing extremists. He suggested the white, teen-aged vigilante who shot dead two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin was acting in self-defense. He defended the “Unite the Right” rally neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and Proud Boys who massed in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017, calling them “very fine people.” This was just three days after neo-Nazi James Fields, Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others.
This week, The Nation reported on a leaked internal memo from the FBI’s Dallas field office that predicts increased potential for violence from the anti-government “boogaloo” movement members with “a propensity toward violence and acquiring weapons that cause mass casualties, used by a small number of attackers.” Last May, Federal Protective Services officer David Patrick Underwood was shot and killed during anti-racism protests in Oakland, California. The primary suspect in the killing is Steven Carillo, an active duty Air Force sergeant and boogaloo member. Vice President Pence invoked Underwood’s memory at his address to the Republican National Convention, blaming the protests. He neglected to mention that it was a rightwing extremist who killed Underwood.
Just two weeks ago, at a rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, Trump blew his racist dog whistle again, telling the nearly all-white crowd, “You have good genes…The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.” Jewish Community Action’s Carin Mrotz likened Trump’s remarks to “the ‘race science’ used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of so many of our ancestors.”
Donald Trump doesn’t hide that he’s an aspiring autocrat, boasting he will be president for “twelve more years.” He has urged followers to poll watch at polling places on election day, in predominantly Democratic precincts, which would clearly intimidate and discourage voters. He has threatened to deploy armed police, sheriff’s deputies, and even the military to “guard” polling places. His son, Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted a video calling for “every able-bodied man and woman to join [the] Army for Trump’s election security operation…we need you to help us watch them.”
And, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately devastated communities of color, Trump has been attempting to discredit the popular and now life-saving practice of voting by mail. More Democrats than ever are predicted to vote by mail, while Republicans who believe Trump’s minimization of the pandemic, mocking masks and social distancing, are expected to prefer voting in person. Trump himself votes by mail.
One hundred years ago, Benito Mussolini in Italy recruited young men to join his “Squadrismo,” a volunteer force known as the Blackshirts that terrorized and killed his opponents. Hitler formed the Brownshirts, who brutally beat and murdered his foes. Neither dictator could have seized power without these armies of loyal, paramilitary thugs. When Donald Trump urges groups like the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” we need to take him seriously. We need to draw the line. Not here, not now, not ever again.