The most remarkable moment in the 90-minute US presidential debate was President Trump’s refusal to outright condemn white supremacist groups.
Indeed, he went further by referring to one such group by name, Proud Boys, and then told them – apparently approvingly – to “stand back and stand by”.
Stand by, for what? It sounds like a license to violence.
Donald Trump has been frequently accused in the past of stoking racial strife with his off-the-cuff remarks and ambiguous asides. He was again accused of insidious incitement by his Democrat rival Joe Biden during their first televised presidential debate this week. Trump has been often rebuked for “dog whistling” to white supremacist groups by seeming to highlight racist themes, such as expressing concern about “invasion” by foreigners.
But what he did during the globally watched TV debate was not dog-whistling, which is a deniable nod-and-wink gesture. Instead, the president gave white supremacist groups an endorsement, an approving pat on the head.
Asked by moderator Chris Wallace: “Are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down?”
Trump ducked a straightforward condemnation. Referring to one white supremacist group, he said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”.
He then went on to quickly add by way of misdirection: “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa [anti-fascists] and the left”.
This is tantamount to Trump giving such rightwing militia a license to hunt down legitimate protesters against police racism who, in this president’s telling, are all conflated with radical, violent antifa “domestic terrorists”. The latter depiction itself being a gross exaggeration by Trump.
Following the TV debate, social media reactions from various white supremacist groups were reportedly ecstatic with Trump’s apparent lionizing of their cause on a globally televised presidential debate. If that wasn’t his intention it certainly had the effect. In any case, is there much of a difference between intent and effect?
His advice to them “to stand by” is darkly threatening of further civil unrest and violence as the US heads towards a bitterly contested election on November 3. Trump’s repeated denigration of the elections as “fraudulent” and “rigged” and the expected high turn-out of mail-in votes delaying a final result announcement perhaps for several weeks after November 3, as well as Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses – all that makes for an extremely volatile and dangerously combustible mix. There are credible fears that the US is teetering on civil war.
Trump’s seeming embrace of ‘far-right’, Neo-Nazi groups is all the more disgraceful and perplexing because several studies by federal law enforcement agencies and other monitors clearly show that white supremacists are by wide margin a much greater threat to US national security than any other form of terrorism, including from Islamist groups.
Trump’s obsession with “radical left” and so-called antifa is completely without foundation. White supremacist networks are responsible for far more killings and violent attacks than any other group in the US. They have been involved in targeting largely peaceful protests which have surged in recent months across the US over police brutality and allegations of unlawful killing of black men and women.
The president of the US is turning reality on its head by blaming violence on leftwing protesters when it is white supremacist militia who are predominantly threatening to turn their guns on citizens, and that’s according to Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security.
The TV debate this week – the first in a series over the next few weeks – between Trump and Biden was a shambles. It was an unedifying spectacle of name-calling and personal abuse where policies hardly were presented. Trump certainly demeaned his office with his constant resort to bullying, interruption and talking over his opponent. Biden didn’t acquit himself well either, sneeringly calling the president a “clown” and a “liar” (not inaccurate, but nevertheless a sign of degraded office of presidency and degraded standard of political debate in the US). Biden also didn’t offer viewers a convincing alternative presidential candidate, and in an act of desperation to score points he used the ridiculous non-sequitur slur of labelling Trump “Putin’s puppet”. Hardly a harbinger for improving US foreign relations.
But the gutter-scraping nadir in the proceedings – and a chilling one at that – was when the 45th president of the United States promoted white supremacist groups as some kind of guardian of law and order. If this election gets bogged down in protracted wrangling over vote counts – as it likely will, given that up to 80 million mail-in ballots are expected due to the coronavirus pandemic – then the potential for armed violence is shuddering. A divisive, toxic call to the streets has been made from the current man in the White House. Maybe it’s out of ignorance or incompetence. But it is incendiary all the same and damnable.
An Appeal to Fascism for All to See
To say we live in absurd times is perhaps the greatest of understatements. Today, I have seen flurry of posts about the Trump/Biden debate. “Biden won the debate” or “Trump trounced Biden” or “Trump was mess” festooned my social media newsfeed. Was it really a debate? I confess, I did not watch it in its entirety, but from what I saw I would dispute that designation.
I have also seen people write “Biden is a socialist” which honestly made me laugh, as well as give me a headache. I mean, this is 2020. How can an adult think that a person who is beloved by Wall Street is a socialist? How can an adult think that the Affordable Care Act, which is a financial boon to insurance companies, even remotely resembles a socialist program? Or that he consistently refuses to consider universal healthcare? Or boasts about “beating the socialist?” Biden isn’t even a social democrat like most politicians in the EU, or New Zealand, or Canada.
And this gets to the root of the problem. Most Americans cannot really define terms like socialism, democratic socialism, communism, anarchism, capitalism, authoritarianism or fascism. Most do not understand the spectrum of politics, from far left to centrist to far right, or that the political climate in the US, on both sides of the aisle, has steadily moved to the right over the past several decades. When you cannot define something, you become easy prey for influential or powerful political players to manipulate. But this doesn’t even begin to capture the gravity of this historical moment.
When Trump was asked last night to condemn white supremacy and rightwing militias he said the real problem was Antifa and the left. He also proclaimed: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” Right after this, Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs shared a PB logo with the president’s words on it.
The Proud Boys are a far right, fascist organization founded by the racist, anti-Muslim, misogynistic, antisemitic, English born Canadian, Gavin McInnes. They are infamous for their threats, intimidation, and supremacist ideology. Trump is a huckster. A snake oil salesman. And his only interest is self interest. But that does not mean that his appeal to fascism is not real. His self interest is in remaining president, emperor of the flailing American Empire, by any means available to him.
Fascism thrives on weak political responses of the opposition, plays on nationalism, and taps into the irrational fears of a segment of society who perceive that they are under threat. Whether or not this is true does not matter. And Trump has provided a segment of white American men a voice for their unhinged fantasies of supremacy. These men, and many women, are in the country’s police departments. They are in the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. And the fact that many others are armed and organized into militias should keep anyone with even a scant grasp of history up at night.
If they are “standing by,” we should be doing the same.
Previously published on Kenn Orphan, Sept. 30, 2020
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