Trump, Proud Boys, and the Radicalization of Racists Online

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In the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump if he would “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 these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.” Trump replied “Sure,” and then when asked to go ahead and say he condemns them he instead said “I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing. Not from the right wing.” When pushed, he said “What do you want to call them. Give me a name. Who do you want me to condemn?” Biden said, “Proud Boys,” and Trump replied, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”

Yikes. I mean, I know this isn’t shocking — we all already knew Trump is a white supremacist, and we knew he has no hesitation when saying the quiet part loud because his supporters are also white supremacists who don’t care what he does. And he’s publicly encouraged his white supremacist supporters before, like after one of them murdered a protestor he said there were “very fine people” on “both sides.” But this is a new, horrific step further, in which he has actively encouraged white supremacists to commit acts of violence against “the left” and anti-fascists.

His party is scrambling to explain it all away, and of course they can’t and so in some cases they’re making it worse, like when Rick Santorum went live on CNN to say that Trump didn’t condemn white supremacists because he doesn’t like to “say something bad about people who support him.” Oops!

You may tell yourself that telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” instead of “stand down” was maybe just a mistake in grammar, and saying “somebody has to do something about the left” was just a disconnected thought, and by “somebody” he didn’t mean “the Proud Boys.” Sure. Trump himself says that he didn’t even know who the Proud Boys are, and in those remarks he regularly confused “stand down” with “stand by,” saying “Just stand by. Look, law enforcement will do their work. They’re going to stand down, they have to stand down.”

A brief aside about his remarks there: he also said “As people see how bad this radical liberal Democrat movement is and how weak, the law enforcement is going to come back stronger and stronger.” I just want to point you towards Umberto Eco’s fourteen signs of fascism, in which number eight describes a group that describes their enemies as being “at the same time too strong and too weak” via “a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus.” That’s literally what Trump does in a single sentence by describing liberal Democrats as “radical,” “how bad,” and “how weak.”

But back to the Proud Boys, regardless of Trump’s intentions behind his words during the debate, what matters is how the white supremacists understood what he said, and spoiler alert: they think he meant to tell them to murder liberals

“President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA…well sir! We’re ready!!”

“Standing by sir”

“Trump basically said to go fuck them up! This makes me so happy”

They even made a little logo out of Trump’s words, and put it on t-shirts.

It’s interesting that the initial debate question was about white supremacists in general, but it turned to focus on the Proud Boys in particular. That was a mistake on Joe Biden’s part for saying it, because it does allow Trump to pretend he didn’t know who they are (he surely does), which shifts the conversation away from the fact that Trump never actually condemned white supremacist violence in general. And it’s important to note that the Proud Boys are just one organized network of white supremacists.

This is relevant to a recent report from two journalists, Robert Evans and Jason Wilson, who gained access to the Patriot Coalition of Oregon, a far-right coalition of “anti- antifascists,” which, if my math is correct here, would make them fascists. The Patriot Coalition are allies of the Proud Boys, and their chat logs reveal how they organize and also how they encourage one another to amp up their extremist violence.

The Patriot Coalition used a tiered system to try to hide their activities, starting with a public Facebook group that had more than 1,500 members before it was archived. Members of that group could petition to then be let into a private Group Me channel, which only had about 100 people in it. There was a vetting process that attempted to weed out anyone who wasn’t serious about their pro-Trump, pro-police stance. Luckily, that process wasn’t entirely successful, because a leftist from Eugene’s antifa collective managed to get in, take screenshots, and forward them to the two journalists along with the username and password so they could go in and confirm the veracity of the screenshots.

Evans and Wilson speculate that the “patriots’” vetting process gave them a false sense of security that allowed them to be completely open and honest about their true intentions. So, for instance, there’s a lot of evidence showing that they would plan peaceful pro-police demonstrations during the day while then planning to commit acts of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters after sunset. In fact, at one point in August they planned to shoot people on the streets one night but Antifa protesters showed up and outnumbered them, scattering and scaring them into leaving.

I’ve talked a lot in the past about how online forums can create echo chambers that lead to radicalization, which in recent years has mostly involved young white men who push one another into violence against women and other marginalized groups. These chat logs show that happening in real time, like when a woman says her neighbor is flying a Black Lives Matter flag and she is considering knocking on their door and telling them she finds the flag hurtful (because this was the day after Jay Danielson, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, was shot and killed in Portland). 

The woman is flooded with comments telling her that her neighbors are basically going to murder her: 

“The first reply comes from “Dan-Medford”, who urges her to keep quiet because, “The enemy is hunting patriots right now. You go over there and say something, you paint yourself a target.” Another member quickly agrees. An individual with the username, Dub, insists that Whitebear’s neighbors, “…don’t care one bit if it hurts you. They are all about pain and destruction and have zero qualms about hurting you also.””

After a lot of back and forth, the woman changes her mind. Instead of communicating with her neighbor, she decides to hang up a Trump flag in her yard and put mousetraps on the back of it. Then the conversation moves on to how they need to start shooting protesters in response to the Danielson murder.

I highly encourage you to read the entire report on Patriot Coalition, in case you harbor any mistaken beliefs that the “pro-Trump, pro-police” demonstrators are just cosplaying when they open carry, or if you think that people like Kyle Rittenhouse or James Alex Fields, Jr. are just lone wolves acting independent of any greater plan or coordinated radicalization attempts. Fun fact, while I was trying to remember Fields’s name I found this Wiki page for far-right extremism and noticed that the United States has so many examples that it’s the only country that had to split it up by era. Either that’s all due to Wikipedia’s US-bias or it may suggest that other places have their fight with fascism once and learn their lesson.

These groups are out there, continuing to radicalize mostly white conservatives, and the president of the United States refuses to condemn them because they are his base. Keep that in mind when casting your vote next month.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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