Instead of condemning right-wing militias, Trump told them to "stand by" — and they are
However bad you thought it was going to be, Tuesday night's first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump ended up being so much worse.
For 90 excruciating minutes, President Trump badgered, bloviated, and bullshitted his way through an acutely painful exercise in aggrandizement, offering little in the way of actual policy or planning, relying instead on a blitzkrieg of lies and innuendo meant to appeal solely to his base — and in one particularly chilling moment, his base got the message loud and clear.
When asked repeatedly by moderator Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, to simply condemn white supremacists, Trump promised that he was "willing" to do so, but insisted that — contra his own FBI director's recent congressional testimony — "almost everything I see is from the left wing."
While Trump's insistence on blaming "the left" for, well, pretty much everything isn't, in and of itself, anything new, what came next was a terrifying escalation in the president's already authoritarian rhetoric:
After insisting he was "willing" to condemn white supremacy, Trump asked Wallace to "give me a name." Joe Biden offered the thuggish, "western chauvinist" Proud Boys street militia as one of the many far-right groups worth condemning.
"Proud Boys," Trump answered. "Stand back and stand by."
"I'll tell you what," he continued with his very next breath. "Somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem."
While the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., attempted to explain away his father's "stand by" directive, saying the president "misspoke," Trump's actual audience — the Proud Boys themselves — were jubilant at their de facto presidential deputization.
"Standing down and standing by sir," the official Proud Boys account wrote on Telegram. On Parler, Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs went even further, writing that "Trump basically said to go fuck them up! This makes me so happy."
There was even hastily designed iconography:
"To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement," online extremist researcher and professor Megan Squire told NBC News. "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."
The president's apparent pre-election putsch push didn't stop with his not-so-tacit Proud Boys endorsement, either. He also encouraged his base of supporters to "go to the polls and watch very carefully" — a clear request for the sort of voter intimidation many of the president's followers have already begun to exhibit.
As horrifying as the prospect of Election Day violence is, the president's debate performance on Tuesday made one thing abundantly clear: Donald Trump is not interested in courting new voters or expanding his base of support beyond the increasingly ossified core of racists, conspiracy theorists, and ghoulish opportunists. Instead, the president is leaning heavily on voter intimidation and efforts to game the electoral process itself to secure a second term in office.
That's scary enough as it is. The fact that there are militias out there champing at the bit to help him pull it off is even worse.