It’s hard to be surprised by this president’s naked bigotry and stoking of racist violence after four years of both, but Donald Trump once again managed to top himself.
When flat-out asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he was "willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down”—a gimme for any presidential candidate trying to avoid the appearance of overtly courting the white supremacist vote—Trump refused. After sputtering and stalling to avoid answering the question, he urged some of his most violent supporters to gear up and get ready.
"Proud Boys,” Trump said, addressing by name the “western chauvinist” group that has become notorious for its right-wing violence, “stand back—and stand by!”
That’s right. During the first general election presidential debate of 2020, the president of the United States told his vigilante shock troops to be ready to commit yet more violence when the time is right. This wasn’t Trump subtly winking to the Proud Boys, who were among the murderous throngs at the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, and who have continued to terrorize people in his name. It was him both acknowledging the control he has over that violent group and those of its ilk, and a call for them to keep up the violence they regularly engage in.
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up!” one of the group’s leaders wrote minutes later. “This makes me so happy.”
Just after issuing his call to arms, Trump went on: “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.”
When he wasn’t just saying “the left did it” about problems on his watch, Trump basically had a well-worn set of racist talking points—“law and order” this, “the suburbs will be destroyed” by the Blacks under Biden that—that he didn’t stray from once. When asked about his recent ban on racial sensitivity training for federal employees, Trump essentially called it reverse racism, labeling it a “radical revolution” that was “teaching people to hate our country.” Asked to talk about why voters should trust him more on racial issues than Biden, the president pivoted to talking about all the police union endorsements he’s collected—a way of conflating Blackness with violence for his overwhelmingly white racist voting base. (Which, frankly, moderator Chris Wallace had conveniently already done by calling the segment “Race and Violence in our Cities.”)
Biden played up how much of a centrist, establishmentarian politician he is in response to Trump’s laughable charges of left-wing radicalism. He eschewed the idea of defunding the police, and stated yet again that “violence should be prosecuted.” He uncontroversially stated that “racial insensitivity”—a watered-down way of saying “racism”—exists in this country.
Trump, in the meantime, countered his own FBI director and Homeland Security Department’s findings that violent white supremacists and other right-wing extremists—a not insignificant portion of his base, in other words—currently present the greatest threat to this country. Receiving their marching orders loud and clear, Proud Boys across social media expressed giddy satisfaction at the president name-checking them and telling them to stand by for violence.
This is a president who knows his audience, and who’s happy to remind them how in lockstep with them he is. During this debate, the president made it clear that in the coming weeks, as we get closer to election day, his stochastic terror campaign will only grow louder—and that he’ll continue to encourage his followers to violence while blaming anti-racist protesters for demanding equality and justice.
It was anything but a coincidence that after thumbs-upping his supporters’ violence, Trump went on to again note that he’s "urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully." For every non-Trump supporter, that sounded like a threat, because it’s meant to be one.
That’s a frightening prospect. It’s also why, despite Biden’s incredibly milquetoast stances on nearly everything, he’s pretty much the only option this go round.