The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, has received a flood of new members in the hours since President Donald Trump refused to condemn the group on television during the first presidential debate Tuesday evening.
Moderator Chris Wallace, a Fox News host, repeatedly asked if the president would condemn white supremacists and militia groups. When Democratic candidate Joe Biden chimed in with the Proud Boys as an example of a group Trump might disavow, Trump at first interrupted Wallace in a back-and-forth, then responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
The remark immediately sparked enthusiastic responses from members of the male-only group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center said has “affiliations with known extremists.”
Following the president’s comments, the group, founded by Vice cofounder Gavin McInnes, celebrated on the semi-private social media networks that they’ve been forced to inhabit after Facebook and Twitter banned them in 2018. They put the president’s words on their logo, posted a cheering video, and began to sell T-shirts saying “stand down stand by.”
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy,” a Proud Boys organizer, whom BuzzFeed News is declining to name, wrote.
One of the channels showed over 600 new members in the last 24 hours, while another one showed roughly 700. BuzzFeed News is choosing not to name the networks on which the group organizes to avoid driving traffic to them.
Some of that traffic may have come not just from the president’s comments, but also from the screenshots of those channels that reporters and commentators circulated during and after the debate on social media, according to anti-extremism researchers who spoke to BuzzFeed News after the debate.
Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told BuzzFeed News, “When journalists are sharing the names of groups … that is another kind of resource, especially when it lacks so much context.”
“It’s basically directing people toward hate.”
“It’s basically directing people toward hate,” Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor who researches online extremism, told BuzzFeed News.
The Proud Boys are known for antagonizing protesters and members of the press, at times violently. One member, 50-year-old Alan Swinney, was arrested on six charges the morning after the presidential debate. Swinney allegedly pointed a gun at a person and was involved in a violent brawl in Portland, Oregon, in August. Last night, Robert Evans, a Bellingcat reporter, said a member of the group broke Evans’ hand during a Portland protest that same month.
Thomas Zeitzoff, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University who studies political violence and extremism, told BuzzFeed News that Tuesday’s debate left him feeling distressed. Trump’s comments were “not a dog whistle but a foghorn for [far-right extremist] groups,” he said.
Pro-Trump commentators and members of the president’s reelection campaign spent much of Wednesday trying to silence that foghorn. “Trump is bad at this, he’s awful with language,” said conservative podcast host and author Ben Shapiro. “That is not Donald Trump defending white supremacy, that is a media lie.”
By the afternoon, Trump disclaimed knowledge of the Proud Boys, saying to a reporter, “They have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work,” adding, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are.”
Pressed, for the second time in less than 24 hours, about whether he welcomed support from white supremacists, the president again refused to disavow hate groups.
“I want law and order to be a very important part,” he said, “it’s a very important part of my campaign.”
Despite the attempts to distance himself from the remarks and even though Trump’s comments last night only included the Proud Boys, other members of the far right also rejoiced at the exposure, mixed with some jealousy.
“Some of them are giving props,” said Squire, “like, ‘Respect, you got a shout-out from the president. That’s pretty cool.’”