Trump’s ‘Stand By’ Order To Proud Boys Heightens Fears Of Election Day Intimidation

PORTLAND, OREGON, USA - SEPTEMBER 26: A man carries a sign advocating for the accused killer Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin as the Proud Boys, a right-wing pro-Trump group, gather with their allies in a rally called ... PORTLAND, OREGON, USA - SEPTEMBER 26: A man carries a sign advocating for the accused killer Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin as the Proud Boys, a right-wing pro-Trump group, gather with their allies in a rally called âEnd Domestic Terrorismâ against Antifa in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. (Photo by John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 30, 2020 12:46 p.m.

When President Donald Trump told the Proud Boys, the right-wing street gang, to “stand by” during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, the damage was immediate: Short of calling for violence itself, Trump’s comment raised the specter of it, threatening the integrity of the upcoming elections.

On Parler, an alternative to Twitter, the group promoted a new t-shirt with Trump’s comment on it. A prominent organizer for the Proud Boys, Joe Biggs, asserted that Trump said what he did “because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA.” Later, Bigs shared a meme showing a fake tweet from Trump, ordering the Proud Boys to “fuck them up.”

There’s a reason most conservative politicians try to keep the Proud Boys at arms length: For one thing, they’re “bigoted morons,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said this summer, despite being pictured last year with the group’s leader.

The Proud Boys also relish violence and confronting anti-fascists and left-wing protesters, a hobby that’s kept them busy this summer as protests for racial justice have swept the country. “We will kill you,” the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, once said. “That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell.”

At a recent rally in Portland, some Proud Boys carried signs with the phrase “Free Kyle Now” — a reference to Kyle Rittenhouse, who is currently facing charges for killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the Naval War College who focuses on civil-military relations, told TPM Wednesday that she didn’t need to know Trump’s intent with the comment to know its likely effect. 

“What’s likely to happen because of it is that there will be problems with the election,” she said. “I personally think that there is a significantly better than 50% chance that we will see violence.” 

Michael Miller, a professor at George Washington University who focuses on autocracies, told TPM last week that “there does seem to be a strategy here of preparing his side to potentially be violent if necessary.” 

Miller runs the “Authoritarian Warning Survey,” a regular poll of scholars of democratic decline that in recent days has shown an spike in concern. “People, I think, are underestimating the likelihood of just a full-on democratic breakdown,” he said. 

And given that Trump has for months asserted the election will be fraudulent, his comment Tuesday night will only further motivate groups like the Proud Boys and other armed right-wingers to “stand watch over the polls,” Cohn said. 

Even if there isn’t any violence on Election Day, Cohn said, Trump’s words have also made it possible that some voters will be scared away. Combined with the recent delays at the Postal Service and Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting, she said, “the vote is being squeezed from both sides.”

“People are going to hear that neither mail-in balloting nor voting in person is safe or secure or legitimate or appropriate,” she added. “This seems to me like a pretty blatant attempt at voter suppression.” 

A Trump campaign spokesperson, Hogan Gidley, tried to clean up Trump’s mess Wednesday morning, pointing to other times Trump has condemned white supremacists and saying that Trump meant to tell the Proud Boys to “get out of the way.”

If the group’s own social media channel was any indication, that’s not the message they took from Trump’s words. 

“YES SIR,” a post from the account read. “PROUD BOYS STANDING BY.” 

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