The Proud Boys are fired up.
The far-right group has been celebrating since President Donald Trump refused to directly disavow them and a range of white supremacists during Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio.
Trump, who has been criticized for never explicitly denouncing right-wing extremism, was asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News if he would condemn white supremacy.
“Who would you like me to condemn?” Trump asked before Democratic challenger Joe Biden mentioned the Proud Boys, a pro-Trump group.
“The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump responded. “But I’ll tell you what — somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Solidly behind Trump
The Proud Boys are among Trump’s biggest supporters and frequently attend his campaign rallies. While some members interpreted the president’s comments as an endorsement, Enrique Tarrio, the group’s Florida-based leader, who identifies as an Afro-Cuban, said he did not.
“Although I am excited about our mention on the debate stage … I am not taking this as a direct endorsement from the President,” Tarrio wrote on Telegram. “Him telling the Proud Boys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done.”
Tarrio said the Proud Boys do not espouse “white supremacy,” echoing the group’s long-standing public disavowal of racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism and violence.
Tarrio did not respond to a request for comment from VOA.
In a statement to VOA, Ronald D. Coleman, a partner at the Dhillon Law Group who is an informal spokesman for the Proud Boys and a friend of Tarrio, said Tarrio has reassured him that “the Proud Boys’ regulations prohibiting racist, white supremacist or violent activity remain very much in place."
But Joe Biggs, another well-known Proud Boys leader, took Trump’s comments as a call to action.
“Trump basically said to go [expletive] them up!” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “This makes me so happy.”
In the wake of widespread criticism of his refusal to denounce white supremacy, Trump on Wednesday appeared to shift his stance.
"I don't know who the Proud Boys are," he told reporters at the White House. "Whoever they are, they need to stand down."
Asked if he denounced white supremacy, Trump said, "I've always denounced any form of any of that you have to denounce."
Among the Proud Boys, the apparent reversal in Trump's position was anticipated, and it appeared unlikely to diminish their enthusiasm.
"Don't be surprised if he makes a statement on us in the upcoming days to appease the masses," Biggs wrote Tuesday night. "But he knows we are the good guys."
Biden was highly critical of Trump’s debate performance. Asked by a reporter in Ohio whether he had any advice for the Proud Boys, the former vice president responded, “Cease and desist.”
The controversy comes as Trump continues to blame the violence at racial justice protests around the country almost exclusively on antifa, contradicting his own FBI director's assessment that violent white supremacy remains the biggest domestic national security threat.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said far-right white supremacists are thrilled with what they see as Trump’s endorsement of the Proud Boys — who are profiting from Trump’s comment by selling merchandise containing the words, “Stand down and Standby.”
“All the talk in those sectors is about how great this is — how they're ready to support the president,” Beirich said. “President Trump basically gave the Proud Boys a new slogan.”
Who are the Proud Boys?
The Proud Boys describe themselves as a drinking club of “Western chauvinists.” But extremism watchdogs say that is just a guise for what is at its core a misogynistic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant group.
Although the group has never advocated a white ethnostate championed by white nationalists, its bigotry is just as extreme, Beirich said.
“The organization itself says it stands for Western chauvinism, sometimes Western civilization, which are code words for the white supremacist movement,” Beirich said.
In an online article in 2016 announcing the Proud Boys’ formation, Gavin McInnes, a controversial Canadian right-wing activist and co-founder of VICE Magazine, described the group as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
That line has become part of the group’s initiation rite. Today, members often wear black-and-yellow polo shirts, and the organization has chapters in most U.S. states, as well as in Australia, Britain and Norway, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
The ADL said that while the Proud Boys fall within the “alt-lite” movement that disavows white supremacy, their "hateful impact" is greater than their public pledge implies. For its part, the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Proud Boys as a hate group.
Although the Proud Boys count some nonwhite activists among their members, they have also allowed well-known white supremacists into their ranks, and have appeared at white nationalist rallies, according to Beirich.
Jason Kessler, a former Proud Boys member, was the main organizer of the 2017 far-right Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally brought together neo-Nazis, anti-government militiamen and members of the Ku Klux Klan, and ended in the death of a counterprotester.
Conversely, in recent years, far-right nationalist groups have attended rallies organized by the Proud Boys.
“We believe that there are streams of white supremacy and white nationalism that run deep through what they do,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview with VOA.
She said a Connecticut police officer was forced to retire last year after her organization exposed him as a Proud Boys member.
While the Proud Boys publicly disavow violence, their members have engaged in violent acts over the years.
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified on Capitol Hill last week that white supremacists and anti-government extremists have been responsible for most of the recent deadly attacks by extremist groups within the United States.
Last year, two Proud Boys were convicted of assault and riot charges in connection with the beatings of antifa activists in New York City in 2018.
This year, members have participated in violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing activists in Portland, Oregon, and several other U.S. cities. On August 22, they fought with left-wing counterprotesters in Portland, engaging in multiple acts of violence, according to the ADL.