America has just had its first genuinely fascist moment—the day when the president claimed charge of a paramilitary street-fighting force comprised of white nationalist vigilante thugs and called on them to defeat his political enemies.
That is what Donald Trump did in Tuesday night’s presidential debate. When asked to denounce white supremacists, he demurred. And he specifically named the Proud Boys—a designated hate group that uses street violence to promote a far right-wing agenda—in handing out marching orders, telling them, essentially, to keep their powder dry for likely violence around the election: “Stand back and stand by.”
One of the defining traits of fascism has always been the presence of paramilitary street-fighting forces. In Germany, they were called Sturmabteilung (“Storm Detachment”), or SA, but were better known as the Brownshirts. In Italy, they wore black clothing and thus were known as Blackshirts or “Squadristi.” Their official name there was Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale. (MVSN, "Voluntary Socialist Militia for National Security.")
These thugs historically have served multiple functions: intimidating and threatening leftists with violence; creating public propaganda depicting those leftists as the sources of the violence; and establishing a common cause with the mainstream elements (primarily businesses, corporate owners, and landowners) threatened by leftist causes.
German propaganda was especially adroit at promoting images of brave Brownshirts being victimized by violent leftists. The Nazi marching song—the “Horst Wessel Lied”—was a celebration of a young Brownshirt who had been killed by leftists. This appeal was central to the Nazis' ongoing campaign to portray themselves as the sole effective defenders of mainstream society against the threat of an evil, nefarious left that was part of a global communist conspiracy.
The Proud Boys—along with the armed “Patriot” militia cohort who frequently populate their street rallies—have clearly established themselves as the modern version of this, organizing events with the purpose in its entirety is to wreak violence and engender propaganda (promoted online by pseudo-journalists like Andy Ngo) designed to build a narrative depicting a “violent left.” They have been lurking around the scenes of the Trump campaign—showing up, for instance, to support Vice President Mike Pence at a Philadelphia event—but had not previously received any kind of official embrace.
So when Trump was asked by moderator Chris Wallace during Tuesday’s debate to disavow this element, he not only refused to, but clearly appeared to assume command of them: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Trump’s defenders—most notably the Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams—have been gaslighting Americans for the past two years by claiming that no, Trump really didn’t refuse to disavow white supremacists after the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville when he said that “some of them were very fine people.” But on Tuesday night, Trump’s refusal to disavow them was right there on the screen for everyone to see:
Chris Wallace: You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?
Donald Trump: Sure, I’m willing to do that.
CW: Are you prepared specifically to do it?
DT: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.
CW: But what are you saying?
DT: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
CW: Well, do it, sir.
Joe Biden: Say it, do it, say it.
DT: You want to call them—what do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead, who do you want me to condemn?
CW: White supremacists and right-wing militia.
JB: Proud Boys.
DT: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, 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.
JB: His own FBI director said unlike white supremacists, antifa is an idea, not an organization.
DT: Oh, you got to be kidding me.
JB: … not a militia. That’s what his FBI director said.
DT: Well, then you know what, he’s wrong.
CW: We’re done, sir. Moving onto the next … [crosstalk 00:42:46]
DT: Antifa is bad.
JB: Everybody in your administration tells you the truth—it’s a bad idea. You have no idea about anything.
DT: You know what, antifa is a dangerous radical group.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that Biden was precisely correct in his interjections: FBI director Christopher Wray did in fact testify before the House two weeks ago that antifa is an ideology or movement, not an organization. Moreover, the larger point—that antifa is not even remotely an existential or national security threat to Americans while the deluge of white nationalist violence that Trump has unleashed like a pandemic has engaged in terrorism at an exponentially greater rate—was an important one to impress on both Trump and the public.
No doubt the gaslighters will be back in action again today, pointing to Trump’s brief “I’m willing to do that” as a denunciation of white supremacists—even though it clearly was not. Trump said he would denounce them, but proved utterly unable to actually say the words.
Trump’s recalcitrance is consistent with his behavior whenever he has been confronted with the reality that he has the avid, maniacal support of violent white supremacists. His response all along has been to dance a tango in which, after sending out a signal of encouragement, he follows up with an anodyne disavowal of far-right extremists that is believed by no one, least of all white nationalists. Whenever queried about whether white nationalists pose a threat—as he was after a right-wing terrorist’s lethal attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand—he answered: “I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of the radical right.
More importantly, perhaps, is that those fascists and proto-fascists marching in the streets have in fact been doing so in his name. As they did that August 2017 weekend in Virginia, the marchers in these various factions—in addition to full complements of armed militiamen and weapon-and-shield-toting “Proud Boys”—have worn red “Make America Great Again” ball caps and pro-Trump T-shirts, carried pro-Trump signs, and chanted his name as often as they chant “U-S-A!”
All of these rallies have featured speeches and chants about the president. In Charlottesville, the alt-right marchers chanted: “Hail Trump!” Moreover, alt-right organizers specifically urged rally-goers in the months beforehand to bring their “Make America Great Again” ball caps to emphasize their connection to the president. “Bring your MAGA hats if you’ve got ’em,” wrote “Unite the Right” chief organizer Jason Kessler in a recently uncovered June post. “If Antifa fucks with us it’ll look like average Trump supporters … are under attack.”
The problem is not just reflected in these protests, but in what has happened nationally since the election. In the first three months after Trump won the presidency, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded an astonishing 1,372 hate incidents, nearly all of them election-related. A deep dive into the data reveals that nearly half of these incidents involve people referencing Trump, either by name or by parroting his rhetoric: groups of white thugs intimidating minorities while chanting “Trump,” for instance, or swastika graffiti accompanied by the words “Make America White Again.” The cold, hard fact that racist thugs shout and chant Trump’s name while threatening and intimidating minorities should give us all pause—even though it clearly does not bother the president himself.
And as always, Trump’s message was received loud and clear by the red-hatted Brownshirts who populate the Proud Boys, along with other white supremacists.
“Trump basically said go fuck them up!” commented national Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs on Parler. “This makes me so happy.”
“Standing by, sir,” added his fellow national leadership member, Enrique Tarrio.
The Proud Boys themselves eagerly deny that they are a white supremacist organization, pointing to the presence of a handful of people of color within their ranks, notably Tarrio. Yet it’s also unquestionable that a significant number of overt neo-Nazis and white nationalists are members, and they frequently spout bigoted rhetoric both online and at far-right rallies. It’s even less questionable whether or not they exist to create violence directed at leftists and liberals.
Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes—who has filed a lawsuit against the SPLC for designating the Proud Boys a hate group under the category “general hate”—himself embodies this disingenuousness. Christopher Mathias’ HuffPost profile of the group collects the details:
[McInnes] uses slurs like “nigger” and “faggot,” once described transgender people as “gender niggers” and “stupid lunatics” and maligned Muslims as “stupid” and inbred. He has been pictured wearing a neo-Nazi band’s T-shirt, has a tattoo associated with that band, is chummy with white supremacists, writes for white supremacist websites and likes to throw up Nazi salutes. He also regularly incites his Proud Boy followers to commit violence. “Fighting solves everything,” he has said.
Members are more explicit. One video of Proud Boys—including an early promoter named Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet—includes footage of one of them explaining: “Let me tell you, these are the real Proud Boys—the 14/88 type [undiluted neo-Nazis; “14” refers to the neo-Nazi mantra known as “the 14 Words,” while “88” is a numerically coded salute of “Heil Hitler”] Proud Boys. Proud to be white Proud Boys.”
Gionet then adds: “Damned right. White power.” The other man then begins reciting the “14 Words.”
Proud Boys also frequently come to their events heavily armed, as they did last Sunday in Portland, so they are not only proto-fascist in nature, they are clearly a kind of paramilitary. “III Percent” militia and far-right “Oath Keepers” members also frequently participate in their rallies.
As I recently explained, the arrival of fascism in America is actually happening in a classic step by step fashion. The really definitive step—the fascist moment when a nation can see clearly what is happening to them—happens when the violent paramilitary faction receives official support and even command from the authoritarian leader himself.
That happened Tuesday night. America’s fate will depend on how it responds.