Media

The ‘Proud Boys’ Debate Moment: A Case Study in the Media’s Mishandling of Trump

President Trump approaches reporters as he departs the White House in Washington, D.C., September 30, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
As usual, it was the president’s bluster that aided the media.

It was 90 seconds of a 90-minute brawl. But for the media, it was Charlottesville all over again.

As usual, it was the president’s bluster that aided the media in pushing a debate post-mortem that reduced the state of American race relations — and the president’s feelings on the subject — to five ill-advised words: “stand back and stand by.”

During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, Trump was asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he was willing “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.” Wallace noted that Trump has repeatedly attacked Joe Biden for refusing to denounce Antifa and far-left provocateurs for the nightly violence they’ve unleashed in American cities.

But, of course, Trump declined to take the simple route.

“Sure, I’m willing to do that,” the president replied, before noting that leftist anarchists have been setting fires, looting, and brawling with cops in much greater numbers than their right-wing counterparts. “Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.”

“I’m willing to do anything, I want to see peace,” he continued.

Biden and Wallace prodded: “Then do it.”

Trump paused, and asked for a “name.” “Who would you like me to condemn?” He got simultaneous, albeit different, answers. “White supremacists and right-wing militia,” Wallace reiterated. Biden, however, interjected and answered, “Proud Boys,” referring to a fringe group of young to middle-aged men who spend their Saturday afternoons walking around America’s cities in matching polo shirts goading left-wing protesters into confrontations.

Trump, apparently still in half a mind to address Wallace’s request for a “stand down,” riffed off of Biden: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he stated in a fit of characteristically ham-handed word association. (On Wednesday, Trump clarified that the group should “stand down and let law enforcement do their work,” adding that “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are.” Perhaps it’s understandable that the president of the United States would be unfamiliar with a group that was invented by a dirty YouTube comedian and whose unifying characteristics appear to be an appreciation for Fred Perry shirts and a propensity to drink themselves under the table.)

The two candidates then immediately got into an argument about Antifa. “Antifa’s an idea, not an organization,” Biden said, misquoting FBI director Chris Wray — who had insisted in a recent hearing that he wasn’t downplaying the threat posed by the violent anarchist movement by referring to it as an ideology, but instead simply noting the group’s lack of organizational structure.

“Alright gentlemen, we’re now moving on,” an exasperated Wallace said.

Trump clearly could and should have been more explicit in responding to Wallace’s request for a condemnation of white supremacy, even if he has already done so. And the Proud Boys are a reprehensible yet numerically irrelevant organization that cheapened the debate by their mere mention.

Once again, however, in an effort to gin up the frenzy over the latest Trump gaffe, cable talking heads and print reporters dispensed with the same nuance they were accusing Trump of lacking in an attempt to draw a straight line between Trump’s Proud Boys comment and Wallace’s initial positing of “white supremacists” — another “very fine people on both sides” moment.

Major outlets like NBC and the Washington Post pointed to the enthusiastic reaction that Trump’s remarks elicited in Proud Boys social-media circles as proof of the link between white-supremacist violence and presidential rhetoric. “The President’s pointed refusal to denounce White supremacists and his mention of the group, specifically, drew immediate celebration from members of the Proud Boys,” CNN’s Maegan Vasquez and Paul LeBlanc wrote, emphasizing the “stand by” section of Trump’s remarks as a tacit instruction to prepare for street violence.

“President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA . . .  well sir! we’re ready!!” organizer Joe Biggs wrote — as if the couple hundred “Western chauvinists” have needed Trump’s command to brawl on the streets of Portland.

As Vox’s Jane Coaston has pointed out, the Proud Boys are many things and espouse many bizarre ideas — they criticize what they see as the suffocating culture of political correctness and unite around a shared desire to preserve “Western civilization” — but they are not white supremacists, at least not in the way Americans have typically understood that term; Coaston also noted, correctly, that overuse of the term “white supremacist” dilutes a term that should be reserved for a specific ideological wing of the most vile political actors.

But according to the New York Times, the nation’s paper of record, Coaston — who frequently reports on the far Right — is apparently uninformed.

“Several civil rights groups have condemned the Proud Boys, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which classifies them as a hate group, and the Anti-Defamation League, which refers to them as ‘hard-core white supremacists,’” Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Annie Karni explained, emphasizing what appears to be the mainstream media’s takeaway from Tuesday’s presidential “debate” — that Donald Trump is a white-supremacist stan.

In quoting the Anti-Defamation League’s description of the Proud Boys as “hard-core white supremacists,” the paper’s story originally linked to an ADL 2017 article — about a group called “The American Guard.” “Proud Boys” is not even mentioned in the article.

So what does the ADL actually say about the group? “While the Proud Boys often publicly denounce white supremacy, their activity has attracted white supremacists who share the group’s opposition to progressive politics and proclivity for violence.”

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