OP-Ed by Emma McNamee
The first presidential debate was a breeding ground for lies and exaggeration, mostly on the behalf of current president Donald Trump, though Democratic candidate Joe Biden was guilty of a few over-exaggerations and unfounded “facts” himself. While lies are a long-standing cliche of politics, the excess in recent elections has given rise to fact-checking sites like Politifact and real-time fact-checking from news organizations during major political events. In a sea of untruths and self-serving but overwhelmingly false statements, it is important that voters take note of one critical lie in particular that came off the debate stage: Trump stating he is prepared to condemn white supremacist groups.
The question of Trump’s willingness to condemn hate groups, posed by moderator Chris Wallace, was met a quick “sure,” by Trump, who then quickly passed responsibility for violence to the unspecific “left” and Antifa—which is not so much an organized group, but a shorthand reference to anti-fascist ideology. The conversation quickly devolved into Biden and Trump arguing over each other, but in the midst of this chaotic exchange came a shocking call from President Trump for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
An all-male group known for white nationalist, anti-Muslim, and misogynistic rhetoric, the Proud Boys were one of many alt-right groups involved in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Trump’s comments on the debate stage were seen by some news organizations as a call to action, even an endorsement by the sitting president of a far-right group widely associated with white supremacy.
This is a president who was vocally supported by figures like David Duke, a former KKK leader, and infamously referred to the conflict in Charlottesville as having “some very fine people on both sides.” Trump’s presidency has seen hate crimes reach a 16 year high, according to the latest 2018 report from the FBI. In many ways, Trump’s campaigns—both in 2016 and his current 2020 bid for reelection—have utilized divisive rhetoric to embolden white extremists and the far-right.
In the context of one of the most racially divided eras of the 21st century, Trump’s comments around white supremacy only strengthen that divide, regardless of the intention behind his words. The fact of the matter is, this is Trump’s America, and the most shocking part of seeing the president tell a white supremacist group to “stand back and stand by,” during a televised debate was not so much that he said it, but that many people watching were not that surprised. That is what is so dangerous about these kinds of statements from a man who holds such tremendous power—not that Trump lied, but that in doing so and refusing to outright condemn white supremacists he continues to normalize such behavior from within the highest office in the United States.