During the election season's first one-on-one debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he was willing to publicly condemn white supremacists and militia groups for inciting violence across the country.
"Sure, I'm willing to, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace," said Trump. "Who would you like me to condemn?"
Biden could be heard suggesting the Proud Boys.
"Proud Boys, stand back and stand by," Trump stated, then pivoted to a denouncement of "antifa and the Left."
Trump's response exploded all over social media. More than 16 hours later, the phrase "You REFUSED" is still trending on Twitter with nearly 70,000 tweets.
"Him telling the ProudBoys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done," tweeted Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys' Florida chapter. "I’m am extremely PROUD of my Presidents performance tonight."
Tarrio took care to state that Wallace's question referenced "WHITE SUPREMACY...which we are not."
Him telling the ProudBoys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done.— Enrique Tarrio (@enrique_tarrio) September 30, 2020
I’m am extremely PROUD of my Presidents performance tonight.
Though Tarrio himself identifies as Afro-Cuban, the Proud Boys have long been associated with white supremacist rhetoric, and for a time the FBI designated the organization as an extremist group. The Proud Boys have admitted to participating in the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event organized by white nationalists that erupted in violence and death.
The Proud Boys style themselves as a "Western Chauvinist" pro-Trump group that rails against political correctness and is anti "white guilt." The organization was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, a cofounder of Vice Media who announced the group's inception in Taki Magazine, a publication that's particularly sympathetic toward neo-nazism.
In 2018, several Proud Boys members were suspended from Twitter for violating the site's policies on "violent extremist groups," and Tarrio himself was at one point removed from the site for evading that suspension — though he quickly created a new account. Before he was banned, Tarrio tweeted threats that he would report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.
Late last year, Tarrio announced he his intention to run for U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala's seat in Florida's 27th Congressional District. That hasn't gone far. Following a slow start in fundraising, Tarrio has raised a total of $1,951 from individual contributions to his campaign to date, according to campaign-finance records.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, issued a statement this morning condemning Trump's comment.
"Refusing to condemn white supremacy is shameful, and encouraging white supremacists to 'stand by' for possible violence is blatantly threatening," said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR's deputy executive director.
(McInnes, the Proud Boys' founder, has previously spewed hateful rhetoric about Muslims, accusing them of inbreeding and calling a majority of them "mentally damaged.")
Even the popular Twitter account of dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster took a poke at Trump's verbiage, tweeting the dictionary definitions of the president's words verbatim:
'Stand back': to take a few steps backwards— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 30, 2020
'Stand by': to be or to get ready to act #Debates2020