The Proud Boys, who have been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), pledged allegiance to President Donald Trump on Tuesday night after he called on them to "stand back, and stand by" during the first presidential debate.
Supporters and members of the group echoed the president on social media, appearing to take Trump's remarks as marching orders. The Proud Boys Telegram wrote, "standing down and standing by sir." Another known account incorporated a version of the phrase — "Stand back. Stand by" — into a new group logo.
By Wednesday morning, the phrase had become part of a meme featuring a photo of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Trump supporter and law enforcement advocate charged with murder after allegedly killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisc., last month.
Trump made the remarks in response to questions from debate moderator Chris Wallace, who during a segment on race and violence in America asked the president whether he would disavow white supremacy and urge right-wing extremist groups stoking violence at racial justice protests to "stand down."
When Trump asked Wallace to name a specific group, Democratic nominee Joe Biden singled out the Proud Boys.
"Proud Boys: Stand back, and stand by," Trump said, before pivoting: "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."
By shifting blame without condemning white supremacist groups, Trump echoed the very moment which had prompted Wallace's question. In 2017, the president responded to a violent white nationalist rally in Virginia — an event organized by former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler — by saying, "There's blame on both sides." And his latest remarks did not go unheard by the Proud Boys.
"President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA... well sir! we're ready!!" group co-founder Joe Biggs posted on the Proud Boys Telegram account.
"Trump basically said to go f*ck them up!" Biggs later posted to Parler, an alternative social media platform with a conservative user base. "This makes me so happy."
"This Portlander is ready to cleanse our city of these Antifa scum," one supporter wrote in response. Others viewed it as a "call to arms," and that the president "knows the ProudBoys of America are an Asset!"
"I think this 'stand back, stand by' thing will be another Proud Boy saying," Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio told The Daily Beast. (The Beast pointed out that previous slogans were: "The West Is the Best," and the warning "F*ck Around and Find Out.")
The Proud Boys are self-described "Western chauvinists," but they deny any connection to the racist alt-right. Members claim they are instead simply a men's group that promotes an "anti-political correctness" and "anti-white guilt" ideology, according to the SPLC.
The group, which has been linked to right-wing instigator and Trump ally Roger Stone, prizes violence as a core element of masculinity. Its initiation process requires hopefuls to, among other things, denounce masturbation and recite five brands of cereal while fighting. The blur of violence and youthful cheek has led some to view the group as a troll, while others argue they pose a serious threat.
"Their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions," the SPLC says. "Rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric."
Proud Boys marched at the aforementioned 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virg., after which the group's founder Gavin McInness sought to create distance from the white supremacist movement. In recent months, members have shown up to counter Black Lives Matter protests.
A group of Proud Boys launched a street brawl in Manhattan in 2018, which began with an attack on protesters outside of an event where McInness had given a speech. It morphed into a roving melee, which swept up bystanders. Members of the group claimed self-defense. A jury convicted two of the men the following year, who were both sentenced to four years in prison.
"I mean their name — derived from a song from the Aladdin musical — and their demeanor — their clothes, those polo shirts — all of it suggests you not take them seriously right? But that's troll tactics. It's misdirection," journalist and writer Talia Lavin, whose book on right-wing extremism titled "Culture Warlords," comes out Oct. 13, told Salon. "Yes, I think a group that regularly crosses state lines to incite violence should be taken seriously, and they're also metonymous for a lot of other groups."
"This is a group that already deploys fists, bats and cockroach spray against their perceived enemies," Lavin continued. "They routinely do violence. Their purpose is violence. We should avoid glamorizing them or making them seem like a giant bogeyman. But, yes, encouraging extrajudicial, paramilitary violence and a nationwide network of responsive paramilitary groups is a very serious situation."
Public figures swiftly condemned Trumps' remarks on social media.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that Trump's answer last night was "astonishing."
"President Trump owes America an apology or an explanation," he said. "Now."
Anti-Trump conservative pundit David French tweeted that Trump's comments were "a call to be ready" to a "violent vigilante militia."
"In a nation wracked by unrest, that was one of the most irresponsible and reprehensible statements I've ever seen from a president," he wrote.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat who Trump has routinely attacked in recent months, tweeted: "Let's be clear: The Proud Boys are white supremacists. Racism and hate are not forms of patriotism."
Biden also weighed in again after the debate. "This. This is Donald Trump's America," he tweeted, responding to a photo quoting group leaders on social media.
Trump campaign chief strategist Jason Miller told USA Today that the president was telling the group to "knock it off."
But South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a Trump ally and the only Black Republican in the Senate, said the president needed to walk his comments back himself.
"I think he misspoke. I think he should correct it," Scott said. "If he doesn't correct it, I guess he didn't misspeak."