More than an hour into Tuesday’s presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace wanted to know if President Donald Trump would denounce white supremacists. His response cast a global spotlight on the Proud Boys — a right-wing group with a dozen chapters in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, where they are known for a readiness to brawl with antifa — anti-fascist — demonstrators. Trump’s remarks also brought a surge in inquiries from potential recruits.
“I already have gotten 25 emails just this morning from people asking about what they have to do to become members,” said Rex Fergus, a Northwest spokesman for the group, which held a rally last Saturday in Portland.
Fergus said in a Wednesday interview that he estimated in the Northwest, the group has some 600 members, including some who are Black, Latino and Asian American. But rallies in the Northwest and elsewhere sometimes have drawn white supremacists, and the context in which the Proud Boys name came up in the debate has complicated a long-running effort by the group’s leadership to distance itself from racist ideology.
The Proud Boys was formed 2016 by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who sought a group for “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” The Washington Post reports the black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts worn by many members is clothing once associated with British white supremacist movements of the 1970s, and some members attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. In that event, white supremacists and counterprotesters fought in the streets and a self-professed neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of demonstrators, killing one.
In the presidential debate, the Proud Boys’ big moment came when Wallace, the moderator, wanted to know if Trump would condemn white supremacists.
Trump equivocated, saying he was “prepared to do that” but “almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.” Shortly thereafter, he asked to “give me a name” of a white supremacist group.
Former Vice President Joe Biden jumped in to offer “the Proud Boys,” and Trump responded by telling the group to “stand back and stand by,” instead of repudiating the Proud Boys.
That statement triggered a burst of of social-media activity around the group, with more than 1 million mentions during and after the 90-minutes-plus broadcast. A typical day comprises a couple of thousand mentions, Clemson University social-media researcher Darren Linvill told The Washington Post.
The Proud Boys joined the online conversation.
On Twitter, national Proud Boys Chair Enrique Tarrio noted the debate question was in reference to white supremacy, “which we are not.” But Tarrio and other Proud Boys were pleased by Trump’s message.
“I’m extremely Proud of my President’s performance tonight,” Tarrio tweeted.
“President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA … well, sir! we’re ready!!’ wrote Joe Biggs, a Proud Boy who spoke at the Portland rally, in a post on Parler. Then, he posted, “Trump basically said to go (expletive) them up! This makes me so happy.”
Trump’s message to the Proud Boys raised concerns that he is looking for support in the streets should he dispute election results that point toward a Biden victory.
“You’re essentially telling a paramilitary force to ‘stand by,’” Heidi Beirich, an expert on far-right politics who co-founded the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told The Washington Post. “I think at this point, the biggest thing to worry about is Election Day.”
Trump, in remarks Wednesday, said he did not know who the Proud Boys are, and used the phrase “stand down,” saying his debate comment was intended to tell the group to let law enforcement do its work.
In the Pacific Northwest, Proud Boys have on occasion been high-profile participants in Trump rallies. On Labor Day, Proud Boy Todd Flipp was one of the few speakers at a large Trump gathering in Oregon’s Clackamas County. Later that that day, the group held its own rally in Salem that drew some supporters who chased down and beat counterprotesters.
The Proud Boys’ plans for the rally last Saturday in Portland brought the prospect of more clashes between the group and left-wing protesters. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency and beefed up law enforcement presence in the city. That rally drew a few hundred people, and there were no large-scale fights before the Proud Boys headed off to Vancouver, Washington, to eat barbecue and drink beer.
Before leaving the Portland rally, Tarrio, the Proud Boys chairman, was asked whether he would urge Proud Boys to protest if Trump said the election was illegitimate.
Tarrio said he had been a poll worker for many years, and did not think that problems with mail-in ballots would change results of the election. He also said he would not take his orders from Trump.
“If there is a challenge, I’m going to be objective and I’m not going to side with the president. I’m not going to side with Joe Biden,” Tarrio said. “If we see it is a big nothing-burger, then we are definitely not going out into the streets.”
But in a post on Parler on Tuesday evening, he offered another take on his allegiance to Trump.
“Standing by sir,” Tarrio wrote.