This is an excerpt from a Medium post, originally published on September 30, 2020.
In last night’s debate, which CNN’s Jake Tapper on-air called a “hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck” and that his on-air colleague Dana Bash called a “shit show,” Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacy.
That’s not a surprise. It’s part of a pattern.
In my latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I document Trump’s pattern of deflecting calls to denounce white supremacists, followed by a weak denunciation, then reverting back to his prior language.
Trump’s Pattern of Deflection
When asked to denounce white supremacy, both during the campaign and during his presidency, Trump’s response typically includes the four elements below.
1. Deflect. He does this in several ways. He ignores the call to denounce. He changes the subject. He professes ignorance about the event. He characterizes the event differently. Sometimes he expresses sympathy for victims while not addressing the event that caused them to be become victims.
2. Diminish. If pressed he diminishes the significance of the event or attempts to create a false equivalence between the event and more benign topics, or between the group in question and his political rivals.
3. Denounce. After an interval, sometimes of hours, but often of days, Trump issues a written denunciation or reads a statement denouncing the event or person, often in a tone of rote recitation.
4. Revert. Not long after the denunciation, Trump reverts to his earlier language and behavior, as if his denunciation never happened. This is a constant; it happens after every denunciation.
We can expect that pattern to play out here.
Are you willing, tonight, 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 cities, as we saw in Kenosha and we’ve seen in Portland
Trump immediately went to Step 1, Deflect:
I’m prepared to do it, but I would say that almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want peace.
Well, do it, sir.
Trump’s debate opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, prodded Trump:
Say it. Do it. Say it.
Trump seemed confused, and stalled for time:
You want to call them; what do you want call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Who do you want me to condemn?
Vice President Biden, referring to a violent right supremacist group, said,
Trump took the bait, and then went to Step 2, Diminish, and attempted a false equivalence:
Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. 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…
His own FBI Director said the threat comes from white supremacists. Antifa is an idea, not an organization.
Proud Boys, Stand Back and Stand By
Trump’s deflection and saying that he’d tell the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by” was immediately seized by the Proud Boys themselves, who interpreted it as a sign of support.
NBC News reported that the Proud Boys celebrated after Trump’s call-out:
The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, pledged allegiance to President Donald Trump on Tuesday night after he told the group to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate.
Many people on social media who identify with the group echoed that language, saying they were “standing down and standing by.” One known social media account for the group made “Stand back. Stand by” part of its new logo.”
According to the Washington Post,
One prominent Proud Boys supporter on [the right wing-social media site] Parler said Trump appeared to give permission for attacks on protesters, adding that “this makes me so happy.” Other supporters saw a retail opportunity, pushing $30 T-shirts and $40 hoodies bearing the group’s logo and the words, “PROUD BOYS STANDING BY.”
Within an hour there was Stand Back Stand By Merchandise on the Proud Boys site
On the Proud Boys’ account on the social media app Telegram, the group appeared to take the statement as marching orders.
Standing down and standing by sir,” the account wrote. The account then posted two videos of the answer, including one with the caption “God. Family. Brotherhood,” in which a man howled at the TV in response to Trump’s response.
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who tracks online extremism, said Trump’s giving the Proud Boys orders was their long-sought “fantasy.”
“To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement,” Squire said. “They were pro-Trump before this shoutout, and they are absolutely over the moon now. Their fantasy is to fight antifa in his defense, and he apparently just asked them to do just that.
Following the Pattern, the afternoon after the debate Trump went to Step 3, Denounce, and gave a lukewarm condemnation:
I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work
We can expect him to move to Step 4, Revert, any day now.