At the first presidential debate on Tuesday, President Trump was asked if he would denounce the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. Mr. Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by…Somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left.”

Several Proud Boys celebrated the comment on social media afterward, viewing it as support. Mr. Trump’s comment drew condemnation from researchers who study domestic terrorism, who say such rhetoric encourages violence.

Kurt Braddock, an American University professor who studies how extremist groups communicate, said he was troubled particularly by Mr. Trump’s comment that the Proud Boys should “stand by.”

“It suggests that should he need them, he will call on them,” Mr. Braddock said. “It’s that kind of language that can be interpreted as a call to action by some people looking for an excuse to engage in violence.”

At the debate, Mr. Trump was asked if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups that have been involved in clashes around the country. Mr. Trump said: “Sure, I am willing” but quickly added that “almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing” and “I want to see peace.” Mr. Trump didn’t expand further on white supremacists.

Asked by reporters if he would denounce white supremacists on Wednesday, the president said, “I always denounce them, any form, any form of that.” He also attempted to clarify his widely criticized comments about the Proud Boys. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he said. “Whoever they are, they need to stand down.”

Who are the Proud Boys?

The Proud Boys describe themselves as a men’s organization for “western chauvinists.” Proud Boys affiliates have made misogynistic comments, including support for rape, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The group has also espoused anti-Muslim, anti-transgender and anti-immigration views while some members hold white supremacist and anti-Semitic views, the ADL said.

Since the group’s founding in 2016, several members have been convicted of violent crimes, the ADL said. In recent months, Proud Boys have fought with people protesting police treatment of Black people in Portland, Ore., and other cities. “Armed with bear mace, clubs, paintball guns and in the case of one Proud Boys member, an actual gun, the Proud Boys engaged in multiple acts of violence against counterprotesters and members of the media,” the ADL said, describing a brawl in Portland.

The primary organizer of the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left a woman dead and dozens injured, Jason Kessler, is a former Proud Boy, according to the ADL.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump traded barbs over how each of them has dealt with issues of race. The president was asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacist and militia groups and call for them to not incite violence. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Press Pool

“They see themselves as the logical counterweight to antifa, which would make them the ‘fa,’ the fascists, and they embrace that,” said Colin Clarke, a researcher at the Soufan Center, a nonpartisan group that tracks extremism. Antifa is a loose network of far-left activists who have at times engaged in violence against those they view as fascist or racist.

Last year, two members of the Proud Boys were sentenced to four years in prison for their role in a 2018 brawl following a speech by the group’s founder at a New York City Republican club. The men were found guilty of attempted gang assault, attempted assault and other charges after prosecutors said they had attacked members of antifa.

“In reality, the Proud Boys bear many of the hallmarks of a gang,” according to the ADL.

How did the Proud Boys react to Trump’s ‘stand back and stand by’ message?

Members of the group celebrated the comment on Telegram and other channels where they congregate.

In the hours after Mr. Trump’s remarks, someone rebranded the Proud Boys logo to include Mr. Trump’s comments—“STAND BACK STAND BY”—according to a screenshot of a Telegram channel. A social-media account affiliated with the Proud Boys also began promoting T-shirts marked “Proud Boys Standing By.” Researchers at the Soufan Center flagged the developments but cautioned they had yet to independently verify them.

Supporters of the group wrote charged messages, such as “Leftist f*** are seething right now…It’s glorious” and “F*** it, let’s go back to Portland,” according to screenshots provided by Arie Perliger, a professor who researches far-right groups at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

How did experts who study extremism react to the president’s comments?

Mr. Trump’s comments give the Proud Boys a “sense of empowerment that in their actions they represent the president and the essence of patriotism to the leader,” said Mr. Perliger, who recently wrote a book on right-wing extremists, “American Zealots.”

Mr. Trump’s comments provide “in their eyes, popular legitimacy and the sense that their actions have popular support,” Mr. Perliger added. “Past studies, including mine, again and again, confirm the direct connection between feelings of legitimacy and empowerment and the inclination to violent activism.”

Mr. Clarke, the Soufan Center expert, said Mr. Trump’s comments would likely drive membership and financial support to the Proud Boys.

“They look at this as an overt endorsement of their movement,” he said. “People that are fired up about politics right now see the Proud Boys as basically a big middle finger to anyone on the left.”

Members of the Proud Boys in Vancouver, Wash. earlier this month.


Nathan Howard/Getty Images

How big is Proud Boys?



and Instagram have banned the Proud Boys. They likely have several hundred members, according to Mr. Perliger, the expert on far-right extremists. “The group has multiple chapters/gangs in various locations, but it is not clear if it has an actual organizational infrastructure that can mobilize members,” he said.

Many of their members congregate on platforms like Gab, Parler and Telegram popular with conservative and far-right groups, according to social-media research firm Storyful.

Some of the Proud Boys’ social media channels have significant reach, Storyful said. The Proud Boys’ main channel on Parler has more than 51,000 followers and on Telegram more than 6,100 subscribers, according to Storyful.

One Telegram group often features racist content and Nazi imagery, and counts more than 1,700 members, Storyful said.

Mentions of the Proud Boys exploded on mainstream social-media platforms after Mr. Trump’s debate comments, according to Storyful, which counted more than 143,000 mentions on Twitter in the 12 hours after the start of the debate. That figure represents nearly 75% of the total number of tweets mentioning the Proud Boys in the first eight months of this year, Storyful said.

Storyful is owned by News Corp, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal

How did the Proud Boys start?

The Proud Boys was formed in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder, Gavin McInnes. Though he has since stepped down, he remains influential, researchers say. A Texas attorney briefly took over before Enrique Tarrio took the lead, according to the ADL.

After Mr. Trump remarked on the Proud Boys at the debate, Mr. Tarrio posted several celebratory comments on Parler. “So Proud of my guys right now,” one read.

In a video clip posted on a Proud Boys channel on Parler in response to Mr. Trump’s debate comments, Mr. McInnes said, “I control the Proud Boys, Donald! Do not stand down, do not stand back.”

Write to Rachael Levy at [email protected]

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