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What Trump Said and What the Proud Boys Heard

Here’s why the president encourages the fringe elements of society and elevates them to importance.
October 2, 2020
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A man holds his hand to his heart as a Proud Boys organizer recites the Pledge of Allegiance during a Proud Boys rally at Delta Park in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. (Maranie R. Staab / AFP / Getty)

When future historians try to decipher what happened in the 2020 presidential election, they will cast their gaze upon two unforced errors that, as we examine it now, could cost Donald Trump the second term he so desires.

Both occurred within a week of each other, and both point to Trump’s unraveling mental state. They are harbingers of doom. Hopefully enough Americans are still in possession of their cognitive abilities to recognize and avert the doom.

When I asked President Trump last week, he would not commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election. And this week, he would not denounce white supremacy when asked to do so in a debate.

Both questions could have been easily answered by any middle schooler who has taken a civics class—or indeed any rational human being with a modicum of understanding of how our government and society work.

Trump apparently is neither rational nor capable of passing an eighth-grade American history test.

Both of these unforced errors took place live on a national stage in front of television cameras.

The first occurred in the White House Brady Briefing Room, the second on the dais in Cleveland during a presidential debate that our future historians will find filed away under the title of “Worst Ever.”

In the case of his first unforced error, Trump apologists say I confused him when I asked, “Win, lose, or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?” Those of us who have our frontal lobes know that Trump fumbled the answer because he simply cannot commit to a peaceful transfer of power. He doesn’t even want to count all the votes—only the votes that count for him. And he certainly doesn’t want to give up the White House.

But the second question is even more problematic for Trump. Not only did the president’s statement—which specifically addressed the Proud Boys—encourage them, it can be said the president helped to brand them by writing their new slogan: “Stand Back and Stand By.”

The day after this gaffe the president tried to walk back his statement at a South Lawn departure where he said, “They have to stand down . . . let law enforcement do the work. Now Antifa is a real problem . . .”

This time, Trump’s apologists, including campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley, claimed the president actually had condemned white supremacy during the debate, and of course again on the South Lawn. But Gidley and the Trump administration are missing an important point.

Even if what they say is true, and it isn’t, the Trump camp has to acknowledge that white supremacists everywhere, including the controversial Proud Boys (who have ties to Roger Stone) did not see Trump’s declaration in the debate as condemnation. They took it as affirmation. That’s the trouble. Whatever he meant, the terrorists heard loud and clear “Saddle up. We’re about to ride.”

And even when he finally condemned the Proud Boys on Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night—fully two days after the debate—the group’s leader took the news with a wink. (“We are now to be called… The CondemnedBoys!!!”)

This is what happens when you cozy up to extremists simply because they like you. Trump has similar problems with QAnon conspiracy theorists because he also said in the Brady Briefing Room that he has no problem with them—because they like him.

But Trump knows he needs to cobble together a coalition to get re-elected and apparently he’s down to terrorists, extremists, and loudmouth cousins who drink too much at a neighborhood barbecue and have to be driven home in an Uber.

This is why Trump encourages the fringe elements of society and elevates them to importance. It is why he retweets reprobates and cartoon villains. They profess their love for him and he gives them shelter from the storm and the attention they crave. In some cases he doesn’t even know or care what they stand for. He can stoop to embrace them as long as they bring attention and votes.

The members of the Flat Earth Society, climate change deniers, those who think George Soros drinks the blood of the young and ogles volcano virgins (apologies to G.B. Trudeau) are welcome under Trump’s crooked tent.

Turning up the volume on the factually and scientifically challenged lummoxes who still drag their knuckles through their self-made mental swamps only has the rest of us wondering if we’re in some modern version of the Middle Ages.

If we are, and if we’re lucky, then perhaps the November election will be looked upon by future historians as the beginning of a new Age of Enlightenment. Whatever happens, in the future historians will have to try and unravel how it is as a culture we’ve come to deny science, math, and facts in favor of a clownish narrative that benefits only the idly rich.

So yes, future historians will have a lot to deal with, but right now it’s our job to make sure they have a job and our culture doesn’t disappear in the sands of time like the fallen Roman Empire.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.