CLEVELAND, Ohio — After he was asked to condemn white supremacy groups at Tuesday’s debate, President Donald Trump tried to clarify his remarks on Wednesday.
During the debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked if Trump would condemn white supremacy groups, to which Trump responded, “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
Wallace then responded, “Well, then do it, sir,” as Joe Biden added, “Say it. Do it. Say it.”
Trump said, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name.”
Wallace responded, “White supremacists and right-wing militia,” and Biden added, “The Proud Boys.”
Trump then said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
On Wednesday, he said, “I don't know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
Dr. David Licate, a professor of criminal justice studies at the University of Akron, said Ohio is home to about 31 recognized hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and other resources. Licate said that includes the Proud Boys, with known chapters in Akron and Columbus, as well as white nationalists, skinheads, neo-Nazis, Black separatists and the Ku Klux Klan.
Licate said the Proud Boys, which has been around since 2016, tries to separate itself from traditional hate groups and the alt-right. However, he said it is anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-immigration, as well as racist and sexist.
“They want you to believe it's kind of this tongue-in-cheek fraternity. They call it Western chauvinism, that they oppose political correctness and they’re warriors against anti-white guilt,” Licate said.
The organization, Licate said, has various levels, the first of which is saying white people are superior to other races.
“Although they don't want you to know that they're related to alt-right or white nationalist groups, they share a lot of the same ideologies. They go to the same functions all the time,” including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, Licate said.
Licate said it is difficult to tell how many people in Ohio are part of these groups since the pandemic has likely affected their ability to gather. But the internet complicates all of this.
“This is why ideology is spreading, radicalization spreads,” Licate said. “So you might have some core members that can get together. But then, you know, social media is wonderful for spreading the message, just like it is for spreading things that aren't filled with hate.”
Hate groups, Licate said, are “interwoven” with presidential politics, going back to the Clinton administration.
“Hate groups anticipate the election of presidents,” Licate said. “When it was President Clinton, they anticipated in their perspective that it would be a liberal president and ‘liberal presidents are going to take our guns, you know, and our Second Amendment rights.’”
Licate said there was “a rise in right-wing extremism during the Clinton administration, which really culminated in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City,” and that the FBI was “very aggressive in rooting out those groups after Oklahoma City.”
When Obama was elected, Licate said membership in right-wing groups and militias “increased significantly.”
“We see something a little bit different now. President Trump has seemed to be somewhat of a favorite of the right-wing,” Licate said, adding that the phrases “right-wing extremism” or “left-wing extremism” do not refer to people who have conservative or liberal political beliefs, but rather those on the fringe, using those ideologies to a violent end.
Since a number of right-wing extremist groups are supportive of President Trump and “emboldened” by him, Licate said it’s unclear what will happen if Biden wins the election and “if we make that transition of power to a Democratic president, if that letdown is going to produce violence.”
“It doesn't take many members, many extreme members to do tremendous amounts of damage,” Licate said, citing Timothy McVeigh as an example.
He added, “As I tell my students, we tend to focus on Islamic extremism. But a bomb from a domestic terrorist, from a hate group, is going to kill people just the same as a bomb from an Islamic extreme group. And I think that we have to be vigilant with what's going to be happening in the next few months.”
Professor Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an assistant professor of law and co-director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, said that Trump’s unwillingness to “make a blanket, forceful statement against hate groups” was not surprising, but that it was “disheartening.”
“It’s not surprising, because I think anybody who's been paying attention knows that his base, a component of his base, are those who espouse those views and have been perpetrating violence on American streets,” Bell Hardaway said.
She added that the only mention of Native people on the debate stage was when Trump referred to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas and that neither the moderator nor Biden called him out on that.
“There was no mention of native people on that stage last night,” Bell Hardaway said. “And this is true when they are being the hardest-hit by the coronavirus, right? This is true when there's fires raging on the West Coast. […] Scientists are saying part of the reason why those fires are raging is because the American government has outlawed the use of controlled burns, which were started by native people. There's no recognition of the fact that we continue to erase native people. And it is having dire consequences for them and for our country.”
She also said Trump’s comments about “the suburbs” referred to white people and was an “out of touch” understanding of what America looks like.
“In some ways, even though he may be using a misnomer or painting too broad of a brush, his people know who he's talking to,” Bell Hardaway said.
Asked her reaction to some Republican politicians distancing themselves from Trump’s “Proud Boys” comments, Bell Hardaway said it was “too little, too late.”
“They are more concerned about their political power and what's politically expedient in the moment that I question even the sincerity of any attempt to distance themselves from that statement,” Bell Hardaway said. “How about you distance yourself from the person who has been propagating those types of beliefs for his entire presidency?”
Bell Hardaway also said she found it “intriguing” that on the campus of Case Western Reserve, associated with the Cleveland Clinic, there was “no real solid conversation around what’s the best approach to protect the lives of Americans in this current health pandemic.”
When it comes to law enforcement against hate groups, the local FBI office said it doesn’t monitor or prosecute hate groups, but that it does monitor crime by individuals, noting, “You can hate or love whoever you want to. You just can't commit crime against those individuals.”
Speaking as part of a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, former FBI director James Comey said the president’s comments are a “deeply disturbing development,” although he acknowledged Trump may have misspoken.
“The FBI is fighting a fire of racist violence, and with words like that, the President is using a fire hose to spray gasoline on that fire,” Comey said.