What did Trump really mean?

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 10:23am

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Both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden made notably questionable statements during the first presidential debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29. Trump’s failure to denounce white supremacy was one of the most memorable moments of the evening, and quite obviously not for positive acclaim. When prompted by Chris Wallace, the moderator of the debate, to openly condemn white supremacy, Trump instructed the Proud Boys, an extremist, white nationalist group, to “stand back and stand by.” 

Some believe Trump simply misspoke, intending to employ the phrase “stand down.” But he didn’t; he did the opposite. After being asked to decry white supremacy, Trump actively promoted the group’s actions in front of millions of Americans, and frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised. He consistently fails to denounce violent hate groups, typically either saying nothing in response to their actions or using suspiciously ambiguous wording in his attempts to condemn them, which should be unacceptable for someone in his position of power. It’s time that we, as an American people, enforce a higher standard for whoever holds the office of President.

Time and time again, Trump has been presented with the opportunity to directly admonish white supremacist groups and neglected to do so. He claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides,” after the 2017 Charlottesville riots initiated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He claimed no knowledge of former KKK leader David Duke in 2016 after Duke publicly endorsed his candidacy, despite citing Duke’s membership in the Reform Party as a reason for ending his 2000 Presidential campaign. Between his 2016 and 2020 candidacies, Trump has received endorsements not only from Duke, but from the Proud Boys, Andrew Anglin — publisher of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer — and a slew of white nationalists including, but not limited to, Peter Brimelow, James Edwards and Matthew Heimbach. By now, the continued support of so many white supremacists and neo-Nazis for Trump cannot be deemed a coincidence, especially when he maintains such a tolerant position on issues related to the alt-right.

Following the debate, Trump backpedaled on his Proud Boys comment, demanding that the Proud Boys “stand down” and let law enforcement do their work. But whether inadvertently or not, the president of the United States publicly commanded a white supremacist group to prepare for action. The Proud Boys immediately took the statement to heart and included it in branding, selling t-shirts with the slogan “stand back, PB, stand by” plastered across the front. By later telling them to “stand down,” Trump attempted to unsay what he said and undo the damage he did, or at least make it appear as though those were his intentions. Regardless of Trump’s motives — though it may be hard to believe he would take back support for the Proud Boys — what he said in the debate, what millions heard, cannot be taken back. 

He told the Proud Boys to “stand down” after the debate and let law enforcement do their job. The ambiguity of this statement lies in its intention: Is Trump telling the Proud Boys to allow law enforcement to enforce the law without interruption, or to carry out the Proud Boys’ mission of white supremacy for them. 

Even if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant the former, his statement remains suspicious. If his intention was to convey the first interpretation, he only tells the Proud Boys to “stand down” in order to give law enforcement space to work. He never explicitly condemned white supremacy, only expressed his belief in maintaining “law and order.” 

In the first presidential debate, Trump not only failed to denounce white supremacy, but endorsed it, which given his past with issues regarding white supremacy, was less than a shock. Then, he issued another statement to make it appear as though he initially misspoke, without eliminating the damage he had already done and instead creating more confusion about his stance on alt-right groups. So, what did he really mean? And, would a clarification from Trump himself even shed light on the truth, or would it just spark further debate about his position on white supremacy?

The notion that we have to ask these questions at all is unsettling, to say the least. Trump shows no commitment to his words or actions and values his own pride above the unity of the American people, and enough have made allowances for this behavior for him to think it acceptable. However, we must consider his statements during and following the debate a breaking point. As members of a democracy, we have the power to hold someone of Trump’s standing to a higher standard, to enforce the consequences that accompany inexcusable behavior. And, if our attempts fail, we have the power to elect someone who will respond more appropriately to the demands of the population they are expected to serve.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.


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