(RNS) — Tuesday night, Donald Trump made the Proud Boys, a previously obscure white supremacist hate group, mainstream by seeming to encourage them in the presidential debate. When moderator Chris Wallace asked him if he was “willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence,” Trump breezily answered “Sure,” and then proceeded to do exactly the opposite.
“Stand back and stand by,” he told the Proud Boys, before launching into a diatribe about antifa.
The Proud Boys were never prouder. Whereas they had been relegated to the gutter of obscurity and long banned from Twitter and even Facebook, now they are a sensation. On Wednesday morning, a Google Trends search confirmed that public interest in the white supremacist organization has soared, especially in Western states like Oregon and Idaho.
Just to repeat: Wallace asked Trump if he would tell white supremacists to “stand down,” which is to leave or withdraw. Trump instead told the group to “stand by,” which means, according to Merriam-Webster, to stay near at hand to be of use in an emergency.
Then he gave them the emergency: “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 (problem),” he said.
If Trump was hoping that Tuesday night’s debate would help win over the moderate voters he needs to expand his coalition beyond his base, this was manifestly not the way. He warned that left-wing radicals were planning to overthrow the government, instructed right-wing radicals to get ready for it, and then for good measure cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, saying it would be “rigged” and feature “fraud like you’ve never seen.”
On that note, he urged his supporters — are you listening, Proud Boys? — to “go in to the polls and watch very carefully.”
Which is another way of undermining free and fair elections. In America, we have laws about poll watching. Official poll watchers are designated beforehand by candidates and local political parties, and there is a set number that is the same for both candidates in any election precinct. They have to be certified and sign an affidavit. They can only serve as poll watchers in the precinct where they live and are registered to vote. And there’s more: The rules go on and on. In Texas, the guidelines for poll watchers constitute 23 single-spaced pages.
In other words, candidates can’t just send hordes of angry and uncertified people to election sites to intimidate voters of the other party in the name of “poll watching.”
It’s telling that in the debate, Trump claimed that his poll watchers had been “thrown out” in Philadelphia on Tuesday and “weren’t allowed to watch.”
Why? “Because bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he said. “Bad things.”
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the actual reason was that the Trump campaign had never registered these poll watchers. Also, the sites they were trying to access weren’t even places where people were casting votes, but merely offices where voters could pick up ballots to complete at home. You’d think that a “law and order” president would care about things like, well, law and order, but apparently not.
There’s a strong racial component to this too. One of the places where the Trump campaign sent an unregistered woman claiming to be a poll watcher was the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia, which is 81% Black. The elementary school where she demanded to be let inside is 95% Black. The Inquirer story did not comment on the woman’s race, but given that 9 out of 10 of Trump’s core supporters are white, it is statistically plausible to conjecture that she was white and had no tie to that neighborhood.
When Trump said that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he seemed to lament laws that limit random white people from carte blanche intimidation of voters in Black neighborhoods.
This would be consistent with other things he said in the debate, such as why his administration ordered federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training — because the training was racist and didn’t do enough to “go back to the core values of this country.” (You know, the core values that had Black people enslaved. Those were some good times!)
In a recent webinar, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, co-authors of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” updated some of their book’s data.
In 2016, Trump received between 75% and 83% of the vote from the most committed “ambassadors” of Christian nationalism, as well as a majority of the sympathetic but less ardent “accommodators.”
Now, however, only 68% of the most devoted Christian nationalist “ambassadors” say they are planning to vote for him, and 48% of the “accommodators.” His support is down in all four categories of voters.
Trump’s chaotic and childish debate performance will likely win over few voters outside an already committed core that includes white Christian nationalists. But he should be concerned that, perhaps due to performances like Tuesday night’s, even that group is less enthusiastic than it was four years ago.
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