Donald Trump was always auditioning for America’s next civil war. He started with a slogan:
“Make America great again.”
The idea was to cultivate a base clamoring for a life reminiscent of the country before the civil rights movement. That was five years ago. He wanted them to vote for a one-sided nation.
Tuesday night during the first presidential debate, he empowered them to fight for that America.
“Proud Boys –– stand back and stand by,” he exclaimed. “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem. This is left wing.”
Proud Boys are designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Members were at the violent and racist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Trump called them “very fine people” back then.
Now, he’s given them a slogan: “Stand back and stand by.”
The Proud Boys are already selling a "Standing By" t-shirthttps://t.co/AKvhlIqy0j pic.twitter.com/O1YRjsFlit— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) September 30, 2020
When Chris Wallace asked the president if he would denounce white supremacists and militia, Trump initially said yes. But it was conditional; attached to a specific denouncement of Antifa and the left.
“The Left” is not an extremist group. Antifa is not an organization. The FBI itself has declared Antifa an ideology, and the Anti-Defamation League describes it as an “antifascist protest movement.” FBI director Christopher Wray told a congressional panel earlier this month that while there have been anarchist extremists who identify with Antifa sentiments, it is white supremacists who are most responsible for the deadliest attacks in America over the last few years, including mass shootings at a church in Charleston, S.C., a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and a Walmart in El Paso.
For all of Trump’s obsession with depicting Black Lives Matter and protests against police brutality as violent, a recent report shows about 93 percent of the racial justice protests this summer were peaceful.
Black Lives Matter is a nuanced movement, not a perfect movement. Some protesters want police reform. Some want to defund the police. Some want to abolish the police. Some want to fight. They all want equity and justice.
White supremacists, and Proud Boys specifically, push power, misogyny, and attitudes that are anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic, and xenophobic.
And Proud Boys, like Trump, defended Kyle Rittenhouse when he killed two protesters in Wisconsin.
According to a draft report from the Department of Homeland Security, white supremacists are a dangerous threat to the United States. Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, said in a whistle-blower complaint that he was directed to make that threat appear less severe.
Now we have the occupant of the White House empowered to empower supremacists, to call them to arms, to boldly be the bigot so many of us saw coming.
When Trump was asked during the debate why he moved to end racial sensitivity training and about his attacks on critical race theory, it was clear he views any movement seeking true equity as a threat.
“I ended it because it’s racist,” Trump said. “If you were a certain person, you had no status in life — it was sort of a reversal.”
A reversal? So, for Trump, as long as Black folk and people of color remain oppressed, American life is good.
“We have to go back to the core values of this country," he said. “They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, it’s a racist place, and they were teaching people to hate our country, and I’m not gonna allow that.”
He just admitted to the American public that he views racial sensitivity training, in which white people are made aware of systemic racism and privilege, as anti-American. Equity, to him, is horrible.
Former vice president Joe Biden didn’t do enough to counter Trump. He reduced systemic racism to hurt feelings and bad apples.
“The fact is there is racial insensitivity,” he said. “People have to be made aware of what other people feel like. What insults them, what is it demeaning to them. It’s important to people. Now, many people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, but it makes a big difference."
He later addressed systemic injustice while reiterating that most police are good. Biden is tip-toeing in an argument that cannot afford to be soft-spoken and passive. If he’s debating a president who believes liberation and equity are radical, Biden better join the revolution.
But right now, Biden is our best bet. There is no room for indecision ahead of the presidential election. A vote against Trump is a vote for humanity. Period.
This was the first of three presidential debates. It’s not shocking that they couldn’t talk about racism in a meaningful way. It’s no surprise that Trump equates white people learning allyship with the oppression of white America.
Trump’s behavior is a demoralizing normalcy reflective of a dwindling democracy. Or is it the destruction of the facade that made us believe we ever had one?
Despite what some people believe, there was no winner in the debate. Just an American loss.
We are losing people to coronavirus, to systemic racism, and if we aren’t careful, a new war.
If we don’t start mobilizing and getting people to the polls, the question won’t be if you were on the right side of history. It will be, for which side did you fight?
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.