One of the more contentious points from last week’s presidential debate between Trump and Biden was the point where Trump passed up an opportunity to denounce white supremacy when directly asked to do so. That has been overshadowed by Trump (and many others) testing positive for COVID-19. Now that Trump is back (after either doing really well or on his death bed depending on which misinformation source you believe), I wanted to circle back to this idea of “denouncing white supremacy.”
This whole issue really tracks back to the decades before Trump became president, when many different accusations of racism and/or biased practices were leveled against him and/or his companies. When he became president and started railing against “Antifa” and the “radical left,” many people connected past to present and wanted to know more specifically where he stands on racial issues as president. So various reporters and interviewers began asking if he would respond to and act on the fact that at least 90% of political violence in this country comes from radical right wing groups that are often racist or outright white supremacist. Typically, his response to these questions was to dodge or use tricky language. One of these responses was his now infamous response of “very fine people, on both sides” after a question about Neo-Nazis (even though Trump later claimed he was referring to supporters of Robert E. Lee – a guy that fought to keep slavery around). This led to more specific questions of whether he would even speak out about the actual sources of violence, much less do something about them.
Because of Trump’s history of saying something in support certain white supremacist groups (the Confederacy was white supremacist, after all), many wanted to see him change his tune. The calls for action and response were quickly shortened to “denounce white supremacy.” Of course, this shortened question is not the clearest call to action, since “denouncing” something really doesn’t have much teeth. But because of Trump’s evasive manner, that specific question became a shorthand for seeing if he would at least say something about right wing violence, and then actually do something about it as as well once they had his words to hold against him (as if that ever worked).
This is where the whole issue gets a bit sneaky. When certain people (usually of the liberal persuasion) say Trump will not even denounce white supremacy, they are met with quick responses (usually from the conservative persuasion) of videos proving Trump has denounced white supremacy.
Sometimes these are videos of someone asking Trump if he would ever denounce white supremacy, with Trump responding something like “sure, I will denounce white supremacy.” This is a sneaky use of words here. If you have children or have taken care of / taught / etc children, you recognize this ploy. You ask your kids to clean their room, and they say “sure, I will clean my room.” But then if they never actually clean their room, then their statement saying they “will” or “would” was meaningless.
Trump saying that he “will” or “would” denounce white supremacy is not the same as actually denouncing it. But even if he did say it, the original intent was that people wanted him to start denouncing it by saying so directly. Of course, now it finally seems that he did directly do the first step of denouncing white supremacy in an interview released last week.
But his statement should be the start of action, not a final answer of some sort.
It should also be noted that telling people to “stand down” is not a denouncement either – even though it is an important step. Yes, Trump did come back later and take away the problematic “stand by” statement to the Proud Boys by just telling them to “stand down and let the police handle it,” but this is also not a true denouncement. If a friend of mine gets so mad at someone that it looks like they are going to attack that person, but I tell my friend to “stand down” and not attack – have I denounced my friend and/or any of their beliefs? No, I have just told them to not attack. Which, of course, is also something we want our presidents to say – as a start, not a final answer.
This is why the issue is complicated. When you are dealing with the fact that 90% of the political violence comes from certain groups, we don’t want a president that just says “stand down” and “yes, I denounce white supremacy” to certain parts of the overall group. We want one that will denounce all of the violence in action as well as in words. So instead of railing against antifa (which is more of an idea and not an organized group) most of the time, start focusing on where 90% of the violence comes from and do something about it. The rally cry of “denouncing” just became short hand for dealing with the larger problem. Trump was complimentary to right-wing groups (which includes many white supremacist factions), and now he needs to work to curb those same groups.
This brings us to the problem of naming only the Proud Boys, especially in light of focusing too much on white supremacy and not the overall problem of extreme right wing violence. I think it was a big mistake on Biden’s part to say “Proud Boys” when Trump demanded a specific name of a group to denounce. Of course, we all know that Trump was just using a diversionary tactic to get away with being pressured into denouncing white supremacy. He generally doesn’t react to well to pressure, as he has a deep driving need to be the one in control at all times. So he wanted a name of a group to denounce rather than cave directly to the people he saw as fighting for dominance in the conversation. Biden should have stuck with the main idea and just said “all of them,” but he said “Proud Boys” instead. He probably wanted to just stop the fighting and move on, and I can’t say I blame him. But it was still a big mistake.
The Proud Boys are a violent right-wing hate group, no doubt about it. They are male-only, and have made it clear they are against immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQIA, Jewish People, etc, etc, etc. They also claim to be anti-racist, even coming out to say they denounce white supremacy as well. They even point to their small number of Black and Latinx members as proof they aren’t racist.
Of course, they also believe that racism doesn’t exist, which is clearly a white supremacist ideal. In fact, you can find all kinds of racist things all over their words and actions. But because they actually say they aren’t racist, and they have Black and Latinx members – many people will take them at their word and proclaim that they are “not white supremacists.” Never mind that the Nazis, the KKK, and many other well-known racist groups have made the same claims through the years.
People that do racist things always have a long list of reasons why they really aren’t a racist despite those racist actions.
But still, I wish that Biden hadn’t brought the Proud Boys into the conversation, because it takes a lot of unpacking to understand why they are part of the bigger problem of Right-wing political violence… as well as how they can still be viewed as white supremacists even though they say they aren’t. This is also why I wish there was a greater understanding of metamodernism in society in general, because the question of defining for all time whether or not Proud Boys really are or aren’t “white supremacist” misses what is needed here. People can say they are not racist or white supremacist and still bring about racism and white supremacy in many ways. Participating in Right-wing violence against BLM and Antifa still sends a message of racism and white superiority to many BIPoC – no matter what stances you claim to believe in or your skin color.
Now, to go back to the analogy about telling your kids to clean their room. If you tell your child to clean their room, and they say they will, and they go in to clean the room… but they only pick up a few things and hide the main mess in the closet and under the bed… did they really clean their room? No, of course not. You really want them to vacuum, scrub, dust, organize, etc. Just saying things like “I denounce white supremacy” or “Proud Boys stand down and that’s it” or “we are not white supremacists” is the equivalent of the kids that stuff the mess in their closet and then don’t do any true cleaning.
We need a president that will stand up and do something about racism and white supremacy. BLM and those labeled as “Antifa” are showing up and doing something. You know who you usually see at protests asking rioters to stop? Usually it is the BLM protesters themselves. The Proud Boys and other right wing groupers are the ones that show up and agitate the situation even more. They are not even cleaning their room so to say – they are taking more mess and dumping it on the pile.
So that is where the issue stands: it’s complicated. It’s not just denouncing white supremacy (even though that has become the short hand), it is about ending political violence that is 90% Right-wing (and often white supremacist as well but not always). It’s not about proving certain groups are or are not white supremacist, but how they support white supremacist aims by promoting the general Right-wing violence that serves as a catalyst for white supremacy. It’s not about ignoring the political violence from non-Right-wing groups, but starting with the main overwhelming group causing 90% or more of the violence rather than spending 99% of the time focusing on the less than 10% that cause violence.