Like many people, I was glued to the television, watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Across political lines, most people can agree that it was a spectacle unbefitting of the serious decorum expected in a presidential debate.
Of the many low points of the debate, there was one moment that especially stood out. When the moderator asked Trump whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and to tell them to stand down and not add to the violence in the cities, Trump responded by saying “Sure.” When pressed to actually say the words, Trump struggled and wanted to know a specific name to address, to which Biden said “Proud Boys.” The strongest denunciation that Trump could muster about a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group was to say “stand back and stand by.”
If there was ever any doubt that Trump flirts with the racist rhetoric of extremists and white supremacists, all doubt should now be removed. It’s true that Trump may not publicly utter racist expletives and may not publicly spout racist dogma (although he did refer to Haiti and African nations as an expletive), but his equivocation about white supremacists speaks volumes about his racial attitudes.
When the nation is on edge regarding concerns about racism, we need a president who is resolute and unequivocal in condemning white supremacy. Trump’s failure to give a full-throated, unsolicited repudiation of racism signals to those who harbor these beliefs that they are supported. Imagine being an educator and trying to explain to students why the president appears to support individuals whose beliefs go against America’s foundational belief that “all men are created equal.”
Trump has always employed the defense of plausible deniability. He denies any knowledge or responsibility of the words, beliefs or actions of known racists and white supremacists. Not surprisingly, he denied knowing who the Proud Boys are. But his defense rings hollow. Remember in 2016 when he denied knowing anything about former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who endorsed his presidential candidacy. It turned out that he was familiar with Duke, as he announced in 2000 that he would not seek the nomination of the Reform Party because of Duke, whom he called a racist.
When the riots happened in Charlottesville, Trump responded about there being very fine people on both sides. We must remember that he was equating protestors in the Unite the Right Rally (white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other far-right extremists who were opposed to the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue) with counterprotestors. No rhetorical slight of hand can make these two groups morally equivalent.
It is a damning indictment that white supremacists and other similarly minded groups celebrate Trump whenever he fails to strongly condemn them. The Proud Boys celebrated Trump’s comments as “historic,” and their private social media channels were abuzz with excitement that Trump essentially endorsed their violent tactics. These far-right extremist groups typically operate in the shadows, and they are considered fringe groups for a reason. Trump’s refusal to strongly condemn them only serves to invigorate them, as evidenced by reports of increased retail opportunities and emboldening supporters to attack protestors.
If Trump wins the election, white supremacists (both here and abroad) will consider it a victory for their cause. They will know that they can continue promoting anti-Muslim, misogynistic and racist rhetoric and the selling of T-shirts and hoodies with the words “PROUD BOYS STANDING BY,” suggesting an imminent threat of violence.
Why do people continue to be surprised and angered by Trump’s tepid disavowal of racists and white supremacists? If he really wanted to stop far-right extremism, he would dedicate the same amount of energy he dedicates to far-left extremism.
Maya Angelou once famously said that when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Trump long ago told us who he is. Election Day will be the time for the country to tell him who we are.
Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents Professor of Educational Research and Development, professor of African and African diaspora studies, and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.