The names Proud Boys and antifa, representing polar-opposite extremes on the U.S. political spectrum, were invoked during the first debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. In the current hyperpartisan atmosphere, both have been magnified as major threats to American society even though their ranks are relatively small.

1. What are Proud Boys?

They are a group of self-described “Western chauvinists” formed in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, a Canadian writer and co-founder of Vice Media. Though McInnes denies links to the so-called alt-right -- a U.S. political fringe movement associated with White supremacy that was energized by Trump’s rise -- those who gather under the Proud Boy name can be found spouting white nationalist memes and maintaining affiliations with known extremists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors what it classifies as hate groups. (McInnes is suing the center, according to his Parler bio.) The Anti-Defamation League estimates there are several hundred Proud Boy members. Proud Boys have appropriated, as a uniform, apparel maker Fred Perry’s black polo shirt with yellow stripes on the collar and sleeve. The company stopped selling the shirt in September 2019 and says it won’t resume sales in the U.S. or Canada until it’s convinced the association with the Proud Boys has ended.

2. Why are they important?

This year, members of Proud Boys have participated in rallies across the U.S., facing off with left-wing protesters in clashes that have turned violent. They also were in attendance at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally alongside white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. One counterprotester was killed during that rally when a white supremicist drove his car into a crowd. Biden has said that Trump’s comments on White supremacists in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence made him decide to run again for office.

3. Why were Proud Boys mentioned in the debate?

Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and tell them “to stand down and not add to the violence” in U.S. cities. Trump asked for an example, and Biden interjected, “Proud Boys.” Trump then said, “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by. 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.”

4. What did Trump mean by ‘Stand back and stand by’?

That’s a matter of interpretation. At least some Proud Boys welcomed the presidential attention, changing some of their online logos to reflect what some could read as a call to action. Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley noted that the president replied “sure” at least twice while Wallace was inviting him to condemn White supremacy. But Biden’s campaign said Trump’s answer amounted to goading, rather than denouncing, right-wing extremism. The day after the debate, Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator, said Trump should correct himself if he misspoke. “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak,” Scott said. Trump later told reporters, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are” but that they “have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”

5. Is Trump right that extremism is a left-wing problem?

His remark put him at odds with his own Homeland Security acting secretary, Chad Wolf, who had reiterated just days before that White supremacists are the top terrorist threat in the country. But Trump’s reference to antifa does show that there are extremist elements on both sides of the political divide.

6. What is antifa?

Short for anti-fascists, it’s a confrontational left-wing political fringe movement with roots in resistence to Nazi Germany that was reactivated in the U.S. by the rise of the alt-right. The word antifa is usually rendered in lower case because it’s generally not seen as a single organized group. That’s also why the ADL says it’s “impossible to know how many ‘members’ are currently active.” Antifa supporters were among the counterprotesters who clashed with White supremacists in Charlottesville. Testifying before a House committee on Sept. 17, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “We look at antifa as more of an ideology or a movement than an organization.” He told a Senate committee a week later, “I’ve gotten a lot of questions from a lot of people about antifa, for example. So let me try to be as clear as I can about that -- antifa is a real thing. It is not a fiction.”

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