The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump backs violent white supremacists. There’s no way around it.

President Trump on Sept. 29 undercut assessments by the national security community and said violence mainly comes from far-left groups. (Video: The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this column incorrectly said the Republican Jewish Coalition didn't respond to a request for comment. The organization's comment is included in this updated version.

All Republican lawmakers defending President Trump — and all Americans planning to vote for him over the next five weeks — must be made to confront a simple truth: They are supporting a candidate who embraces violent white supremacists.

There is no way around it.

Invited at Tuesday’s presidential debate, in front of tens of millions of viewers, to condemn white supremacists and militias, the president of the United States declined. He then singled out, and made common cause with, one violent gang characterized by his own FBI as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism. Rather than tell that group, the Proud Boys, to stand down, Trump suggested they “stand back and stand by” — presumably, for further violence when needed.

After an outcry that was joined by a few Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the lone Black Republican in the Senate, Trump attempted a partial cleanup on Wednesday. While he continued to dodge attempts to get him to denounce white supremacists, he suggested the Proud Boys “have to stand down” while claiming “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition.”

Allow me.

Post Opinions columnists watched the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so that you didn't have to. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Proud Boys marched among the “very fine people” in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and participated in the demonstration that ended in the killing of a peaceful counterdemonstrator. The organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally got his start as a Proud Boy.

The Proud Boys were in Kenosha, Wis., fomenting violence at the time militia activist Kyle Rittenhouse, now lionized by the Proud Boys, allegedly shot and killed two racial-justice demonstrators.

Follow Dana Milbank's opinionsFollow

The Proud Boys were instigating more violence in Portland, Ore., with paintballs, bear mace and clubs when a member of a related group (and Proud Boys supporter) was shot and killed — and in martyrdom became a hero to the Proud Boys.

Proud Boys members have been convicted of assault, attempted assault and attempted gang assault, charged with murder, indicted for rioting and accused of beating journalists and nonviolent demonstrators alike. They have coordinated rallies with neo-Nazis and ultranationalist skinheads.

Their founder, launching the group in 2016, warned enemies: “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. We will kill you.”

As the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented, the group’s occasional disavowals of racism, neo-Nazism and violence have been contradicted by countless videos, photographs, members’ rap sheets and their postings on social media, where Proud Boys figures have been banned from mainstream platforms.

“What was so alarming is this was a layup,” ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said of the request of Trump to condemn white supremacists. “The president didn’t just miss the layup. We found out he’s playing for the other team.”

Greenblatt told me that we have to “acknowledge it wasn’t an accident. It was an admission of where he stands. That’s deeply disturbing, and we don’t have a precedent for it in modern times” other than Trump’s infamous remark about “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.

“Employing militias, scapegoating minorities — these tactics are not just troubling, they’re terrifying,” Greenblatt said, describing the Proud Boys as “very dangerous.”

And what do Republican leaders say of Trump’s latest refusal to denounce white supremacists and militias and his message to the Proud Boys to “stand by”?

A few Senate Republicans — including Scott, Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Rounds (S.D.), and even Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — spoke critically of Trump’s remarks.

But other Republican senators in key races leaped to Trump’s defense. Thom Tillis (N.C.) said he “believes” Trump condemns white nationalism. David Perdue (Ga.) decried “this false narrative.” The Republican Jewish Coalition said “the mischaracterizations of the president supporting and encouraging white supremacy don’t match his record and are politically motivated.” Others — including John Cornyn (Tex.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Kelly Loeffler (Ga.) — didn’t respond when I asked their campaigns for comment.

The president sends a collaborative signal to a violent hate group in a nationally televised debate — and they are silent?

Perhaps they’re joining Roger Stone, Sean Hannity and now the president in extending a welcome mat to the Proud Boys. Trump has been retweeting, hosting and otherwise promoting figures, themes and imagery from the alt-right for years. His partial retreat on Wednesday, to an audience far smaller than the one that heard his grotesque statements on Tuesday, won’t dull the victory he gave them.

On their alternative platforms, Proud Boys members continued Wednesday basking in Trump’s embrace and celebrating his new slogan for them, “Stand back and stand by,” as a merchandising and recruiting opportunity. Wrote one of the group’s leaders: “That’s my President!”

I can’t argue.

Sign up to receive my columns in your inbox as soon as they’re published.

Read more:

George F. Will: For the sake of the country, cancel the remaining debates

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s scorched-earth nihilism will cost him the presidency

Donna F. Edwards: Cancel the remaining presidential debates. We can’t have a repeat of the first one.

Dana Milbank: Only the Proud Boys can take pride in Trump’s debate hooliganism

Karen Tumulty: The debate was a nightmare, and a fitting summation of Trump’s presidency