The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Americans thought Trump encouraged white supremacists — even before the debate

Far-right groups agree he helps their cause

President Trump gestures during Tuesday's debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Julio Cortez/AP)

This post was originally published Aug. 5, 2019. It has been updated.

President Trump’s debate performance Tuesday night was immediately panned across the political spectrum. The president drew harsh criticism over his repeated lies and interruptions. But perhaps the strongest backlash stemmed from Trump’s refusal to unequivocally condemn white supremacists.

When offered the opportunity to disavow white supremacists, Trump instead told the Proud Boys, a far-right group of self-described “Western chauvinists,” to “stand back and stand by.” Even some of the president’s stalwart supporters were troubled by the response. “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade said Trump “ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates by not condemning white supremacists.”

Kilmeade and other Trump allies called on the president to clarify his remarks right away. But no clarification was needed for the Proud Boys and White militia groups. They celebrated the president’s words as a call to arms and quickly embraced their new slogan: “Stand back and stand by.”

Nor was it particularly surprising that the president used the debate platform to encourage white supremacist groups. Trump has regularly refused to condemn white supremacists and frequently repeats the groups’ language to describe immigrants and ethnic minorities.

So much so, in fact, that most Americans thought Trump encouraged white supremacist groups long before Tuesday’s debate. As I noted here back in August 2019, when a mass shooting in El Paso prompted comparisons between the shooter’s racist motives of preventing a “Hispanic invasion” and Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, such concerns about Trump’s language were widespread even before he became president. In a December 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 54 percent said Trump has done “too little” to distance himself from “white nationalist groups, who believe that whites should be favored in the U.S. over people of other races and ethnicities.”

Most Americans have also consistently said Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups during his presidency. In August 2017, September 2018 and November 2018, pollsters asked nationally representative samples: “Do you think that Trump’s decisions and behavior as president have encouraged white supremacist groups, discouraged white supremacist groups, or do you think his behavior and decisions haven’t had an impact either way?”

The graph above shows that 54 to 59 percent of Americans in those three polls thought Trump’s decisions and behavior have encouraged white supremacist groups. Only 3 to 5 percent of Americans in those polls said Trump has discouraged them.

These results are consistent with more recent data, too. In a March 2019 Pew survey, 56 percent said Trump has done “too little” to distance himself from white nationalist groups. And in a March 2019 YouGov/HuffPost Poll, more Americans said they thought he supports white nationalism than thought he opposes it (39 to 19 percent respectively).

White nationalists have eagerly embraced Trump and his rhetoric. White supremacist groups and leaders rejoiced when he called a caravan of Latin American migrants “invaders” in 2018. They have since cheered Trump’s racist tweets telling four non-White congresswomen to “go back” to where they “originally came from.” The gunman who killed 51 people at two mosques earlier this year in New Zealand even praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

Trump's refusal to respect the vote 'shatters all the historically ingrained expectations’ about American democracy

It is impossible to say how much Trump’s rhetoric is to blame for the rise in white nationalist terrorism and hate crimes during his presidency. But it’s clear from the data that the American public views Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist hate groups at the debate as part of a broader pattern of encouragement — a pattern that emerged long before he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

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