TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This election season is full of concerns for voters, including the possibility of extremist violence and the broad specter of vigilante activity around the polls. If Americans watching the first presidential debate last night hoped to hear some reassurance, that didn't happen. Instead, they heard about rigged elections, hate groups and President Trump's failure to explicitly denounce white supremacists when asked to do so. NPR's Hannah Allam is with us to discuss last night's debate.
And, Hannah, as someone who reports on extremism, what were the messages you heard?
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Well, there were so many that I found myself breaking them into buckets, you know - what's old, what's new, what's scary. Trump's failure to denounce white supremacists wasn't new. In fairness, he has publicly denounced them before under pressure, as he did again today, we should say. But this has been a well-documented theme throughout his entire presidency, this reluctance to acknowledge the national security threat posed by violent racists. And we saw it again last night. Trump pivoted to blaming leftists for recent violence after giving an odd statement about the Proud Boys, a group he'd been asked specifically to denounce.
And so it was jarring, to say the least - hearing the president tell a violent, hateful gang to, quote, "stand back, and stand by." That line certainly got the attention of extremism trackers, not to mention ordinary Americans who are asking, stand by for what? The Trump campaign today said the president meant stand by as in, get out of the way of law enforcement, but that explanation was met with, you know, no small measure of skepticism.
MOSLEY: As you mentioned, the Proud Boys line got a lot of attention last night. Today, the president said he didn't know who the Proud Boys were. Who is that group and - that has become such a focus last night?
ALLAM: They're certainly part of the violent, right-wing cluster of actors at big political events and protests these days. But there's a real danger here of overstating their importance. I mean, last weekend, the Proud Boys hyped this supposedly huge rally they were going to have in Portland. They talked about 20,000 people coming. And they ended up drawing only a small crowd of a couple hundred. So for them, getting name-checked on the debate stage after this embarrassment of an event last weekend was a huge PR coup.
In terms of where they fit into the extremism world, the Proud Boys are a hate group, not your traditionally overtly white supremacist organization. But it's essentially a violent, chauvinistic gang. The members have disparaged women, Muslims, LGBTQ people and many others. And the Proud Boys like to tout the relative diversity of their own membership to shut down people who say that they're a racist organization. But, basically, they're seen as agitators, street fighters. And, I mean, we should note the Proud Boys themselves did interpret Trump's remarks last night as tacit support. And instantly, there were these memes and celebrations and Proud Boys saying, you know, standing by, sir, right after that exchange.
MOSLEY: So what is the actual nature of the threat as this election season continues?
ALLAM: Well, it's kind of unfortunate that the debate has narrowed to concern about the Proud Boys because they are just one part of what extremism researchers call an increasing concern of far-right vigilante and paramilitary-style groups using intimidation tactics and the Trump administration's reluctance to denounce that kind of mobilization or, worse, giving those movements support.
I spoke to Eric Ward, who leads the Western States Center in Portland. That's an extremism watchdog group. It's closely following the unrest there. And Ward said last night reminded him of the president's handling of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
ERIC WARD: I remember the shock of America the next day to this. Well, here we are three years later, and the president of the United States isn't just talking about both sides. He now has chosen a side. And that should frighten all of us.
ALLAM: So Ward is saying there, you know, the point's not about a single group but the fact that Trump has had opportunities to distance himself from violent white supremacists and has not. And Ward says that's not a fluke; that's a choice.
MOSLEY: NPR's Hannah Allam, thank you so much.
ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.