After Trump's Proud Boys debate remarks, right-wing media replay Charlottesville playbook

During the first presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle, moderator Chris Wallace asked President Donald Trump if he would condemn white supremacist groups. Trump, following his traditional practice, refused to condemn white supremacy. Instead, Trump urged the violent neo-fascist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys immediately began to cheer Trump’s tacit support for their violence in yet another cycle of Trump providing fuel for extremist groups.

Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy during the debate was met with widespread condemnation. Despite Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security stating that white supremacist groups constitute the largest domestic terrorist threat in this nation, Trump and right-wing media constantly pivot to fearmongering about anti-fascist activists, or “antifa,” and other left-wing protesters. During the debate, Democratic nominee Joe Biden echoed FBI Director Christopher Wray in stating that anti-fascism is an ideology and not a group.

A sitting president refusing to condemn white supremacist terror would be shocking if it was not typical behavior of this president. Following the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one anti-fascist counterprotester dead and many wounded, Trump referred to neo-Nazis and white supremacists as “very fine people.” In the years since that horrific endorsement of hate, right-wing media has consistently defended Trump’s comments, arguing that the president did not actually say what he said.

In 2019, former CNN commentator Steve Cortes produced a video for the right-wing online propaganda operation PragerU in which he developed an elaborate conspiracy theory arguing that Trump did not, in fact, call neo-Nazis “very fine people.” Founder Dennis Prager promoted this video on Fox News, saying, “The president never said there were fine Nazis.” Prime-time host Laura Ingraham called the basic observation that Trump praised neo-Nazis a “lie” on her Fox show. Fox host Tucker Carlson, who has a long history of promoting white supremacy, likewise called the outrage over Trump’s praise for neo-Nazis “fraudulent, entirely manufactured by the left and its servants in the media.” Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway absurdly claimed that Trump “explicitly denounced” white supremacists while he actually praised them.

Right-wing media has an established playbook for rewriting history on Trump’s public remarks. Having learned that they can completely rewrite history after Trump praised neo-Nazis in 2017, right-wing media figures are already flocking to obfuscate the truth of his comments during last night’s presidential debate by actively lying about what he said, pivoting to unrelated issues, and attacking Wallace for asking a perfectly reasonable question.

The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro claimed that Trump has condemned white supremacy repeatedly and did so last night and called it, adding that it was wrong for Wallace to ask Trump to condemn these groups.

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Citation From the September 30, 2020, edition of The Daily Wire's The Ben Shapiro Show

BEN SHAPIRO (HOST): This notion that Trump won't condemn white supremacy, even in the Charlottesville situation, the problem there was not that he wouldn't condemn white supremacy. The problem is that he was equating the various groups of at play there. But he said 'I'm explicitly not talking about the white supremacists' when he said that there were good people on both sides. Right? He was talking about people who, he, were supposedly marching with the white supremacists but were in favor of the Confederate statute and I said, well who are those people? Those people don't exist, that's ridiculous, he shouldn't be saying that sort of thing. But, did he condemn white supremacy? He did repeatedly that weekend. Over, and over, and over. 

So, again, this is part of a narrative that they've been driving for a long time. And Trump is bad at this, he is awkward with language. That is not Donald Trump defending white supremacy. That is a media lie. Again, I can play the clip again. That is not Donald Trump -- when he says 'will you condemn white supremacists?' he says 'sure.' Does that sound like 'no' to you? When Joe Biden was asked would he condemn Antifa his answer was 'Antifa is an idea it is not an organization.' That is an explicit refusal to condemn Antifa. Yet only one of those is a headline. 

Prager said Wallace asked Trump a “trap question” and falsely conflated white supremacists with militia groups.

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Citation From the September 30, 2020, edition of the Salem Radio Network's The Dennis Prager Show

DENNIS PRAGER (HOST): By the way, the question is a dishonest question. He conflates militia with white supremacists. So, I don't quite understand. Nobody should stand up? I'm just curious. I'd like to ask Chris Wallace and The Washington Post. In Portland for over 100 consecutive nights, there's been violence. Violence against completely innocent businesses and people. Should nobody confront them given the fact that the mayor and the governor do not confront them? What, Mr. Wallace, do you recommend? And it's not a rhetorical question, it's a sincere question. Militia and white supremacist are not synonymous either. So it's sort of a trap question. By the way, he said 'sure.' I mean, you know, are you prepared to condemn -- sure. 

BlazeTV’s Dave Rubin referred to Trump’s Charlottesville comments while falsely saying the president has consistently condemned white supremacy, and he attacked Wallace for even asking the question.

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Citation From the September 29, 2020, edition of BlazeTV's The Rubin Report

DAVE RUBIN (HOST): The question was idiotically loaded by Chris Wallace. This thing about will Trump condemn white supremacy. Now, Chris Wallace knows that Trump has done this repeatedly. He knows, even though he didn't say it before, as I mentioned in the Charlottesville thing, he knows Trump has said it. Then they got into an exchange where Biden, Wallace, and Trump were all talking at the exact same time. And Trump needed to just get in there and say -- and he started saying it but he never finished. He started saying something, he fumbled, he turned to Wallace and fighting with him, Biden was talking. And he needed to say, without question, I condemn white supremacy. 

Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking and you're right. That this is a false question and it's an unfair question and he's done it before and everything else. The problem is that what you have to understand is that while you guys who watch things online, while you see that, the average person doesn't see the truth of the Charlottesville story. The average person doesn't see him condemning these things. 

CNN’s Rick Santorum likewise attacked Wallace for asking the president “to say something bad about people who support him.” ABC contributor Chris Christie said he didn’t hear Trump refuse to condemn white supremacy. A Fox & Friends panel the day after the debate pivoted to attacking Biden for not condemning Black Lives Matter protesters. The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh stated that Trump “doesn’t need to” condemn white supremacy again because he’s already done it in the past.

Culture editor at The Federalist Emily Jashinsky falsely stated that Trump “didn’t ‘refuse’ to denounce white supremacy.”

Many people pointed out that the transcript actually confirmed Trump's refusal to condemn white supremacists (as his defenders seemed to stop reading at the word “Sure” and not consider the subsequent context) -- but honestly interpreting transcripts was never a strong suit of pro-Trump media.