The question Chris Wallace posed to President Donald Trump was direct.
“Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down?”
The president shrugged his left shoulder. “Sure, I’m willing to do that. But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.” Trump continued to say words, and to say nothing. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
Wallace pressed the question. “Well, then, do it, sir.” Former Vice President Joe Biden jumped in. “Say it. Do it. Say it.”
For what seemed like the first time during last night’s debate, Trump paused.
“What do you want to call them?” Trump gestured at Wallace. “Give me a name, give me a name.” White supremacists, Wallace answered. “The Proud Boys,” Biden added, referring to the far-right group of self-described “Western chauvinists” who often engage in armed violence at protests.
“Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by,” Trump said.
America has seen this before. It happened when Trump said there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. It happened when he pretended not to know who David Duke is, and that the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard had endorsed his presidential bid. In moments of direct confrontation, Trump refuses to state clearly that he condemns white supremacy. White nationalists notice, and remember.