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It’s becoming clearer what “stand down and stand by” means


Trump told the Proud Boys to “Stand down and stand by.”

“Stand down”, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, is a specific command given to a military working dog (typically an attack dog such as a German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois) in a dangerous situation: personnel protection or enemy pursuit. When the suspect is down, the dog is commanded to sit on its haunches (“stand down”) and refrain from further activity until commanded again by its trainer. It will wait obediently if properly trained (as all military working dogs are) for a very long time.

“Stand by” is a military command used during ceremonial drills and ceremonies, according to a directive from the U.S. Department of the Army. Directed not at a dog but at armed troops, the command directs the troops to the final position before firing their arms. In a ceremonial situation (think of a military funeral), the ammunition would be blanks, shot toward the sky. In an active combat situation, the weapons would be fully loaded with live ammunition, aimed at the enemy.

Taken together, we can interpret Trump’s directives to the Proud Boys as, literally: “Wait for now. But be prepared to attack on a second’s notice.” Implicit in this command is “You will understand my order to attack when I give it.”

Now, Trump has taken a further step: he has created a website, This website is a formal project of Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., the official website of Trump’s campaign for re-election. “” does not contain any formal references to troops, weapons or military mobilization. It invites its followers to “enlist” in the campaign in various areas, such as “Host a MAGA Meetup” and “Become a Digital Activist.”

“Enlist” is an interesting choice of words. The online defines enlist as “to enroll, usually voluntarily, for military service.” All of these military commands and implications are not lost on the Proud Boys or on the many other militia groups that form the core of Trump’s base. They are watching, listening and obeying. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 576 “extreme antigovernment groups active in 2019,” of which 181 were “militias.” The word “militia”, according to the dictionary, has three definitions, all closely related:

  1. a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.
  2. a military force that engages in rebel or terrorist activities in opposition to a regular army.
  3. all able-bodied civilians eligible by law for military service.

In the case of “extreme antigovernment groups” such as the ones the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks, it’s nonsense to think of the Proud Boys and similar militias as “supplementing a regular army.” In America, there is no legal “supplement” to the regular U.S. armed services, except for legitimate National Guards, of which “extreme antigovernment groups” are not a part. The third definition also is irrelevant. The second definition of “militia” is the one we’re concerned with. These “rebels and terrorists” are precisely what the Confederacy formed during the Civil War. Had the South won that war, the “rebels and terrorists” would have become the “regular army.” But the South did not win. Lincoln would have been fully justified in prosecuting the leaders of the Confederate army, including Robert E. Lee, for treason, but he chose not to, in the interest of national healing.

We do not and cannot know with any precision how many people have “enlisted” in these terrorist paramilitary militias, for the simple reason that they’re secret. One estimate, in an article on the website, is 100,000 members, of which 40,000 are “active”; that article cites Timothy McVeigh as an archetypical militiaman. The author minimizes the threat of these militias because “the National Guard outnumbers them 10-1.” However, this presumes the loyalty of the National Guard. There are fifty National Guards, one for each State. States are run by Governors. Currently, there are 26 Republican Governors and 24 Democratic Governors. Given the propensity of Republican officials to cater unquestioningly to Trump, there can be no assurance that the National Guards of those 26 Republican States will not side with terrorist antigovernment militias, were there to be an uprising in America. In tallying up these numbers, we also have to remember that there are 1.7 million active duty military in the U.S. in addition to 588,000 reserve forces, and the President commands these active and reserve troops.

I present these facts and figures only because it’s important for Americans to be aware of them. We cannot know what’s coming. Every day seems to bring more astonishing developments; you couldn’t make this stuff up. There’s widespread expectation that Trump will lose the election to Biden but will not accept that result and will do whatever he thinks he has to in order to remain in office. If push comes to shove, he may conclude that illegal military action in our land is required. Hence “Stand down and stand by.”

Nor can we predict what individual men and women, whether they be regular U.S. military or National Guard, will do if a “situation” arises. Many may be patriots and obey the Constitution and refuse illegitimate orders to protect a criminal President. On the other hand, we can assume, with a high degree of certainty, what the paramilitary militias will do: stand by and defend Trump, even if it requires violence. The rest of us–not in the military or in a militia–now should ask ourselves, “What will I do?” if the unthinkable happens, because we may have only a few more weeks to decide.

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