Over the weekend, hundreds of neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville to stage a rally, including one of those torchlight rallies so popular before and during the Third Reich. Although their numbers were not great, they were surely greater than anyone expected, and the psychological intention of such nighttime rallies — to intimidate anyone opposed — had its intended effect.
And, of course, we can't leave out the most important part: One of these fanatics (although we don't know for sure if he acted alone) plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters on purpose, killing one person and seriously wounding nearly 20 others.
When this sort of thing happens, you hope the president can be satisfied to lay blame where it belongs and then leave it at that. President Trump was a bit late in doing the former, but he did it.
And then today he undid it.
A human being is dead. You can blame the leadership of the local police for their failure to treat a volatile situation seriously, and you'd be correct to do so. You could point out that leftist protesters are often violent and that some were on this occasion, and you'd also be correct.
But these points are a digression from the real issue. You'd hope that when something like this rises to the level that a president needs to address it, he can unequivocally place the blame where it belongs. That he can do so without feeling any need to defend or sympathize with the white nationalists who just killed someone in their effort to make racial hatred mainstream again.
But at today's news conference, Trump just couldn't help himself. He couldn't leave it alone.
"What about the alt-left that came charging at the -- as you say -- the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? ...You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent."
Again, the "alt-left" didn't kill anybody in Charlottesville on this occasion. And the killing that occurred did not happen in the context of some kind of street brawl. It was a merciless, one-sided act of domestic terrorism by someone enjoying the advantage of a 4,000-pound automobile.
So why does the president equivocate in this way? Why does he feel the need to defend his initial "both sides" response to the violence? The situation demanded more moral courage than that.
"I've condemned neo-Nazis," Trump said today. "I've condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee."
Sorry, Mr. President, but those weren't Civil War Buffs carrying the banners of the "National Socialist Movement" through town. Admittedly, there are many people who don't want those statues removed and are not neo-Nazis. But if you were in Charlottesville and you marched arm-in-arm with people carrying swastikas, shouting "Blood and soil," and chanting "Jews will not replace us," then what exactly are you if not a neo-Nazi?
Way back in February 2016, many primary voters were worried about Trump after his inexplicable decision to play dumb when asked about the support he had received from the racist political leader David Duke. Maybe they weren't worried enough.
That incident, in which Trump later falsely claimed he had a problem with his earpiece (he clearly heard and even repeated back Duke's name, showing he understood the question), evinced a disturbing lack of moral clarity on Trump's part. And today's presser makes clear that it appears to be a feature and not a bug.