Trump Breaks a Taboo—and Pays the Price

The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.

President Trump delivers a statement on the deadly protests in Charlottesville.
President Trump delivers a statement on the deadly protests in Charlottesville on August 14, 2017.  (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.

The “Unite the Right” rally was an effort to mobilize and energize a subset of the far-right around its own sacred symbols—including swastikas and confederate flags—by marching to another symbol that is its members believed was under attack, a statue of Robert E. Lee. The psychological logic of the rally was to bind white people together with shared hatred of Jews, African Americans, and others, under a banner and narrative of racial victimhood and racial purity. Marching and chanting in unison has been shown to intensify feelings of oneness and social cohesion. The psychology of sacredness and its function in binding groups together is essential for understanding the method and the motives of the marchers.

Now look at the trail of desecration that stretches from the Friday night march across the grounds of the University of Virginia to Trump’s press conference the following Tuesday. UVA students treat “the lawn” at the heart of the original campus as hallowed ground, and most of them revere “Mr. Jefferson” as the (morally complicated) founder of the university. (I taught there for 16 years, and came to share those quasi-religious feelings.) This is why it made emotional sense to some students to rush out and “defend” a statue of Jefferson by surrounding it—unarmed—as a throng of torch-bearing armed white supremacists approached. There is no reason to think that the marchers would have vandalized the statue, but their unopposed presence would have contaminated it.

That torchlight march, and the main rally the next day, gave the country the shocking spectacle of fellow Americans chanting “Jews will not replace us” while making Nazi salutes and anti-black slurs. It was a rejection—a desecration—of the story shared by most Americans in which we are not a nation based on “blood and soil,” we are a nation of immigrants who accepted the American creed. That creed includes the idea that “all men are created equal.” Americans know that we do not yet live up to our aspirations, but publicly accepting the premises of the nation’s founding documents is a requirement for political leadership in America. To deny those premises is blasphemy, and so white supremacism, the KKK, and neo-Nazis are by definition blasphemous.

The sociologist Robert Bellah coined the term “American civil religion” in the 1960s. He was referring to the fact that despite the absence of any official religion, Americans approach citizenship and nationhood in ways that are recognizably religious. We treat our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution as sacred texts; we erect memorials to our martyrs (and then punish or shame anyone who dishonors them), and we expect the president to transcend politics and play the role of high priest and chief unifier in times of national crisis.

That’s what made President Trump’s press conference on Tuesday, August 15, so astonishing. He had failed to condemn Nazis and the KKK on the day of the main march, even after a young woman was killed in an act of terrorism. On that Saturday he condemned hatred, bigotry, and violence “on many sides,” and then sent out a tweet that was a clumsy and inadequate attempt to play the role of high priest:

Two days later, in response to the public outcry, his staff wrote a statement that he read aloud:

Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

But just 24 hours later, Trump effectively renounced his own statement. Speaking spontaneously, in response to questions from reporters, he returned to his “many sides” formulation and the moral equivalency of the marchers and counter-demonstrators. The president of the United States said that there were “very fine people” on both sides.

In that moment, Trump committed the gravest act of sacrilege of his presidency. In that moment, the president rendered himself untouchable by all who share the belief that Nazis and the KKK are not just bad—they are taboo.

Taboo violations are contagious. They render the transgressor “polluted,” in the language of anthropology, and the moral stain rubs off on those who physically touch the transgressor, as well as on those who fail to distance themselves from the transgressor. When people march with Nazis and Klansmen, even if they keep their mouths closed when others are chanting, and even if they don’t personally carry swastika or Klan flags, they acquire the full moral stain of Nazis and Klansmen. By saying that some of these men were “very fine people,” the president has taken that stain upon himself.

You can’t just apologize for breaking a taboo, especially a taboo as deep as the one on Nazis and the KKK. Many religions offer methods of atonement, sometimes involving fasting, self-flagellation, and temporary separation from the community. But even if an anthropologically sophisticated chief of staff could devise a secular form of atonement, Trump would not undergo it. He does not believe he has done anything wrong.

So the stain, the moral pollution, the taint, will linger on him and his administration for the rest of his term. Business leaders have quit his panels and projects; artists who were due to receive honors from the president have changed their plans. Pollution travels most rapidly by physical touch, so be on the lookout for numerous awkward moments in the coming months when people refuse to shake the president’s hand or stand next to him. It is unclear how far the contagion will spread, but it will surely make it more difficult to attract talented people into government service for as long as Trump is the president.

What will happen in the U.S. Congress? Will it be sufficient for congressional Republicans to denounce racism and Nazis, and then carry on with business as usual? Given the intense polarization of the American electorate, such a plan may work for them in the short run. But Republicans should know that people’s political orientations are shaped for life by events that happen when they are young, particularly between the ages of 14 and 24. The young generation—iGen, as Jean Twenge calls them—is extraordinarily progressive and passionate about matters of race and prejudice. If Republicans stand by their tainted president rather than renouncing him, an entire generation of voters may come to see the GOP as eternally untouchable.

Of course, Trump has violated many taboos before and survived; some were even taboos related to the American civil religion, as when he belittled the parents of a dead war hero, or mocked John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam. But this time the pollution is so much greater that the heads of the military services and the leaders of friendly foreign governments felt compelled to make statements denouncing racism and (at least indirectly) distancing themselves from the president.

They were smart to do so: a feature of strong taboo violations is that they sometimes trigger what social scientists call “second-order punishment.” People don’t just want to punish or renounce the transgressor; they want to punish or renounce anyone who fails to punish or renounce the transgressor. Any business leader or public figure who is seen aiding or collaborating with the president faces a heightened risk of a boycott or public pressure campaign, and the pressure may not come only from the left. Some graduates of conservative Liberty University are applying second order punishment by returning their diplomas to the school after the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., tweeted his approval of Trump’s response to Charlottesville.

This is why, for many Americans, things feel so unsettled this week. Extraordinary sacrilege has occurred, but divine retribution has not yet come down from the heavens, and we have no priest and no scripture to guide us. The world is out of balance, and America can’t just go on as before.