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.