There are three possible reasons for Donald Trump’s depraved response to the Nazi violence unleashed in Charlottesville on August 11–12. All are equally unnerving. The first is the simplest: Trump is a morally senescent man, an emotional simpleton who just does not have the capacity to tell right from wrong. That he could assert that even some of the torch-bearing, Jew-and-black-and-gay-baiting thugs who descended on Charlottesville during that weekend—shouting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”—were “very fine people” lends itself to this interpretation. That he could consider Nazi and anti-Nazi motives to be morally equivalent implies damage to a core part of his ethical being so profound as to be irreparable.
The second is that Trump—who rode to power, as demagogues always do, by speaking to the worst impulses of his audiences and embracing whatever nasty, violent visions were most politically expedient at any given moment—is simply taking the opportunism game to a whole new level. That certainly is possible; after all, Trump rode Islamophobia to victory in the GOP primaries and also helped to fuel it. He played off voters’ fears about African-American and immigrant criminality. He utilized crude, vulgar sexism against Hillary Clinton. He urged the US military to carry out war crimes against terrorism suspects and their families: torture, collective punishment, summary execution using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, and so on. No politician in American history has ever gone down so many different demagogic paths simultaneously and with so much success.
So for Trump the demagogue, his Charlottesville response may have been simply another political calculus, an attempt to shore up his embittered white base. It is, I suppose, possible—though the unhinged nature of Trump’s press conference seems to lower the likelihood of this—that Trump himself knew the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were entirely to blame for what unfolded, but saw far more political gain in pandering to his angry followers by blaming blacks and radical leftists and the other usual suspects regularly targeted by RantRadio and Fox TV.
The third possible reason is that Donald Trump—the son of KKK-supporting Fred Trump, the pupil of Joe McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn—actually is, to the very core of his being, a white supremacist, a man who always has and always will divide humanity into hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, and religion. Trump’s almost pathological inability to do what ought to be the simplest thing in American politics—issue a clear, unambiguous, eyes-looking-straight-at-the-camera denunciation of swastika-waving, weapons-toting Nazis—certainly raises this as a strong possibility. He has certainly never needed Steve Bannon’s or any other adviser’s encouragement to spout his bigoted obscenities. So Bannon’s recent ouster, however welcome, will not address the key problem we’re facing.