Ultimately this was not merely the failure of rhetoric or context, but of moral judgment. The president could not bring himself initially to directly acknowledge the victims or distinguish between the instigators and the dead. He could not focus on the provocations of the side marching under a Nazi flag. Is this because he did not want to repudiate some of his strongest supporters? This would indicate that Trump views loyalty to himself as mitigation for nearly any crime or prejudice. Or is the president truly convinced of the moral equivalence of the sides in Charlottesville? This is to diagnose an ethical sickness for which there is no cure.
There is no denying that Trump has used dehumanization — refugees are “animals,” Mexican migrants are “rapists,” Muslims are threats — as a political tool. And there is no denying that hateful political rhetoric can give permission for prejudice. “It acts as a psychological lubricant,” says David Livingstone Smith, “dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under normal circumstances, be unthinkable.”