The naked hatred displayed by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend served one revealing and useful purpose. It unmasked President Trump's ugly notion that the racist protestors and those who turned out to counter-protest them were equally culpable for the deadly mayhem.
After a day of attempting to quell the criticism of his charge that "many sides" were responsible for the street violence, yesterday he doubled down, blaming the opponents of the marching extremists as well as the extremists themselves. He also took off after reporters, whom he suggested had distorted the scene by presenting the violence as one-sided. "I think there's blame on both sides, I have no doubt about it," said Mr. Trump.
It took Mr. Trump three days to offer even a semblance of condemnation of the white nationalist instigators. His first comment was to condemn "in the strongest terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides." He at first failed to note the central role white supremacists had played in the violence, ignoring reporters' calls for him to do so.
Mr. Trump, by lumping the protesters in with the self-identified Ku Klux Klan racists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, unleashed a flood of harsh criticism against him. Many establishment Republican leaders like Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz led the anti-Trump outcry.
Vice President Mike Pence from distant Cartagena, Colombia, felt compelled to identify the culprits, saying "these dangerous fringe groups have no place in American public life and in the American debate, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms." Even the president's daughter Ivanka offered on Twitter that "there should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis."
On subsequent Sunday morning talk shows, Trump apologists such as Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert rushed in on cleanup patrol, noting that participants "on both sides" came "looking for trouble." Gen. H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump's national security adviser, told NBC that his boss was committed "to bring all Americans together," adding he was sure "you will hear from the president more about this," as eventually happened.
But Mr. Trump, initially shooting from the hip without counsel from his protectors, demonstrated his self-protective armor, taking care not to bite the political hand of right-wing extremists who loyally feed him.
Only after his initial antiseptic cleansing of blame for the violence did the White House acknowledge "of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups."
It took another day for the political damage of Mr. Trump's clumsy word-play to sink in, as Americans learned more about the extremists who staged the march, and how they came armed with guns and other weapons.
Even Mr. Trump's much-ridiculed former White House communications director, the hapless Anthony "The Mooch" Scaramucci, weighed in on ABC News Sunday morning, opining that his short-time boss "needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists and the nature of that."
Mr. Trump in his own delayed verbal cleanup formally announced he had met with his new FBI director, Christopher Wray, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now apparently out of Mr. Trump's woodshed, for now anyway. Mr. Sessions said a Justice Department investigation was underway into civil rights abuses in the Charlottesville car attack that caused one death and 20 injured bystanders.
Mr. Trump with due solemnity expressed his condolences to the bereaved, adding: "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."
This time the president read the words, making sure he responded specifically to earlier allegations that he had tried to broad-brush the organizers of the march, many of whom were Trump supporters. It marked a rare occasion that Donald Trump had gone out of his way to accommodate his critics, albeit tardily.
Mr. Trump explained his overdue fingering of the extremist organizers of the event on confusion sown by the widely televised rioting. He couldn't resist again accusing the cable news media, some of which, like Fox News, often parrot him, telling CNN: "I like real news. You are fake news."
Those who have expressed hope that Mr. Trump's "generals" may yet be able to get Trump to tone down his rhetoric will be watching and listening. But many of the Trump faithful also will continue to approve his tossing of red meat to the angry and racist lions in today's divisive political arena, even as his poll numbers gradually erode.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.