They came walking out of a dark Friday night on the University of Virginia campus, a long line of young men (and a few women) carrying tiki torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “blood and soil.” The imagery was immediately reminiscent of Nazi brown shirts and Waffen SS who, with similar torches, marched in the streets of Munich and Nuremberg in the 1930s.

This chilling, torch-lit display of bigotry and hate, under the umbrella of the alt-right (neo-Nazis, white nationalists/supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semites) was the precursor to a Saturday rally called “Unite the Right.” It was slated to be the largest gathering of such hate groups in decades.

And indeed, the following day, these same people walked the streets of Charlottesville carrying Nazi and Confederate flags, some dressed in paramilitary uniforms and openly carrying automatic rifles or clubs. Lining the streets as well were groups protesting the hate-filled messages and symbols displayed by the marchers, who insisted they were there to oppose taking down the statue of Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.

It’s at this juncture that we, as a nation of laws and a Constitution, must uphold what is one of our most cherished tenets: the First Amendment, which is broadly drawn and delineates the right of free speech and assembly with few exceptions, e.g., you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.

The reality is that for the neo-Nazis/white nationalists, as well as those who were there to resist their presence, our belief in free speech applies to both sides.

As disgusting as the alt-right’s presence is to most Americans — these seemingly demented people who are committed to resurrecting an ideology that caused the deaths of millions across Europe and was responsible for an evil that still defies comprehension, made manifest in their horrifying death camps — they are protected by our Constitution.

I believe that for this cohort of hate it was never about a statue. It is, instead, about their growing belief that they no longer need to remain in the shadows, sensing that there has been a shift in our nation’s political climate, one that is tilting toward their twisted vision. They feel empowered. Muslims have been banned. Immigrants have been identified as criminals and rapists. A disabled reporter mocked. Sanctuary cities challenged. Minority voter suppression has been codified using the rationale of a commission ostensibly looking into “election fraud.”

The mistake that Donald Trump made, which amounted to an unexpected and unscripted reveal, was to construct a false equivalency. In a “press conference” ostensibly slated to discuss infrastructure, he launched into an angry rant in which he said, repeatedly, that the alt-right marchers were the same as those who were there to defend the principles of equality and justice.

For Trump, this was a breathtaking moment, followed by another false equivalency: comparing the monuments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to that of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The statue in question in Charlottesville was of Lee, a general who fought to secede from the union in order to perpetuate the institution of slavery. He was willing to sacrifice the lives of some 258,000 men to his treasonous cause. The heritage of the Confederacy is littered with not only the bodies of those soldiers but with the antebellum slaves who died in the service of a morally bankrupt belief that people could be trafficked and then bought and sold at auction and often worked to death like so much chattel. It was then, and remains today, one of America’s darkest periods (including  Jim Crow) and continues to ripple through our society as we struggle to free ourselves from the attitudes and prejudices born of this consummate evil.

Trump seemed oblivious to his attempt to create an equivalency where none existed. It demonstrated a familiar obtuseness, a lack of any moral understanding, and has resulted in blowback by people of conscience.

The question now is, what will his enablers, including the Republican Party, do? Will they stand with him after his “press conference” of last Tuesday? Or will they feel the weight of this moral moment and simply walk away?

— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.