And Trump was the one with the match.
The symbolism was not subtle. Torches, witch hunts, flaming crosses — they all stretch back to our country's founding. All those white-power bros knew exactly the kind of fear they were trying to evoke, even if their tiki torches came from Home Depot's end-of-the-season patio sale.
The Nazi and Confederate flags were equally chilling to the millions of Americans who lost relatives in the Holocaust or in the fight against Hitler, or those with vivid memories of relentless racial oppression, including lynchings, church bombings and assassinations at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist terrorists.
Now we're live-streaming that very same hatred while Trump looks the other way. It was 90 years ago that Fred Trump, the president's father, was arrested for failing to disperse at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Queens that sounded a lot like the scene at Charlottesville.
Except today, there are no hoods.
Donald Trump gave everyone permission to take those hoods off with his winks, nods and refusal to take a moral stand on racial hatred and intimidation during his campaign and during the first six months of his presidency. He'd already spent years questioning the birthplace and legitimacy of President Barack Obama, the nation's first black commander in chief. And the haters loved him for it.
On Saturday, the president stayed silent at his New Jersey golf club for hours, even as former KKK grand wizard David Duke declared Charlottesville a "turning point" for a movement that aims to "fulfill the promises of Donald Trump."
First, he offered a vague tweet condemning hatred without any explicit reference to the hundreds of men, some wearing red Make America Great Again hats, who chanted "White lives matter," "You will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us."
It wasn't until a driver with alleged Nazi sympathies used an Islamic State-inspired tactic and plowed into a crowd of peaceful counter-demonstrators, injuring 19 and killing one woman, that Trump addressed the terrorist attack on his own soil.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides," he said.
"There is only one side," former vice president Joe Biden succinctly replied on Twitter.
Trump is so afraid of offending his Tiki Tribe that he didn't even own his flaccid statement with "I."
On Sunday morning, his daughter Ivanka Trump finally called out the cancer that is at the heart of this domestic terrorism.
"There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis," she tweeted.
She, however, is not the commander in chief.
We are the ones who have to extinguish the blaze our president sparked. Democrat, Republican, independent — it doesn't matter. Everyone must reject what's been unleashed in this country. And that's already happening.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), the father of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tweeted: " 'White supremacy' crap is worst kind of racism-it's EVIL and perversion of God's truth to ever think our Creator values some above others."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) agreed: "We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home."
The torches in Charlottesville are a dangerous sideshow in America's ongoing culture war.
We need to stop attributing the resurgence of racism to income inequality or job loss and stop tucking it into the great red vs. blue, progressivism vs. conservatism, urban vs. rural struggle that is at the heart of debate in our society.
The University of Virginia, where the white extremists marched with their lit torches, is the home of James Davison Hunter, the sociologist who helped define the contemporary American culture war. In 1992 — as the American presidential election was rocked by the debate over a TV character's single motherhood in "Murphy Brown" — Hunter reminded us that these cultural skirmishes aren't just rhetoric or "political froth."
"Cumulatively, these disputes amount to a fundamental struggle over the 'first principles' of how we will order our life together," Hunter wrote in The Washington Post. "Through these seemingly disparate issues we find ourselves, in other words, in a struggle to define ourselves as Americans and what kind of society we want to build and sustain."
Yes, there are many sides in the culture war that the racists keep trying to hitch their flaming wagon to.
But this abomination that happened in Charlottesville over the weekend is not up for debate. It's not a cultural take or a political platform. Racism, bigotry and terrorism in the name of white nationalism isn't a "side." It's a poison.
And doing anything other than calling it what it is, defining it and snuffing it out is simply un-American.
Read more Petula Dvorak: