The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Has the moral authority of the U.S. been eroded with Trump’s reaction to the violence in Virginia?

President Trump said "I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane" during a heated back-and-forth with reporters on Aug. 15. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Washington Post)

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It resonated around the world when President Trump blamed "both sides" for the violence in Charlottesville where white supremacists and neo-Nazis brawled with counterprotesters last weekend. Immediately after he condemned the white nationalists but apportioned the fault equally, allies and adversaries alike began questioning whether Trump had ceded his moral authority and weakened the role traditionally played by the United States as a global leader.

Here's what you need to know about this fast-moving story:

What's at stake?

The concept of moral authority, used by past presidents at home and abroad, is part of what makes the U.S. president the most powerful person in the world. Now the ability of the United States to influence events around the world is under assault. United Nations Secretary General António  Guterres, without mentioning Trump by name, rebuked the nationalism and populism that propelled Trump into office, saying the world must stand up against intolerance and "irrationality."

What is the fallout so far?

It can be difficult to trace a direct line of cause and effect, but relations with other countries already were under strain. After a week of Trump trading threats with North Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in insisted his country effectively has a veto over a unilateral attack by the United States on the North. As the New York Times noted, Latin American leaders are telling the United States to butt out after Trump said a "military option" was on the table for Venezuela. Iran has threatened to quit the nuclear deal if more U.S. sanctions are imposed. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted, "If US has any power, they better manage their country, tackle #WhiteSupremacy, rather than meddle in nations' affairs. #Charlottesville."

Why do foreigners care about what happened in Charlottesville?

In some cases it's about self-preservation. British Prime Minister Theresa May, for example, rushed to ally herself with Trump right after his inauguration. But British voters don't share that affection, and with her own popularity ebbing, she now is openly distancing herself from Trump. In a clear reference to Trump's remarks on Charlottesville, May said there was "no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them."

British Prime Minister Theresa May says it is important for those in "positions of responsibility" to condemn far-right views. (Video: Reuters)

Without the United States, who is there?

Many other countries now consider German Chancellor Angela Merkel the leader of the West. In Germany, where Nazi speech and gestures are curtailed by legal restrictions, Charlottesville and Trump's shifting reactions have been heavily criticized. Merkel did not criticize Trump or the United States by name, but she called the actions by white supremacists “horrifying” and “evil” and blamed one side, saying, “It is racist, far-right violence and clear, forceful action must be taken against it, regardless of where in the world it happens.”

Is the erosion of U.S. moral authority permanent?

It is too early to say whether Trump's reaction to Charlottesville has done any long-term damage. Some have suggested he could reverse the damage, perhaps by funding programs that investigate hate groups. But in the short term, his moral authority clearly has taken a hit.