White nationalist demonstrators surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
Deputy opinion editor and columnist

James Fields Jr., charged with murder for allegedly driving his car into a crowd of strangers, is the latest evidence that white supremacy is a self-refuting proposition. There appears to be nothing at all “supreme” about the pudgy Ohioan.

There’s a pattern among these violent haters. Take away Dylann Roof’s pistol and he is just another shiftless high school dropout — the one voted Most Likely to Lose a Thumb Lighting Firecrackers.

Or Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., the hatemonger residing on death row in Kansas. He spent decades spouting white-nationalist hogwash based on his supposed deep knowledge of human differences. Eventually he decided to murder some Jewish people. And kill he did — his victims turned out to be two Methodists and a Catholic. So much for telling people apart.

If you were to tell me that George Clooney had become a supremacist, I would be shocked — but I would have to admit that he had a data point smiling from his bathroom mirror. The man is handsome, rich, talented, funny, suave, intelligent and for all I know trustworthy, loyal and brave. Were Clooney to make a leap from his individual reality to a more generalized theory of Clooney supremacy, I could at least follow his train of thought.

But these guys? Judging from their mug shots, white nationalism seems to hold a special appeal for disheveled alcoholics, repressed jackboot fetishists and guys who might keep their mothers taxidermied in the basement. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality made the odious Daily Stormer website look downright ridiculous in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. “Go out and enjoy yourselves,” the website counseled wannabe Nazis. “Random girls will want to have sex with you. Because you’re the bad boys. . . . Every girl on the planet wants [you] now.”

Sure they do.

Fascism, it seems, means never having to say you’re squirrelly. But that doesn’t make it less dangerous. No neutral observer in 1927 would have looked at Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler and thought: Eureka, the master race! Mass hatred is an existential threat not because it’s rational but because it is pre-rational. All evidence suggests it is a basic element of the human operating system, liable to erupt at any time and any place, from the age of the Crusaders to the age of violent jihad, from Rwanda to Cambodia, from Cold Harbor to Sarajevo.

It’s sometimes said that hatred must be taught, but the frequency with which it shows up on such far-flung stages argues that it must be latent, an ugly seed awaiting its moment to sprout unbidden. Some writers assert that it feeds on economic dislocation, but the fact is that America is plastered with “help wanted” signs. Besides, road-tripping to Virginia to hang with the Ku Klux Klan is a poor way to advance a career.

To greet the world with love, on the other hand, is an attitude that must be cultivated through storms of adversity and droughts of trust. And this hard work of cultivation is the thing that was missing from President Trump’s stinting remarks afterward. Trump’s language is often blunt but rarely concrete. Whatever his intention, his vague reference to “many sides” of the melee had the effect of allowing the concrete problem of group hatred to go unchallenged. The Daily Stormer swiftly noted this, and celebrated. “Trump’s comments were good,” the website marveled. “. . . Nothing specific against us.”

Where the Nazis had their Friedrich Nietzsche, we Americans have Ralph Waldo Emerson, optimistic, life-affirming and — unlike the German philosopher — perfectly sane. This supreme molder of the American mind once wrote: “The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded. It is a doctrine alike of the oldest and of the newest philosophy, that man is one, and that you cannot injure any member, without a sympathetic injury to all the members.”

This idea is hardly unique to American philosophy, but it is of special importance to our past and future as an open society. Our issues have many sides indeed, and that is exactly the reason that torch-bearing marchers chanting Nazi slogans must be explicitly and vigorously denounced. They are a clear and present danger.

Trump might think such things need not be said, that they are obvious. Clearly, he resented criticism of his failure to state it plainly.

But it’s also obvious that people should wash their hands to avoid spreading germs, pay attention when they’re driving and look both ways before crossing the street, yet these truths must be repeated because people are prone to forget and lives are at stake. Mass hatred is humanity’s deadliest tendency, the epidemic to end all epidemics. We can’t say it enough.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.