The news cycle locks so effortlessly onto the aftermath of the incident in Charlottesville that one can easily forget how we got here and just why America’s morally malnourished president is attempting to pick his way around the issue of white supremacism.

Trump’s world has always been one in which miserly condemnation has all too often expressed affirmation. Putin, violence towards the media, tax avoidance, leaking to the press: he’s condemned them all whilst also, we suspect, tacitly approving. His covert dalliance with white militants has similarly been going on for months but it has thus far been more wink than it has nod. The events of the weekend have now placed the relationship out in the open. Earlier on Saturday, David Duke had warned that “we are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” Had the actions of James Fields not dominated the headlines subsequently, this week’s story might well have been about the far right’s willingness to back up its political strength with a show of paramilitary force. Suddenly the hopes of the Leninist, Steve Bannon, who once said he wanted to “bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment”, feel more sinister and a lot more imminent.

This is already the understated part of the story. Long before the news broke of the grey Dodge Challenger ramming protestors on Saturday, there had been a looming sense of menace about the city. Footage emerged, earlier in the day, of militiamen filing down a suburban street. Photographs of bodies thrown into the air and blood splattered streets were perhaps the most graphic. Those of white supremacists shouting Nazi chants beneath burning torches the most evocative. Yet it’s the images of the soldiers-who-were-not-soldiers that were perhaps the most chilling images from the weekend.

The armed militia was incongruous against the city’s Georgian aesthetic. Stepping out as white and rigid as a row of picket fences pulled from a story by Twain, these were men taking their right to bear arms to its logical conclusion. Camouflage did nothing to disguise the obesity of both their bodies and their minds, over-nourished by patriotism, religion, and, ultimately, hate and fear. Hips stacked with ammunition, faux military patches, communications rigs, tactical gear, and just about every modification with which an enthusiast could fetishize their weapon: these were extremists of a kind to rival any religious zealot or radical paramilitary. They are part of that America inordinately good at deluding itself that gun ownership is a national virtue.

Not that the argument is solely one about guns, which are and will remain a sad necessity given the size of the country and the number of weapons already in circulation. The militarization of the citizenry is, however, another matter. America has militias written right into the Second Amendment of its constitution:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Add in the pervasive romanticism of the American pioneer spirit, rewritten in postmodern narratives of apocalypse and survival, and you end up with the alt-right movement prepping for ruin and believing in a new world order beyond this one.

Does Donald Trump believe the same? There are only two explanations for his impotent condemnation and, perhaps, the worst is not that he is, himself, a white supremacist. He has, admittedly, spoken openly about eugenics. “I’m a gene believer,” Trump once said. “Hey, when you connect two racehorses, you usually end up with a fast horse, and I really had a good gene pool from the standpoint of that.” Draw a straight line from that statement to his remarks about immigration, American power, and the rest, and you could project a convincing case that Trump’s hesitancy about condemning the white supremacists has much to do with his own sympathy towards the movement. That is, however, to credit Trump with more ideological purity than he’s ever shown in his life.

The more frightening possibility is that Trump believes in anything that can further his interests, improve his wealth, or simply keep him in power. This is the dangerous scenario in which Trump colludes with Russians in order to win an election, abuses the power of the presidency to settle scores with his enemies, or threatens a nuclear strike on North Korea simply to reshape the news.

I previously wrote that the sacking of Reince Priebus signaled the slow evisceration of Republicanism from the Trump administration. It somewhat surprisingly increased in pace with his attacks on Senate Majority Leader, Mitch Mcconnell. At times it has felt like the President has been settling his divorce bill from the GOP and this has involved leveraging his base for support. The alt-right consist of a constituency he can ill afford to lose and then Charlottesville happened. Trump now finds himself stranded, expected to voice the language of traditional Republicans he no longer wants about extremists whose message is broadly supported by the people he needs.

The United States will not, in all likelihood, succumb to the militias, which have rarely numbered more than a few hundred discrete groups. It must, no doubt, face them down at some point before their menace becomes unmanageable. Indeed, it’s domestic terrorism that looks a more likely threat to America than anything emanating from overseas. More imminent, however, is the fear that America has a president who sees himself as a revolutionary and who notably puts himself only second to Lincoln (another revolutionary) in terms of his presidential appeal. Trump has been careful not to be overt in his words but recent messages to his supporters have been clear: don’t let them rob you of your victory and be prepared to fight for your rights.

Set the events of the weekend into that narrative and the reasons for the President’s pitiful denunciation become perfectly clear. This is the man facing a serious criminal investigation, who might well have to answer to charges that could lead to his impeachment. He has already primed his base to expect the worst. This, he tells them, is a grand conspiracy, whilst he himself ‘wags the dog’ of nuclear conflict with North Korea in order to distract the rest of us from his problems. He increasingly looks like a president who would provoke civil war in order to keep himself in office.

That’s why the armed presence on the streets of Charlotteville might well be the story of the weekend. They represent the ominous threat should the far right feel that democracy is not working for them. What’s more: a country cannot claim to be healthy when politicians fear that pursuing a lawful course of action will precipitate an armed uprising. A country cannot claim to be mentally sound when the rights of the majority of its citizens are entirely subject to the whims of a small but heavily armed militia.

Today America is a country being held hostage by extremists. Charlottesville was but a sign of how long and difficult the escape to freedom might be.