The Atlantic

Trump Breaks a Taboo—and Pays the Price

The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.
Source: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.

The “Unite the Right” rally was an effort to mobilize and energize a subset of the far-right around its own sacred symbols—including swastikas and. The psychology of sacredness and its function in binding groups together is essential for understanding the method and the motives of the marchers.

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