Standing beneath Mount Rushmore on the eve of American independence day, Donald Trump staged a defiant celebration of what critics say is white identity politics and warned the nation’s history is under siege from “far-left fascism”.
The US president defended the symbolism of statues and monuments before a packed crowd at an event that revelled in political incorrectness calculated to enflame the country’s current divisions and enrage liberal critics. There were few face masks and even fewer people of color on stage or in the stands.
“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”
In an effort to fight back, he announced a surprise executive order establishing “The National Garden of American Heroes”, a vast outdoor park featuring statues of “the greatest Americans to ever live” – a selection sure to provoke debate and controversy.
Mount Rushmore in South Dakota depicts the images of US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and have found their legacies increasingly questioned since the police killing of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer on 25 May triggered a wave of Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of dozens of Confederate statues.
The president has shown no sign of embracing the public mood, but has rather dug in with a “law and order” response, promising harsh penalties for anyone who vandalizes statues, resisting changes to military bases named after Confederate generals and retweeting (then deleting) a video in which a man shouted “White power!”.
On Friday Trump become the first president since George H W Bush in 1991 to attend Mount Rushmore’s independence day celebration. He saluted and his wife Melania stood with hand on heart as the national anthem played, the stars and stripes unfurled on big screens and Blue Angels jets flew overhead.
“This monument will never be desecrated,” Trump declared, eliciting cheers. “These heroes will never be defaced. Their legacy will never, ever be destroyed. Their achievements will never be forgotten. And Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.”
In remarks that offered little by way of reconciliation, he went on to rail against “cancel culture, driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and to our values. It has absolutely no place in the United States of America.
“This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.”
He added darkly: “In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted and punished.”
Gesturing to the overwhelmingly white crowd, he said: “Not going to happen to us.”
Trump added: “Make no mistake, this leftwing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution.”
When the president said he was deploying federal law enforcement to protect monuments and arrest and prosecute offenders, the crowd rose to their feet and applauded. When he proclaimed, “They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced,” there were chants of “USA! USA!”
In a swipe at sports professionals and others who take a knee to protest racial injustice, Trump said: “We stand tall, we stand proud and we only kneel before almighty God.”
He went on to announce the National Garden of American Heroes in an executive order that said it should include statues of figures like Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T Washington, George Washington and Orville and Wilbur Wright.
After the speech, Trump sat with Melania to watch a fireworks display above the monument, accompanied by patriotic music and historical readings, the first since 2009 due to environmental concerns and wildfire fears. South Dakota says the surrounding Black Hills National Forest has “gained strength” since then and that fireworks technology has advanced.
But the threat of damage was one more example of how, if president’s advisers had designed a stunt to goad his critics in the media and Congress, they could hardly have chosen a more incendiary time and place.
Protesters blocked a road leading to the monument. Authorities worked to move the demonstrators, mostly Native Americans protesting that South Dakota’s Black Hills were taken from the Lakota people against treaty agreements and objecting to Trump celebrating American independence on their sacred ground. About 15 protesters were arrested after missing a police-imposed deadline to leave.
The Democratic National Committee tweeted at one point that Trump had disrespected Native Americans and that his South Dakota trip was “glorifying white supremacy”. It subsequently deleted the tweet.
As in Oklahoma and Arizona last month, Trump held an event with a big crowd despite health experts’ recommendations to avoid large gatherings amid a surge of coronavirus cases to a record of more than 50,000 per day. Covid-19 cases in Pennington County surrounding Mount Rushmore have more than doubled over the past month.
It was reported on Friday that Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of the president’s son Donald Trump Jr, has tested positive for the coronavirus. She had travelled to South Dakota but did not attend the event.
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