President Donald Trump used the spectacular backdrop of Mount Rushmore and the eve of Independence Day to deliver a speech that cast himself as the defender of American history against a out of control “angry mobs” seeking to denigrate the nation’s founders and pull down statues and monuments.
Trump’s speech, below the giant faces of four of his predecessors, signaled that his presidential campaign will lean heavily into the the grievances of a perceived silent majority, a term from the era of Richard Nixon, one that is dismayed and disgusted over the protests and unrest that followed the death of George Floyd.
“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,” he said. “It is not going to happen to us.”
He also announced that he was signing an executive order to create an outdoor park that will be filled with statues of the “greatest Americans who ever lived.”
In his speech he went through the accomplishments of famous Americans, everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Tubman to even Bob Hope. But he also characterized the national reckoning over race, in so much as it has led to the reconsideration of cultural landmarks, corporate symbols and sports team names, as a threat to the idea of American exceptionalism.
“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” he said.
The speech was not a campaign event, but felt like one. Although the right has long decried “PC” culture, Trump’s latest opening has been to highlight instances in which protesters have taken down or defaced statutes of not just Confederate figures, but others like Ulysses S. Grant. Trump’s political rise in 2016 was in part fueled by the idea that the those on the right were under siege in an era of political correctness.
“Make no mistake, this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution,” Trump said in his speech. “In so doing, they will destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement discovery and progress.”
The president also was pointing to examples where protesters or, in some cases, mere social media voices, have pulled down or suggested removing statutes of certain figures. His 2020 rival, Joe Biden, is more nuanced. He has said that while Confederate monuments should not be displayed publicly, those to other figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should be preserved.
Trump spoke to a crowd packed in an amphitheater, many not wearing masks despite concerns over the coronavirus. It is a real fear: The New York Times reported that Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraising official on the Trump campaign and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., tested positive for the coronavirus after traveling to the South Dakota locale.
By choosing to do the speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump also was stoking other historic divisions — the clearing out of Native Americans from the American west.
That was apparent hours before his visit, demonstrators blocked a road that led into the national monument, before authorities removed them. According to the Associated Press, police used pepper spray on several protesters. The demonstrators included Native Americans who long have claimed the land in the Black Hills. Four decades ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the lands had been taken illegally in violation of an 1868 treaty between the United States government and the Sioux Nation.
MSNBC reported that some Trump supporters yelled at demonstrators, “Go home, go home.” Protesters replied, “This is my home. My land.”
In his speech, Trump did not reference the dispute over the Sioux land. Rather, he avoided the blemishes and blights on American history and stuck to a glossy version of U.S. greatness.
“Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny,” Trump said. “In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and for each other.”
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