WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- Standing in a packed amphitheater in front of Mount Rushmore for an Independence Day celebration, President Trump delivered a dark and divisive speech that cast his struggling effort to win a second term as a battle against a "new far-left fascism” seeking to wipe out the nation’s values and history.
With the coronavirus pandemic raging and his campaign faltering in the polls, his appearance amounted to a fiery reboot of his re-election effort, using the holiday and an official presidential address to mount a full-on culture war against a straw-man version of the left that he portrayed as inciting mayhem and moving the country toward totalitarianism.
"Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said, addressing a packed crowd of sign-waving supporters, few of whom wore masks. "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.”
Trump barely mentioned the frightening resurgence of the pandemic, even as the country surpassed 53,000 new cases and health officials across the nation urged Americans to scale back their Fourth of July plans.
Instead, appealing unabashedly to his base with ominous language and imagery, he railed against what he described as a dangerous "cancel culture” intent on toppling monuments and framed himself as a strong leader who would protect the Second Amendment, law enforcement and the country’s heritage.
The scene at Mount Rushmore was the latest sign of how Trump appears, by design or default, increasingly disconnected from the intense concern among Americans about the health crisis gripping the country. More than just a partisan rally, it underscored the extent to which Trump is appealing to a subset of Americans to carry him to a second term by changing the subject and appealing to fear and division.
"Most presidents in history have understood that when they appear at a national monument, it’s usually a moment to act as a unifying chief of state, not a partisan divider,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, said before the speech.
Under the granite gaze of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Trump announced plans to establish what he described as a "vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live,” an apparent repudiation of the growing pressure to remove statues tied to slavery or colonialism.
As the president departed Washington for South Dakota on Friday, at least five states — Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina — reported their highest single day of cases yet. Newly reported cases of the virus were rising in all but a handful of states, and many large cities, including Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville and Los Angeles, were seeing alarming growth.
Trump planned to follow up his trip with a "Salute to America” celebration on Saturday on the South Lawn at the White House, marked by a military flyover and the launch of 10,000 fireworks on the National Mall.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington had warned the gathering violated federal health guidelines. The Trump administration, which controls the federal property of the National Mall, pushed for the celebration, ignoring a mayor whom officials view as a political rival.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has tried to bend events to his will, often using social media to drive home his alternate version of reality.
"I don’t think it will work, because what he is trying to do is pretend that the situation is better than it is,” Beschloss said.
Beschloss compared Mr. Trump to Woodrow Wilson, who presided over the influenza pandemic in 1918 by trying to pretend it was not happening, and to Herbert Hoover, who in 1932 tried to project that the Great Depression was not as bad as people were saying.
"People voted him out because they felt he did not understand the suffering,” Beschloss said, referring to Hoover.
Trump has consistently played down the concerns over spikes in new cases, even as many cities and states have had to slow or reverse their reopenings, claiming that young people "get better much easier and faster,” that the death rate is declining and that the virus will "just disappear.”