On Saturday in the nation’s capital, the Trump administration has planned July 4 celebrations that ignore Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser’s concerns about public health guidelines, although at least there’ll be some of the social distancing measures at the White House that were ignored in South Dakota, where the President largely acted as if the coronavirus didn’t exist.
Instead, when Trump spoke on Friday night of a “growing danger,” he was talking about an entirely different threat than rising coronavirus cases. He referred to a threat to America’s “heritage” — rhetoric intended to rev up his base at a time when many Americans are attempting to relearn the nation’s history with greater attention to the wrongs inflicted on Black and Native American people.
Repeatedly using vague pronouns like “they” and “them,” Trump sought to play on the fears of a minority — that appears to be shrinking, according to polls — who view the rise of Black Lives Matter as a threat to the historical dominance of White people. He described the goals of protesters who are attempting to right the wrongs of history as “alien to our culture, and to our values.”
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One of “their political weapons,” he said, is “cancel culture,” which would drive people from their jobs, shame dissenters and “demand total submission” from anyone who disagrees.
“We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault and preserve our beloved American way of life,” Trump said. He mysteriously described those who would tear down statues of racist leaders from the past as “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,” Trump said. “It’s not gonna happen to us,” he said to cheers, as he revived his familiar “us versus them” language. “Make no mistake. This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”
“To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol and memory of our national heritage,” he said.
A pandemic all but forgotten
It was spectacle that unfolded before thousands of people, most without masks, who were seated close together in bleacher seats and on black folding chairs that were zip-tied together because of a local fire code, making physical distancing impossible.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican and close Trump ally, set the tone earlier this week during an appearance on Fox News where she said there would be no social distancing as spectators gathered to celebrate freedom.
Like Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month — where at least eight Trump campaign staffers came down with the coronavirus and dozens of Secret Service agents were forced to quarantine — the South Dakota event ignored many of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for large gatherings. The lack of any visible effort to keep people safe was effectively an act of sabotage against Trump’s own public health officials, who fear that crowds gathering this holiday weekend could lead to frightening surges in cases and an increase in America’s death toll from the pandemic.
For days now, numerous experts, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, have warned that Americans should not attend crowded gatherings as cases surge in 36 states, with alarming positivity rates in parts of Florida, Texas and Arizona.
Trump, however, has continued gas-lighting Americans about the rising number of cases, insisting they are due to increased testing. In a late Thursday night tweet
before playing golf on Friday, Trump inaccurately said that the rise in coronavirus cases is “because our testing is so massive and so good, far bigger and better than any other country.”
“This is great news, but even better news is that death, and the death rate, is DOWN,” Trump tweeted. “Also, younger people, who get better much easier and faster!”
The President’s appearance at the non-socially distanced event in South Dakota came at a time when the virus creeps ever closer to him. Before she was set to attend the South Dakota event, Kimberly Guilfoyle — the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. and a top fundraiser for the Trump campaign — tested positive for coronavirus, according to a top official for the committee she leads.
And while some of his closest allies are urging Trump to take a greater leadership role on masks, and even Trump himself told Fox News Business this week that he has nothing against masks, the President has refused to wear one publicly in front of the press.
Just like he does on his Twitter feed, which is dominated by dismay over the toppling of statues of racist figures from America’s past, Trump minimized the dangers of the pandemic Friday night in South Dakota, expressing more concern for the safety of statues than of the American people.
“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 said. “Many of these people have no idea why they’re doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But, no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history and culture to be taken from them.”
He also waded into the controversy over the legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two presidents etched into Mount Rushmore. He delivered his own history lesson of sorts on each of the White men chiseled into the South Dakota mountain. Earlier this week, Trump threatened protesters accused of throwing red paint on a Manhattan statue of Washington — who owned more than 300 enslaved people until he freed them in his will at the time of death — with 10 years in prison.
The President suggested that the monument towering above him, which includes the faces of Washington, Jefferson and former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, was also at risk as America reconsiders its past. “I am here as your president to proclaim before the country and before the world, this monument will never be desecrated,” Trump said.
The Black Hills, where the monument stands, are a sacred place to Native Americans who live in the area. Sioux tribes roamed the area for thousands of years, but tribal ownership of the Black Hills was officially guaranteed by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The Sioux were soon forced off the land after the discovery of gold in the area. Native American activists have called for the lands to be returned. In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld that the seizure of the Black Hills was illegal under the Fifth Amendment. The legal battle continues to this day.
In this moment of racial reckoning, the racist past of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created Rushmore and was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, has also drawn national attention. Borglum was also appointed to carve the giant relief of three of the most prominent Confederate figures, Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on Georgia’s Stone Mountain.
In recent days, the President has suggested that a 2015 Obama housing program, which was intended to rectify decades of discriminatory practices, has been “devastating” to the suburbs. On Wednesday, he called the words Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.” He has also threatened to veto a must-pass defense policy bill because it includes an amendment that calls for the removal of the names of Confederate leaders from all military assets within three years.
Trump has doubled down on those race-baiting tactics even as he has fallen far behind his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the polls and a majority of Americans across racial and ethnic groups are expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center.