The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump got his crowd and his fireworks, and peddled his fiction

President Trump said he would protect South Dakota's Mount Rushmore during a speech on July 3. (Video: Reuters)

The setting for President Trump’s early Fourth of July celebration was magnificent, as the Black Hills of South Dakota tend to be. The scene was also full of painful history, willful ignorance and deliberate fearmongering.

Friday night, in an amphitheater in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, a military band played smooth jazz on snare drums and trumpets as the country sank under the rising number of coronavirus infections. Thousands of unmasked guests, awaiting the arrival of the president, sat shoulder-to-shoulder in black folding chairs tethered together in a kind of coronavirus chain of denial. The VIPs would, of course, be seated separately onstage — not six feet apart but not amid the storm of exhalations, coughs, vociferous cheers and sneezes. And just to add to the upside-down, inside-out madness of the mass gathering, Ivanka Trump, the president’s adviser and daughter, tweeted a reminder to be safe over the holiday weekend by social distancing and wearing a mask. Her nearest and dearest did not listen to the plea.

Mount Rushmore is painfully complex — much like America itself. The faces of four revered but profoundly flawed presidents were carved into the stone by a talented sculptor who sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan. The majestic monument — a testament to human tenacity — scars land considered sacred by Native Americans.

But the president is not a man of complexity and nuance. He is a man who sees things in gloriously righteous white and suspicious, dangerous black. For him, Mount Rushmore is not complicated. It’s telegenic. His was not an open-armed celebration of American independence and the country’s raucous striving to fulfill its promise. The president had orchestrated a rally — a place where he could wade into a warm embrace of approval.

And oh, how he glowed. He wore a dark suit and red tie. An American flag pin was tacked to his lapel. His skin was dewy in the summer heat. His smile was broad.

He arrived in dramatic fashion. First, Air Force One flew over Mount Rushmore in a theatrical flourish. When the president’s plane landed, he was greeted by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, who said that, on her watch, there would be no social distancing at this massive gathering taking place amid a worsening pandemic. Then the president, along with the first lady, climbed aboard Marine One, which allowed the couple to avoid the aftermath of the mostly Native American protesters who had been blocking the highway leading to the monument until they were dispersed by the National Guard.

When Trump finally lumbered onto the stage to cheers and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels roaring overhead, a smile stretched from ear-to-ear. His cheeks were practically rosy. He was holding his wife’s hand. He was surrounded by reassuring staff and family. Eric Trump towered above everyone. Tiffany Trump was there. All the speakers who preceded him lavished the president with warm welcomes and praise. Trump looked so pleased. He pumped his fist. He waved.

He stepped to the microphone and settled into his speech, which was not a pleasing pep talk for a country torn into bits. Instead, he warned his Americans that other Americans were a threat to the country. “Our country is witnessing a merciless campaign to erase our history,” Trump warned. “One of their political weapons is cancel culture. … This is the very definition of totalitarianism.”

“This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped,” the president said.

He promised to save the monuments, to defend the monuments, to put the full weight of the federal government into protecting giant hunks of stone and bronze. And why not? It’s so much easier to cordon off a statue, to surround it with police officers, than it is to come to terms with the blood and the glory, the cruelty and goodwill that built this country and that haunts it.

Trump derided “social justice.” He referenced Martin Luther King Jr., whose words have been so repeated, so decontextualized by errant politicians, that they’ve become rhetorical armor. Everyone claims King. Some stand on his shoulders; some hide behind him.

Trump awkwardly read through what might best be described as Wikipedia entries on the four presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore: Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. And then he rattled off his familiar refrains: raging against athletes who take a knee to protest racial injustice, recommitting to building his wall, promising to put America first.

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He will defend the Second Amendment and never defund the police. The former is part of the oath he takes as president; the latter is not up to him. No matter. They are his campaign cherry bombs.

The crowd chanted “USA, USA.” The crowd demanded “four more years.” The president did not discuss the coronavirus, which has killed more than 126,000 Americans. The crowd did not seem to care.

Trump left the microphone with a promise to the crowd that the best is yet to come. If the president assured the country of anything on this night, with his buzzwords and generalities, with his us vs. those other Americans tone, it was that the monuments would be safe.

He would defend the American fable, the mythology. The truth would go missing.

Then the sky over the mountain exploded in a rainbow of lights, a shower of fire and spiraling flames. The spectacle was beautiful, as fireworks tend to be. When the show ended, a cloud of smoke remained. The audience was gazing at the heavens. And then the president was gone.