Trump’s dark and divisive 42-minute speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota late Friday served as a clarion for his campaign reelection message at a time when the nation — already reeling with deep anxiety over the devastating public health and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic — is also facing a cultural reckoning over the residue of its racially segregated past.
As he has so often during his tenure, the president made clear that he will do little to try to heal or unify the country ahead of the November presidential election but rather aims to drive a deeper wedge into the country’s fractures.
For Trump, that has meant defining a new foil. If his 2016 campaign to put “America first” was focused on building a wall to keep out immigrants and shedding alliances with nations he believed were exploiting the United States, the president is now aiming his rhetorical blasts at groups of liberal Americans who, he believes, constitute a direct threat to the standing of his conservative base.
At Mount Rushmore, under the granite gaze of four U.S. presidents, Trump railed against “angry mobs” pursuing “far-left fascism” and a “left-wing cultural revolution” that has manifested in the assault on statues and monuments celebrating Confederate leaders and other U.S. historical figures, including some former presidents, amid the mass racial justice protests of recent weeks.
“Their goal is not a better America; their goal is the end of America,” the president declared.
“We are now in the process of defeating the radical left — the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters,” Trump told guests Saturday during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House.
In making the case that a radical and violent ideology underpins much of the social justice movement that propelled the nationwide demonstrations, Trump has dropped virtually all pretense that he supports millions of peaceful protesters who have called for broad reforms to address what they see as systemic racism and a culture of brutality in police departments.
Trump made no mention Friday of the victims of police violence, including more than half a dozen black families he met with in the Oval Office last month before he signed an executive order to create national training certification guidelines for law enforcement agencies and establish a database to track police brutality cases.
Instead, he warned of a “growing danger” to the values of the nation’s founders — a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”
He boasted of federal authorities apprehending hundreds of looters and vandals, even though the number is lower. He warned of “violent mayhem” in streets of cities run by “liberal Democrats.” He celebrated the arrest of a “ringleader” in the unsuccessful attempt from demonstrators to topple a statue of President Andrew Jackson, Trump’s favorite past president, in Lafayette Square across from the White House. And he asserted that schoolchildren were being taught to “hate their own country.”
“This was a deeply divisive speech aimed at what Trump sees as real Americans versus anarchists,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “That’s not just bigotry to the outside world, but now he’s really attacking millions of Americans as worthless, as socialists, as anarchists.”
Trump’s 2016 campaign was built around the core policy goals of restricting immigration — in the name of providing more jobs to Americans and reducing crime — and renegotiating global trade deals in the service of protecting American workers. In his inaugural address in January 2017, the president faulted Washington’s political elite for enriching themselves at the expense of the public at large, ignoring blight and suffering caused by their policies that favored rampant globalization.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump said.
Trump exploited the nation’s culture wars after taking office, lambasting African American athletes for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and failing to clearly denounce a white supremacist march in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a counterprotester.
But heading into 2020, the president who had promised to “make America great again” was preparing to run for reelection on a message of economic renewal, touting record stock markets and historically low unemployment rates. He was pointing to the construction of 200 miles of new barrier walls along the U.S.-Mexico border and renegotiated trade deals with Canada, Mexico and China as evidence that he had made good on his 2016 promises.
The Trump campaign began rolling out a new motto: “Keep America Great.”
His mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic upended those plans. Nearly 130,000 Americans have died of the virus and tens of millions have lost their jobs, and despite a six-week shutdown in wide swaths of the country, infection rates this past week spiked to a record high of more than 50,000 new cases per day.
Trump’s public approval ratings have tumbled over his response to the pandemic and the racial justice protests. Polls show former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, opening a sizable lead over Trump nationally and holding an advantage in key swing states.
In an effort to halt his slide, Trump has sought to shift blame for scenes of violence and destruction at the protests onto leaders in Democrat-led cities and states, accusing them of losing control of their streets and failing to act with toughness.
At Mount Rushmore, Trump appeared to make an oblique reference to Biden after touting the legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the presidents carved into the cliffs above him.
“No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart,” Trump said. “No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.”
In a video message Saturday, Biden offered a more hopeful contrast to Trump by casting the racial justice protests of recent weeks as part of the nation’s long-standing struggle “between two parts of our character — the idea that all men and women, all people, are created equal, and the racism that has torn us apart.”
“American history is no fairy tale,” added Biden, who cited George Floyd, the black man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May sparked the national outcry.
Peter Wehner, who served as a speechwriter for president George W. Bush, said Trump faces an obvious difficulty as he seeks to fan public fears over renewed “American carnage” given that he has been responsible for the stewardship of the country for more than three years.
“It’s an insight into him: He doesn’t view his job in terms of governing. He just views it as a platform to vent and be angry,” Wehner said. “He’s not just appealing to the base, but he’s appealing to the base of the base. The aperture of the campaign is constricting, not expanding — he’s energizing a smaller and smaller group of angrier and angrier Americans. And to try to energize that base, he has to say more and more extreme things.”