United States President Donald Trump railed on Friday against “angry mobs” that tried to tear down statues of Confederate leaders and other historical figures, warning thousands of supporters at Mount Rushmore that protesters were trying to erase the country’s history.
The speech and fireworks on the eve of the US Independence Day came against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed more than 125,000 people across the country.
The event drew 7,500 people, packed tightly into an amphitheatre. Many did not wear masks, defying the advice of public health officials who have urged people to avoid large gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Trump, speaking underneath the famed landmark depicting four US presidents, warned that recent demonstrations over racial inequality threatened the foundations of the country’s political system.
“Make no mistake, this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution,” Trump said.
“Our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” he added.
The president announced that he would create a “National Garden of American Heroes”, which he described as a large outdoor park featuring statues of “the greatest Americans who ever lived”. He did not provide further details.
In the nationwide unrest following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, protesters in several cities have vandalised the statues of Confederate generals that led a rebellion against the US government during the 1861-65 Civil War.
Protesters in one instance unsuccessfully tried to pull down a statue of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the US, outside the White House. Jackson, known for his populist policies, owned slaves and forced thousands of Native Americans from their homes.
“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.
“They think the American people are soft and weak and submissive. But 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 lamented “cancel culture” and charged that some on the political left hope to “defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children”.
“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. Not gonna happen to us,” he added.
Trump has opposed proposals to rename US military bases that are named after Confederate generals and promised harsh punishment for people who damage statues.
The evening programme was not an official campaign event, but Trump’s remarks touched on key campaign themes meant to energise his political base ahead of the November 3 election.
Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from the city of Alexandria in Virginia, described Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore as a “political call to arms”.
“A couple of facts though,” she said. “First, a lot of the statues that have been targeted by anti-racism protesters were in fact then removed by local governments. And the other is that these statues in large part celebrated people who fought for the confederacy, which sought to enshrine slavery as a political and economic reality in the southern half of the US. And those statues were raised not in the 19th century. But in the middle of the 20th century, during the last prominent wave of civil rights activism in this country.
She added: “Now, that doesn’t matter to Donald Trump. He is running for re-election and his numbers are down.”
Trump has presided over several large-crowd events – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and at an Arizona megachurch – even as health officials warn against large gatherings and recommend face masks and social distancing. He plans a July Fourth celebration on the National Mall in Washington, DC despite health concerns from the city’s mayor.
James Warren, the executive editor of News Guard, told Al Jazeera that Trump had showed a total disregard for the health crisis facing the country.
“This was as Trumpian as you can get. He took this iconic backdrop and you had a president who was clearly and in a somewhat self-absorbed way likening himself to those four great folks. And doing it, as you will notice, without a mask, on a day in which we had broken national records for those testing positive,” he said.
“It was, even by Trumpian standards, rather rhetorically bombastic, to liken the protesters – people who symbolised the great presidents behind him – to fascists and totalitarians.”
Mount Rushmore, which depicts US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, has not hosted a fireworks spectacle since 2009 because of environmental concerns.
Trump advocated for a resumption of the display, and the state says the surrounding Black Hills National Forest has “gained strength” since then and that fireworks technology has advanced.
Native American protesters were arrested after blocking a road to the South Dakota landmark, according to video livestreamed on social media. They have criticised Trump’s visit for increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 and for celebrating US independence in an area that is sacred to them.
South Dakota, a solidly Republican state, has not been hit as hard as other states by COVID-19, but cases in Pennington County, where Mount Rushmore is located, have more than doubled over the past month.