Breathe easy, America. President Donald Trump's got this. A deadly pandemic is tearing through the country, but the statues are going to be all right.
Trump swooped into the heartland on Friday and delivered this news, along with a message of rage at the foot of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Ignoring the fact that nearly 130,000 Americans have already died from Covid-19, with new cases topping 50,000 a day, he stoked fears of an "angry mob" engaged in "a merciless campaign to wipe out our history." In an address that could be called "American Carnage II" for following the emotional blueprint he laid out in his inaugural address, Trump declared that federal officers would be dispatched to protect monuments and statues wherever they were threatened.
Yes. You read that correctly. The President is moving quickly and decisively "to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law." As a matter of fact, he said with pride, "yesterday federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of the great Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C."
Last week, protesters tried in vain to topple the bronze statue of Jackson in Lafayette Park, which faces the White House. (Four men were charged with destruction of federal property. Only one of the four has been apprehended so far, according to the Justice Department, and it's unclear whether he led the effort to topple the statue). The statue was just one of many that have been targeted in recent weeks as the country reconsiders the value in memorializing important historical figures who supported slavery or white supremacy.
The renewed fervor around this debate is part of a nationwide reckoning with racism after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks sparked mass protests calling for reform under the slogan "Black Lives Matter." While substantial change in the justice system will take time, the removal of monuments honoring Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and others who are readily identified with racism provides the country with a sense of symbolic progress.
In South Dakota, Trump tried to cast the anti-racist protest movement as a terrifying enemy. "Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children," he said. "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."
Trump's 40-minute speech was a master class in rhetorical deception. He lumped together the racists of the Confederacy with the figures on Mt. Rushmore, insisting they are all being reconsidered in the same way. Several elected officials have ordered the removal of Confederate monuments in an effort to recognize the painful legacy of slavery, while the debate over monuments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt is more nuanced, given their positive contributions to the nation. No sweeping effort is being made to remove all of these monuments and to suggest one exists amounts to sounding a false alarm.
In his speech, Trump appeared to want to associate himself with the more admired figures of the past; as he spoke of Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others, Trump sounded like a fifth-grader reading random pages of a history book. There was Washington crossing the Delaware, Jefferson dispatching Lewis and Clark and Roosevelt overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal.
In the simpleton's view of history offered by Trump, there is no room for the slaves owned by Washington and Jefferson or for Roosevelt's white supremacy. According to this perspective, sins and flaws must be denied; otherwise the greats of history cannot be honored. This is, of course, what a child might think upon learning that his or her parents are not quite perfect. But with maturity, children, like citizens, can both revere their heroes for their strengths and criticize them for their failings -- and judge who, in the end, deserves to be on a pedestal.
While Native Americans have long sought the removal of Mt. Rushmore, arguing that it is carved on sacred land, this is an old conflict unlikely to be resolved. By suggesting there's a new national drive to destroy this well-known monument, and that some inflated enemy threatens all that is holy, Trump was playing a political cartoonist on Friday, exaggerating grotesquely for effect in an attempt to energize his reelection campaign. He summoned his followers to fight yet another culture war by dividing the nation he supposedly leads into patriots and traitors.
"Here tonight," he said, "before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago, that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people. It will not happen."
This declaration, like so many of the disjointed passages in Trump's speech, would make a perfect soundbite for a campaign ad. Always eager to be seen as a fighter and a champion, Trump left out the real battle he is losing -- to the coronavirus-- and invented another so that he could pose as a valiant defender of this country.
To satisfy Trump's selfish vanity, he had brought together more than 7,000 people, packed in tight to hear the speech. The gathering flouted the federal government's public health guidance on social distancing and very few in attendance wore the face masks recommended to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. As the band played at Mt. Rushmore, news broke that Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign official and Donald Trump Jr.'s girlfriend, tested positive for the virus.
The absurdity of Donald Trump's night in South Dakota might be merely laughable if the country weren't staring in the face of death and suffering. In days, or perhaps weeks, we'll likely learn whether the gathering facilitated the spread of the coronavirus. By then, pollsters may also be able to tell us whether Trump's political pathogens -- anger, distortion, misinformation -- are spreading as widely or rapidly.