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U.S. President Donald Trump decried what he described as efforts to eliminate American history and malign heroes, lashing out at those protesting symbols they say celebrate racial injustice as he stoked culture wars over history and education.

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said Friday at an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

It was an extension of the president’s comments in recent weeks denouncing a movement to re-examine the racial record of historic figures after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody. Those efforts have led to the removal of statues, including Confederate generals and slave owners, from public and private facilities.

Trump called the efforts part of a “left-wing cultural revolution” that he said is “designed to overthrow the American revolution.”

“They want to silence us,” he said. “But we will not be silenced.”

Trump, lagging in polls and facing new criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has been fueling racial tensions, a tactic he’s used in the past to change the subject and appeal to some of his most loyal supporters. The president has sent tweets vilifying the Black Lives Matter movement and protesters against police brutality and opposed renaming military bases that honor Confederate generals.

The guests assembled at Mount Rushmore weren’t required to wear masks or socially distance as the president continues an aggressive public schedule despite a spike in U.S. coronavirus cases. Neither Trump nor those near him on the stage wore masks. Few in the tightly packed crowd did either.

The New York Times reported that Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of his oldest son and a Trump re-election campaign official, tested positive for coronavirus just before the Mount Rushmore event.

Friday’s show featured a military flyover and included the first fireworks in more than a decade at the mountain carved with the visages of four American presidents. Trump intervened at the request of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to restart an annual tradition that had been halted over environmental and wildfire concerns.

The mass gathering — which was planned to include about 7,500 ticketed guests — came as members of Trump’s coronavirus task force are pleading with Americans to wear masks and practice social distancing. New cases have surged in southern and western states, and U.S. daily infections reached new highs, topping 50,000 for the second consecutive day on Thursday.

U.S President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump attend Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
U.S President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump attend Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

The president, who spent Friday morning golfing at Trump National Golf Club in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, has maintained his push for states to reopen as quickly as possible. He attributes the rise in cases to expanded testing even though the percentage of positive tests is also increasing.

Trump, who faces re-election in November and has seen his poll numbers decline through the pandemic, has said that the economic costs of a prolonged shutdown could outweigh the health benefits and has sought to demonstrate his determination to resume public activities. Last month, he held a campaign rally in Oklahoma and an event with young conservatives in Arizona where attendees were packed closely together and few wore masks.

Trump plans to speak in advance of fireworks at another Independence Day event, to be held Saturday in Washington, where city officials urged residents to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus.

On Friday, Trump said “no nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.”

But, the president said, “Our children are (taught) in school to hate their own country and that the men and women who built it were” villains.

Saying there’s a “radical ideology” attacking the U.S., the president said, “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime.”

He said he’d never allow the “desecration” of Mount Rushmore, which has carvings of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. The president also said he’ll sign an executive order to create an outdoor park of statues of “the greatest Americans to ever live.”

The event drew protests from Native American groups who say the 79-year-old Mount Rushmore monument is on land illegally seized from the Sioux.

Before Trump arrived at the monument by helicopter, about 15 protesters were arrested after blocking the main road to Mount Rushmore, according to the Associated Press.

More than 100 protesters, many of them Native American, lined the road leading from Keystone, South Dakota, to the monument, holding signs and playing Lakota music in scorching heat, the AP said.

Some other activists have called for removing the monument, noting that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners and the execution of dozens of Native American combatants in the Dakota War during Lincoln’s presidency. Trump said this week that he would block any such effort.

The event also drew objections from environmentalists who say the fireworks display risks the spread of chemicals and a possible forest fire.

Gov. Noem, a Republican, told Fox News that the state was encouraging attendees to “focus on personal responsibility.”

“We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one,” Noem said Monday. “But we will not be social distancing.”

White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended the event, saying that the state’s infection rate is relatively low, its hospital capacity was high and the Rushmore site was “open air.” As of Thursday, the state had fewer than 100 coronavirus-related deaths during the pandemic, and fewer than 1,000 known active cases.

U.S President Donald Trump, lagging in polls and facing new criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has been fueling racial tensions, a tactic he’s used in the past to change the subject and appeal to some of his most loyal supporters. | AFP-JIJI
U.S President Donald Trump, lagging in polls and facing new criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has been fueling racial tensions, a tactic he’s used in the past to change the subject and appeal to some of his most loyal supporters. | AFP-JIJI

“You’re outside, it’s very big and airy,” Conway told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

Trump’s visit came even as some portions of the memorial park remain closed because of the pandemic, including its visitor center and a half-mile trail that takes sightseers closer to the monument.

Trump has sometimes mused that his face might be carved into the mountain one day.

“I’d ask whether or not you think I will some day be on Mt. Rushmore,” Trump said at a July 2017 rally in Youngstown, Ohio. But, he said, “If I did it joking, totally joking, having fun, the fake news media will say, ‘He believes he should be on Mt. Rushmore.’ So I won’t say it, OK?”

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