US President Donald Trump presided over an early Fourth of July fireworks display Friday at Mount Rushmore, after delivering a fiery nationalist speech in which he repeatedly attacked the left-wing of the country’s political spectrum.
The large gathering of thousands of people for the Independence Day celebration at the mountain in South Dakota, which features the massive carved images of four US presidents, prompted concerns about the spread of coronavirus and the risk of environmental damage.
Trump’s speech directly referenced his desire to “set history straight” against left-wing narratives, accusing his opponents of trying to rewrite and erase existing beliefs. He blamed a “merciless campaign” of seeking to defame US icons.
He repeatedly attacked “cancel culture,” which while amorphous, generally refers to movements to end support for people who have done offensive deeds or promote ideas seen by some as problematic. Critics accuse the trend of being a mob.
Trump has been pushing hard to present himself as a leader of law-and-order, following weeks of protests over racism and police brutality.
He has been particularly outspoken against protesters who took down statues of historic US figures, and standing in front of the massive carved portraits served as a backdrop for him to press the message.
His speech, while veering repeatedly into hardline nationalism, tried at points to be more generally encompassing praising people such as Elvis Presley and Mohammed Ali as well.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said authorities would not enforce social distancing measures or mandate face coverings, though masks will be made available to those who choose to don one. At the event, few people could be seen wearing masks.
This week, the US smashed its own records for infections recorded in a single day, with nearly 55,000 new infections monitored on Wednesday.
More than 53,000 new cases were reported on Thursday, the most recent available data, indicating the spread is ongoing.
“You need to just look at the numbers and see we are not going in the right direction,” Anthony Fauci, the top public health official on infectious diseases, told the radio programme The World.
Trump, however, has continued to insist that the climbing coronavirus cases is largely the result of more testing, even as public health officials and even governors from the president’s own Republican party have dismissed this notion.
Trump has been keen to focus his attention on the economy and his reelection campaign, with his poll numbers showing sharp declines and the odds appearing to shift in favour of his opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the former vice president.
Last month, Trump had a rally that was poorly attended in Arizona, as that state had become a new epicentre of the virus spread.
The president has also brushed aside environmental concerns. The annual fireworks production was halted in 2010, after more than two decades, because the pyrotechnics caused forest fires in the Black Hills, a protected reserve.
“The Black Hills generally is a tinder box this time of year, and right now, they’re in a drought,” Bill Gabbert, who runs the website Wildfire Today, told National Public Radio this week.
In addition to the fires, there is evidence that the explosions unleash pollutants into the atmosphere and rivers.
The fireworks display was accompanied by rock ‘n’ roll and country music, with the faces of the four presidents lit up brightly, contrasting with the dark sky. It lasted for nearly 20 minutes.
The 18-metre high portraits of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln were carved into the granite face in a years-long project that began in the 1920s.
The land around the Black Hills is claimed by Native Americans, who accuse the federal government of reneging on a 1868 agreement to leave the territory as tribal land reserved for the Sioux people.
After a gold rush, Congress seized the land within a decade and never honoured the treaty.