It's hard to decide what was most appalling about President Donald Trump's two speeches over the Independence Day weekend. Was it his intentionally divisive rhetoric in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln? His obvious race-baiting? His outright lie about the coronavirus as new cases spike?
Instead of offering messages of unity and healing, Trump used the nation's most sacred holiday to label millions of Americans as "bad, evil people" for practicing their constitutional right of protest. His familiar strategy of vilifying immigrants and foreigners has now metastasized into the vilification of many of the Americans he ostensibly leads.
Although Trump's Mount Rushmore speech Friday was a presidential event, as opposed to a campaign rally, he didn't hesitate to blame "cities run by liberal Democrats" for the "violent mayhem we have seen in the streets." He didn't mention that demonstrators were protesting police brutality against African Americans, nor that most protests have been peaceful — including one near the White House that Trump's people arranged to have violently dispersed to stage a photo op.
Trump cynically attempted to merge his defense of racist Confederate symbolism with symbolism of the Founders. Honoring Washington and Jefferson is a complicated debate; honoring traitors who attacked America to preserve slavery isn't. Trump pointedly didn't specify which of those differing legacies he was referring to when he belittled "those who wish to erase our heritage." No matter. The white supremacists whom Trump once referred to as "very fine people" surely got the message — especially given Trump's threat to veto defense spending unless military bases continue to be named after America's Confederate enemies.
"We only kneel to Almighty God," Trump asserted in apparent reference to professional athletes protesting racism. "We recognize ... the moral duty of every nation to secure its borders," he added, as if to justify the cruelty he has inflicted on thousands of migrant families captured at the border.
Trump stoked fears of "a new, far-left fascism" as if ignoring his own defiance of congressional oversight, threats against the free press and other authoritarian actions. He even had the gall to praise Black abolitionist Harriet Tubman as he stalls a plan to put her face on the $20 bill.
The next day, in a White House speech, Trump falsely claimed that "99 percent" of coronavirus infections are "totally harmless." This dangerous fiction was apparently read from the prepared text on his teleprompter, indicating that Trump's habit of crafting any old alternate reality that pops into his head has now been formally incorporated by his speechwriters.
Trump has given up on even pretending to lead America through the greatest public health crisis in a century. Instead, he's trying to claw his way to reelection by dragging the country down into racial bitterness and division. Whether he succeeds will say more about America today than it says about him.
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