Keystone, South Dakota CNN  — 

President Donald Trump on Friday made an impassioned appeal to his base while in the shadow of Mount Rushmore instead of striking a unifying tone, railing against what he called a “merciless campaign” by his political foes to erase history by removing monuments some say are symbols of racial oppression.

“As we meet here tonight there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for,” Trump warned.

He added, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

It was the kind of dark message the President has turned to often in recent weeks to incite his most loyal supporters as he attempts to ignore a pandemic in the face of skyrocketing coronavirus cases. While a more traditional president may have used an event at a national landmark to bring the country together, Trump once again looked to divide the nation in an attempt to fire up his most loyal supporters.

The official White House event bore all the hallmarks of a Trump campaign rally, with the added displays of American military might as the South Dakota Army and Air National Guards joined the US Air Force in conducting flyovers – the kind of highly produced stagecraft befitting a former reality television star. The 40-minute speech saw the President name drop many American heroes – and almost as many perceived political foes, including the schools in the nation’s cities, which he claimed without evidence teach students “to hate their own country.”

He lambasted “far-left fascism” in media and schools and “cancel culture,” which he called the “very definition of totalitarianism,” and vowed to protect the monument under which he stood.

“Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny,” the President said, adding, “They would tear down the beliefs, culture and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.”

“Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers, and to our freedom,” he vowed as he stood at its base.

Much of the speech centered on remembering the country’s past and casting it in a glorious light, and Trump repeatedly decried attempts to examine the faults in that past. In that vein, near the end of his speech the President announced that he would create a national monument dedicated to figures from the past.

After ticking off a list of pop culture icons, Trump announced he would be signing an executive order to establish “a new monument to the giants of our past,” which he said would be an outdoor park called the “National Garden of American Heroes.”

No details on where that monument would be located were immediately announced.

A celebration in a pandemic

There was no social distancing at the event despite the record-high new coronavirus cases in the United States. And the event took place amid environmental concerns over the use of fireworks in the dry land and as the country engages in a reckoning over its monuments and racist history. And the pandemic once again made its way into the President’s inner circle when news broke that Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend and top campaign official Kimberly Guilfoyle had tested positive for coronavirus upon arriving in South Dakota.

“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. But we won’t be social distancing,” Republican Gov. Kristi Noem said during a Monday appearance on Fox News.

Attendees clustered together in stadium seating in front of a patriotic-themed stage for hours before Trump arrived, and attendees at the top of the amphitheater sat in rows of folding chairs that were tied together with zip ties – preventing any social distancing. The President mentioned the virus just once, at the very top of his remarks, thanking those working to fight it.

A public safety official involved with the event told CNN the zip ties were part of fire code. In case of an emergency, like a fire or a storm or anything that would cause people to quickly move out, the zip ties would ensure that the chairs would not be easily knocked over or fly into egress paths – moving a full row of chairs, rather than one or two.

Information about the event online said there could be health screening for ticketed guests in some areas, though attendees seated in the zip-tied chairs told CNN they had not undergone any such screening.

The 7,500 tickets for Friday’s event are lower than the typical visitor flow during the busy summer season. On normal days, 28,000 to 32,000 visitors come to Mount Rushmore during a 10-hour period. Amid the pandemic, the park never closed but visitation has been down to around 20,000 people, said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, Mount Rushmore’s chief of interpretation and education.

Coronavirus cases in South Dakota currently remain stable, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, with 6,978 confirmed cases and 97 deaths as of late Friday – but it’s unclear how many attendees had traveled from other states.

“If you look to your left, if you look to your right, you’re going to see that people aren’t just from South Dakota, they’re from all over this nation,” said Noem, a Republican, who spoke before Trump took the stage.

Thirty-six states are currently experiencing a rise in new cases.

Culture war

The dark history of Mount Rushmore’s sculpture itself took center stage with Trump’s visit. The President, who has stoked racial animus since he first entered the political arena, has moved to defend racist monuments in the face of nationwide protests over the treatment of Black Americans. Friday’s event, however, was planned before the nationwide unrest.

Construction on Mount Rushmore, carved in the Black Hills of South Dakota, began during the Coolidge administration in the summer of 1927 and was completed on October 31, 1941. The iconic sculpture features the 60-foot-tall faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

The Black Hills are a deeply sacred place of spiritual and cultural significance to the native peoples of the area, nearly 60 tribes. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty established the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, according to the National Archives, but the lands were systematically taken by the US government after gold was discovered in the area in the 1870s.

Almost 50 years later, the likenesses of four American presidents were carved into one of its mountains. And in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sioux Nation had not received just compensation for the land.

Some tribal nations approved symbolic bans on Trump visiting their lands ahead of the visit, amplifying calls to return Mount Rushmore to native people that come as communities across the country remove other symbols of the nation’s racist past, including many Confederate memorials.

Generations of Indigenous Lakota people have been opposed to Mount Rushmore since its construction, said Nick Tilsen, a citizen of Oglala Lakota nation and founder, CEO and president of the NDN Collective, a nonprofit organization supporting Indigenous people.

“Indigenous people and my ancestors fought and died, and gave their lives to protect the sacred land, and to blow up a mountain and put the faces of four White men who were colonizers who committed genocide against Indigenous people – the fact that we don’t, as Americans, think of that as an absolute outrage is ridiculous,” he told CNN in an interview Wednesday.

In today’s political climate, Tilsen said, there is an opportunity to question the monument’s history and purpose.

“What Indigenous people have been saying for generations, there’s an appetite to have a conversation about symbols of White supremacy, structural racism, and now we have to tear down these systems if we want to tear down White supremacy and structural racism in this country,” he said, calling for the monument to be closed and the lands to be returned to Indigenous people, who can then decide how to move forward.

Protesters, many holding signs demanding the land be returned to native people, blocked the entrance to the park prior to the event. They were eventually cleared from the area by the National Guard.

CNN has reached out to the Pennington County Sheriff’s office about reports by area publications, like the Argus Leader and the Rapid City Journal, of arrests of more than a dozen protesters but has yet to receive a response.

Presidential historian and Mount Rushmore Society board member Tom Griffith said getting rid of the nation’s monuments isn’t the right approach.

“We can easily erase all of the symbols of our past, but we can’t ignore the history. It will remain no matter what sculptures, what are torn down around the country. And that continues today. It’s of great concern to historians who believe that it’s not just the symbol, it’s the history that you’re trying to erase. And we can’t rewrite – we can’t be revisionist,” he told CNN on Thursday at Mount Rushmore.

The President has latched on to the issue of protecting monuments as he seeks to rile support from his political base. Last week, he signed an executive order that “directs that those who incite violence and illegal activity are prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law.”

Activists point to other reasons to question Mount Rushmore’s place in history: Gutzon Borglum, who created the sculpture, was aligned with the Ku Klux Klan.

“Before Mount Rushmore was even considered, Borglum was working on Stone Mountain, Georgia, a Confederate memorial. I think more than the ideology, but more practically, he was affiliated with the Klan to raise money for this Confederate memorial,” Griffith told CNN.

The Trumps visited Borglum’s studio while on site.

Two of the four presidents carved into the mountain in South Dakota, Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners. And though Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Tilsen notes that his legacy, for Native Americans, is a dark one. He approved the executions of 38 Dakota natives in Mankato, Minnesota (though he commuted the sentences of hundreds of others in the same incident).

Lincoln, Tilsen said, “was a mass murderer, a colonizer – ordered the biggest mass hanging in the history of the nation. So he was not one of our heroes. He’s not somebody – he was an enemy of our people, of Indigenous people, and it’s important that we have a reckoning with the true history of this nation.”

McGee-Ballinger, the park educator, said in an interview that local tribes had been consulted ahead of Friday’s event.

The official account of the Democratic National Committee took aim at Trump’s trip in a tweet earlier this week that has since been removed.

“Trump has disrespected Native communities time and again. He’s attempted to limit their voting rights and blocked critical pandemic relief. Now he’s holding a rally glorifying white supremacy at Mount Rushmore — a region once sacred to tribal communities,” the now-deleted tweet said.

The President’s reelection campaign sent an email to supporters on the tweet Wednesday evening, claiming that Democrats “HATE America.”

Donald Trump Jr., the President’s eldest son and outspoken advocate, lambasted reports questioning the decision to visit.

“OMG the woke police are going all in on Mount Rushmore. They’re really doing it. These people are insane,” he tweeted Wednesday.

Environmental risk

Friday’s festivities also came with an environmental risk. There were July Fourth fireworks at Mount Rushmore for several years, but they were discontinued in 2009 over environmental concerns, including increased risk of fires.

Pine beetle infestations in nearby forests were the cause of concern when the fireworks were discontinued. These infestations can kill trees, which increases their flammability risk and, in turn, poses a potential wildfire hazard. Fireworks increased the risk that a fire would ignite.

“We’re getting them at the great monument. We’re getting them. I got fireworks. For 20 years or something it hasn’t been allowed for environmental reasons. You believe that one? It’s all stone. So I’m trying to say where’s the environmental reason? Anyway, I got it approved, so I’m going to go there on July 3rd, and they’re going to have the big fireworks,” Trump said during a May appearance on the Dan Bongino podcast.

Bill Gabbert, former fire management officer for Mount Rushmore and six other national parks in the region, warned against fireworks given abnormally dry conditions in the region in an interview with the Rapid City Journal.

“Shooting fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest, or any flammable vegetation, is ill-advised and should not be done. Period,” Gabbert told the publication.

But the National Park Service prepared an environmental assessment ahead of the event and concluded the fireworks would have “no significant impact.”

Noem has said advancements in pyrotechnics and a strengthened forest led to the decision to have the fireworks return to the site.

“We’re very confident that we have been quite careful in analyzing the situation on how to have a safe and responsible event,” McGee-Ballinger said, citing the environmental assessment.

According to the National Park Service, the agency worked with the state of South Dakota, local communities, South Dakota Highway Patrol, and the fireworks contractor and staff to develop a wildland fire response plan and a Unified Command incident management team.

This story has been updated to include information about the arrest of protesters.

CNN’s Nicky Robertson and Rebecca Grandahl contributed to this report.