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Trump's Mount Rushmore stunt will backfire

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From the moment Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential aspirations, he has been very concerned about the appearance of his political events. But his decision to speak at an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore will surely backfire.

Trump's rallies were once filled with adoring supporters often wearing red hats associated with his campaign. Meetings with world leaders, such as North Korea's Kim Jong Un at the DMZ, were orchestrated for maximum visual effect.

Recently, however, Trump's ability to visually communicate the right message has failed him. His first rally since the COVID-19 pandemic began showed Trump surrounded by empty seats in a large arena, not the message of support he wanted to right his floundering campaign.

Likewise, Trump's June 1 walk across Lafayette Square to St. John's Church through protesters did not communicate a message of presidential leadership, but one of a bully. That particular stunt is now under congressional investigation.

Trump won't do himself any favors by standing in front of a monument to great and beloved leaders on July 3, as the messages he sends with this event will damage his short-term and long-term aspirations.

Trump's immediate problem is declining approval ratings and poll numbers that show him significantly behind Democrat Joe Biden in his reelection bid.

But beyond getting reelected, the president has long been concerned about his legacy. Since being elected, President Trump has often spoken about Mount Rushmore, and has even commented to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem about his dream of being the fifth president on Mount Rushmore.

The rally at Mount Rushmore will not help Trump get his visage carved into the rock face - and it certainly won't help him get reelected.

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is much more than a cliché in politics, especially in an era of viral photographs and videos. The current protests for racial justice were, in part, triggered by the repeated showing of George Floyd being killed at the knee of the Minneapolis police. Questions about the viability of Trump's reelection have been amplified by the viral photograph of a disheveled president getting off Air Force One after the Tulsa, Okla., rally.

Speaking in front of the granite faces of the four presidents is a bad visual for a president concerned about being the biggest presence in any space. No matter how the president's advance team positions the stage, Trump will be dwarfed by the 60-ft carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. This visual diminishment cannot be overcome with thousands of supporters or a fireworks display.

The visual association with the four presidents invites viewers to compare Trump's accomplishments to the presidents in the background. Mount Rushmore creator and sculptor Gutzon Borglum stated Washington was chosen because he fought for and protected liberty, Jefferson for inspiring democracy, Lincoln for preserving the Union, and Roosevelt for domestic and foreign policy accomplishments.

Trump speaking during an expanding pandemic, economic devastation and civil unrest has little to offer Americans, who are increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the country. No amount of boasting by the president can overcome recent polling results that show that only 17 percent of Americans feel proud of the United States while 71 percent report feeling angry. No matter what Trump hopes the setting of this rally will accomplish, the direct visual comparison with the Mount Rushmore honorees will only further damage his image.

Trump's rhetorical ability to posture and lie cannot overcome the recognition that more than 125,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19, the unemployment rate is almost three times what it was in February and racial unrest continues to sweep the country. The anger and dissatisfaction that Americans feel about the current situation will only be amplified by the visual reminders of what the presidents on Mount Rushmore did during their presidencies.

Years ago, presidential adviser David Gergen commented that every president begins his tenure in office with an eye toward getting the alleged fifth spot on Mount Rushmore. Trump's misuse of this monument to presidential leadership is a strong indicator that he will not take his place among the four presidential figures.

David McLennan is a professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., and the director of the Meredith Poll.

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