Donald Trump blasted China for the spread of Covid-19, using racist tropes at a political rally to describe the health crisis as “kung flu” and label US antiracism protesters “tyrants.
Mr Trump accused Democrats of being weak at the event at the Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, his second in-person election rally in recent days.
The US president has returned to his 2016 theme of “law and order” in recent weeks, as Americans have protested the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month.
Mr Trump has portrayed the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters as anarchists and ignored criticism that he has used racist language. He has doubled down in his rhetoric as some demonstrators have torn down statues of Confederate army soldiers who fought against the abolition of slavery in the American civil war.
“The leftwing mob is trying to demolish our heritage so they can replace it with a new repressive regime,” the president said. “It’s not the behaviour of a peaceful political movement, it’s the behaviour of totalitarians and tyrants.”
The comments come as the US wrestles with the legacy of racism and systemic racism, including how to deal with monuments that commemorate Americans who engaged in wars and movements in support of slavery.
Mr Trump said the “militant mob” had to be reined in. He questioned why some people wanted to tear down statues of Ulysses Grant, the general who helped to defeat the confederate army and went on to become president and whose family-owned slaves.
“What’s that all about? What about Gandhi? What about Churchill?” he said.
Mr Trump was speaking three days after he relaunched his re-election bid with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that drew fewer than 7,000 supporters, even though his campaign had boasted that 1m people had tried to buy tickets.
The president is under mounting pressure as his approval ratings fall due to his handling of the pandemic, as well as his response to both the protests and his description of movements such as Black Lives Matter.
In a rambling speech, he took several shots at “Sleepy Joe” Biden, saying that his Democratic rival for the White House had “lost it”. Mr Trump, 74, has repeatedly suggested that Mr Biden, 77, has lost his faculties and has mocked the former vice-president for remaining largely under lockdown at his Delaware home.
But Mr Biden has eked out an almost 10-point lead in national polls, while Mr Trump has not led a single poll this year. The president has also fallen behind in most of the swing states, including Arizona, that he won in 2016.
Before the pandemic, Mr Trump believed that the strong economy would carry him to victory. But he now faces a 13.3 per cent jobless rate, although he is hoping for a V-shaped recovery before the November election.
“We’re gonna have a good third quarter, and right when those numbers are announced you have an election,” Mr Trump said, before adding that he hoped it was a “sign from up there” as he looked up towards the sky.
Ahead of Mr Trump’s Arizona trip — which included a visit to the US border with Mexico to see the limited progress on his wall — Mr Biden slammed the president for campaigning in a state that has had a recent spike in coronavirus cases.
“Donald Trump remains focused on his expensive, ineffective and wasteful ‘wall’,” Mr Biden said. “His decision to hold a rally in Arizona as the state deals with a severe Covid-19 resurgence is reckless.”
Mr Trump made no mention of the Arizona coronavirus cases at the Phoenix event, which was attended by several thousand students who sat close together and, for the most part, were not wearing masks.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi