Former President Donald J. Trump drew crowds of thousands to a low-key Independence Day event in South Carolina on Saturday, where he attacked the integrity of major American institutions and painted a dark portrait of the country ahead of a holiday intended to underpin the to celebrate it.
Speaking for nearly 90 minutes on Main Street in Pickens, SC, with at least 20 American flags behind his back, Mr. Trump often eschewed the rhetorical flag-waving and calls for unity that have long been as central to Independence Day as hot dogs, baseball and fireworks.
Instead, the twice impeached and twice indicted former president railed against Democrats and liberals, who he said threatened to rewrite America’s past and erase its future. He pierced federal law enforcement, whom he charged with no evidence of rampant corruption. And he attacked President Biden, listing what he saw as his character flaws and accusing him of taking bribes from foreign nations.
“We want to have respect for our country and for the office” of the presidency, Trump said. “But we really have no interest in people who are sick.”
Mr. Trump’s comments were largely well known. But the event highlighted the hold he has over his most ardent supporters — a challenge to his Republican rivals who are seeking their party’s presidential nomination from far behind Trump in the polls.
Despite the sweltering humidity and heat, thousands of people swarmed the streets of Pickens—a town of about 3,000 in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains—from dawn.
Pam Nichols, who described herself as an “insurgent,” said she flew from Mundelein, Illinois, to personally support Trump. She had last done so in Washington on January 6, 2021, she said, when a mob of Mr Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. She did not go into detail about her actions that day.
“I was told to keep a low profile after that,” Ms. Nichols said, adding that she had since watched some of Mr. Trump’s speeches online. “But I felt like now is the time to come out. I’m tired of keeping a low profile.”
The Pickens event was only Trump’s second large-scale rally since he began his campaign in November. While such rallies have been a feature of his past two campaigns, so far he has largely taken the stage at events organized by other groups.
Bryan Owens, Pickens’ director of marketing, said a Trump campaign representative reached out two weeks ago asking to come to the city for Independence Day celebrations.
South Carolina, an early nominee, was a key victory for Mr Trump in the 2016 primary as he attempted to unite the Republican Party behind him. In 2020, he won the state handily, gaining overwhelming support in this region, a conservative 10-county strip in the northwest corner known as the Upstate.
Mr. Owens said the city’s decision was an easy one. While he personally wouldn’t support Trump in 2024, he said, the opportunity to bring a former president to Pickens was too good to pass up.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for Pickens,” Mr. Owens continued, gesturing behind him to a crowd filling the streets and stretching for several blocks. “And people who aren’t that familiar with small towns — they’re going to get that experience.”
Pickens’ Independence Day festivities began with a 5 km race to raise money to repair water fountains on a local nature trail. American flags lined the streets and signs encouraged visitors to shop locally, even as Main Street businesses closed due to Secret Service measures.
Because parking was limited near the rally site, residents were asking for up to $100 — cash, many were quick to clarify — to allow visitors to leave cars in their driveways or on their lawns. For an additional $20, a golf cart can take you from your car to the entrance of the rally, outside a McDonald’s at the end of Main Street.
Red, white and blue were the wardrobe colors of the day, from hats to boots. Tammy Milligan, of Myrtle Beach, SC, arrived dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, which she says she began wearing around the time of Mr. Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.
Even as she wholeheartedly supported Mr. Trump in calling him a patriot, she acknowledged that much of the country felt otherwise — what she described as an American ideal.
“Well, everyone has a right to think what they want to think,” said Ms Milligan. “That’s our country.”
Mr. Trump was not so generous. He reflected on the federal indictment that charged him with illegally withholding national security documents and obstructing government efforts to recover them. And even as he denounced the prosecution as a blatant and politically motivated move, he vowed, as he has before, that he would answer in kind if elected.
Trump outlined a dark vision of America, calling his political opponents “sick people” and “degenerates” who “ran our country to the ground.”