Former President Donald J. Trump drew crowds of thousands at a quiet South Carolina Independence Day event on Saturday, where he assaulted the integrity of America’s top institutions and painted a dark portrait of the country before of a holiday destined to celebrate its foundations.
Speaking for nearly 90 minutes on Main Street in Pickens, SC, with at least 20 American flags behind his back, Mr. Trump often avoided the rhetorical flag waving and calls for unity that have long been central to the Day of Independence like hot dogs, baseball and fireworks.
Instead, the twice-impeached, twice-indicted former president lashed out at Democrats and liberals, who he said threatened to rewrite America’s past and erase its future. He skewered federal law enforcement, which he accused without evidence of rampant corruption. And he attacked President Biden, enumerating 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 familiar. But the event highlighted the hold he has over his most fervent supporters: a challenge to his Republican rivals as they seek their party’s presidential nomination far behind Trump in the polls.
Despite the humidity and sweltering heat, thousands filled the streets of Pickens, a town of about 3,000 in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, starting at dawn.
Pam Nichols, who has described herself as an « insurrectionist, » said she flew from Mundelein, Illinois to proudly support Mr. Trump himself. She last did so in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, she said, when a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. She did not speak in detail about her actions to him that day.
« I was told to shut up afterwards, » Ms. Nichols said, adding that she had since watched a series of Trump speeches online. “But I felt it was time to come out now. I’m tired of staying on the ground.
Pickens’ event was only Trump’s second large-scale rally since kicking off his campaign in November. While such rallies have been a hallmark of his last two campaigns, he has thus far largely taken to the stage at events staged by other groups.
Bryan Owens, the director of marketing at Pickens, said a rep for the Trump campaign reached out two weeks ago about coming to town for the Independence Day celebration.
South Carolina, an early state nominee, was a key victory for Trump in the 2016 primary as he sought to unite the Republican Party behind him. In 2020, he handily won the state, garnering overwhelming support in this region, a conservative 10-county swath in the northwest corner known as Upstate.
Mr. Owens said the city’s decision was an easy one. While he personally would not support Mr. 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, » continued Mr. Owens, gesturing behind him to a crowd that packed the streets and stretched for several blocks. « And people who aren’t very familiar with small towns — they’re going to experience that. »
Pickens’ Independence Day festivities kicked off with a 5k race to raise money to repair water fountains on a local nature trail. American flags lined the streets and signs encouraged visitors to shop local, even as businesses on Main Street were closed due to Secret Service measures.
With parking near the gathering site limited, residents were charging up to $100 — in 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 could 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 are the colors of the day’s wardrobe, from the hat to the boots. Tammy Milligan, of Myrtle Beach, SC, arrived dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, which she said she started wearing around the time of Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.
Even as she wholeheartedly supported Mr. Trump and called him a patriot, she acknowledged that much of the country felt differently, which she called an American ideal.
« Well, everyone has the right to think what they want to think, » said Ms Milligan. « This is our country. »
Mr. Trump has not been so generous. He focused on the federal indictment that accused him of illegally withholding national security documents and obstructing government efforts to recover them. And although he denounced the indictment as a politically motivated and egregious move, he swore, as he has before, that he would repay in kind if elected.
Outlining a dark vision of America, Trump called his political opponents « sick people » and « degenerates » who were « bringing our country down. »