Former President Donald J. Trump drew a crowd of thousands to an Independence Day event in a sleepy South Carolina town on Saturday, where he attacked the integrity of America’s top institutions and painted a dark portrait of the country before a holiday meant to celebrate its foundations.
Speaking for nearly 90 minutes on Main Street in Pickens, South Carolina, with at least 20 American flags at his back, Trump often avoided the rhetorical flag-waving and calls for unity that have long been so central to Memorial Day. Independence like hot dogs. baseball and fireworks.
Instead, the twice-impeached, twice-indicted former president blasted 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, listing what he considered 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.”
Trump’s comments were largely familiar. But the event highlighted the hold he has over his most ardent supporters, a challenge to his Republican rivals who are seeking his party’s presidential nomination trailing well behind Trump in the polls.
Despite the sweltering heat and humidity, thousands of people poured into the streets of Pickens, a town of about 3,000 in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, beginning at dawn.
Pam Nichols, who described herself as an “insurrectionist,” said she flew in from Mundelein, Illinois, to proudly support Trump in person. She had last done so in Washington on January 6, 2021, she said, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building. She did not speak in detail about his actions that day.
“They told me to keep it low-key afterwards,” Nichols said, adding that she had since watched several Trump speeches online. “But I felt like it’s time to get out now. I’m tired of going unnoticed.”
The event in Pickens was only Trump’s second large-scale rally since he launched his campaign in November. Although such rallies were a hallmark of his last two campaigns, he has so far largely taken the stage at events organized by other groups.
Bryan Owens, Pickens’ director of marketing, said a Trump campaign representative approached two weeks ago asking to come to town for an Independence Day celebration.
South Carolina, one of the first states to be nominated, was a key victory for Trump in the 2016 primary as he sought to rally the Republican Party behind him. In 2020, he won the state handily, drawing overwhelming support in this region, a conservative 10-county swath in the northwest corner known as the Upstate.
Mr. Owens said the town’s decision was an easy one. Although he personally would not 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 that filled the streets and stretched for several blocks. “And people who aren’t as familiar with small towns will get that experience.”
Pickens’ Independence Day festivities kicked off with a 5K run 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 crackdowns.
Since parking near the rally site was limited, residents were charged up to $100, in cash, many were quick to clarify, to allow visitors to leave cars in their driveways or on their lawns. For another $20, a golf cart could take you from your car to the rally entrance, outside a McDonald’s at the end of Main Street.
Red, white and blue were the wardrobe colors of the day, from the hat to the boots. Tammy Milligan, of Myrtle Beach, SC, arrived dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, which she said she began wearing around the time of Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2019.
Even as he wholeheartedly supported Trump and called him a patriot, he acknowledged that much of the country felt differently, which he framed as an American ideal.
“Well, everyone has the right to think what they want to think,” said Ms. Milligan. “That is our country.”
Trump was not so generous. He was referring to the federal indictment that accused him of illegally withholding national security documents and obstructing government efforts to recover them. And even as he denounced the impeachment as an egregious and politically motivated step, he promised, as he has before, that he would reciprocate in kind if he were elected.
Outlining a dark vision of America, Trump called his political opponents “sick people” and “degenerates” who were “bringing our country to the ground.”