Former President Donald J. Trump drew a crowd of thousands on Saturday to a quiet South Carolina town’s Independence Day event, where he assailed the integrity of major American institutions and painted a dark portrait of the country ahead of a holiday meant to celebrate its underpinnings.

Speaking for nearly 90 minutes on Main Street in Pickens, S.C., 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 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 a respect for our country and for the office” of the presidency, Mr. 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 on his most fervent supporters — a challenge for his Republican rivals as they seek their party’s presidential nomination from far behind Mr. Trump in the polls.

Despite 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 — beginning at dawn.

Pam Nichols, who described herself as an “insurrectionist,” said that she flew from Mundelein, Ill., to proudly support Mr. Trump in person. She had last done so in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, she said, when a mob of Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building. She did not talk in detail about her actions that day.

“I was told to lay low after,” Ms. Nichols said, adding that she had watched a number of Mr. Trump’s speeches online since. “But I felt like it’s time to come out now. I’m tired of laying low.”

The event in Pickens was only Mr. Trump’s second full-scale rally since he kicked off his campaign in November. Though such rallies were a hallmark of his past two campaigns, he has so far largely taken the stage at events organized by other groups.

Bryan Owens, the director of marketing for Pickens, said that a representative for the Trump campaign reached out two weeks ago to ask to come to the town for its Independence Day celebration.

South Carolina, an early nominating state, was a key victory for Mr. Trump in the 2016 primaries as he sought to unite the Republican Party behind him. In 2020, he won the state handily, drawing overwhelming support in this region, a conservative swath of 10 counties in the northwest corner known as the Upstate.

Mr. Owens said that the town’s decision was easy. Though 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,” Mr. Owens continued, gesturing behind him to a crowd that packed the streets and stretched for several blocks. “And people that aren’t that familiar with small towns — they’ll get that experience.”

Pickens’s Independence Day festivities began 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 because of Secret Service measures.

With parking near the site of the rally limited, residents were charging up to $100 — cash, many were quick to clarify — to let visitors leave cars in their driveways or on their lawns. For another $20, a golf cart might shuttle you from your car toward the rally’s entrance, outside a McDonald’s at the end of Main Street.

Red, white and blue were the wardrobe colors of the day, from hat to boots. Tammy Milligan, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., arrived dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, which she said she started wearing around the time of Mr. Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.

Even as she stood behind Mr. Trump wholeheartedly and called him a patriot, she acknowledged that much of the country felt differently — which she framed as an American ideal.

“Well, everyone’s entitled to think what they want to think,” Ms. Milligan said. “That’s our country.”

Mr. Trump was not so generous. He dwelled on the federal indictment that charged him with illegally retaining national security documents and obstructing the government’s efforts to reclaim them. And even as he denounced the prosecution as an egregious and politically motivated step, he vowed, as he has before, that he would reciprocate in kind if elected.

Outlining a dark vision of America, Mr. Trump called his political opponents “sick people” and “degenerates” who were “running our country to the ground.”


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