WASHINGTON — The crowds came in red “Make America Great Again” hats, they waved Trump 2020 flags, and they wore T-shirts that urged the president to “make liberals cry again.”
As they gathered along the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday, many of the people who came to see President Donald Trump brought the color and adoration familiar to one of his signature campaign rallies, even if clouds and persistent rain dampened some of the buildup.
The cheers rose, though, when Air Force One flew overhead and the president stepped on stage, drawing howls of approval from a crowd — at that end of the National Mall — largely made up of fervent fans.
“Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” chants mixed with calls of “USA! USA! USA!"
The event, billed as a celebration of the country’s birthday, drew Trump supporters from such places as Texas and Ohio — but also protesters disgusted at what they saw as a glorification of the president, wreathed in a patriotic national holiday and paid for by taxpayers.
Amid the competing political views were also some people who just thought it would just be cool to hear and see a president speak in person.
For the most part, though, those near the Lincoln Memorial and within view of Trump’s “Salute to America” wore their politics as openly as their star-spangled shirts, bandannas and shorts.
Without Trump, “we wouldn’t be here — it’s too hot,” said Lori Rawson, who came from Toronto, Ohio, with her husband to hear from a president who she said stands for “morality” and “values.”
“He likes big stuff, and he knows we’re going to like it, too,” said Rawson, 46.
Along other parts of the mall, Trump critics carried balloons depicting the president as a diapered baby, and some countered the MAGA gear with U.S.S. John McCain T-shirts, invoking the late Republican senator known to roil the president.
“It’s supposed to be for everyone, a nonpartisan event,” said Claudia Vess, a Washington resident who was one of the few open Trump critics to stake out a position amid the vast swath of his supporters. She was part of a small group holding signs and wearing hats that read “No Man Is Above the Law.”
“It has been turned into something other than an American holiday. It’s a Trump rally,” said Vess, 69.
The competing paraphernalia, worn on a steamy, soupy July Fourth, were reminders of the country’s deep political divides, now inserted into a celebration that has traditionally been free from politics and a break from strife, even in the nation’s capital.
Roy and Nonnie Westbrook, along with friends, came at the last minute from Frankston, Texas, to see the president, landing in Baltimore and making the trip down. Roy wore a “Build the Wall” T-shirt. They wondered why there would be any controversy over the president speaking.
“That’s a funny question,” said June Howell, who was there with the Westbrooks.
“It’s the Fourth of July. He should do that,” said Nonnie Westbrook. “That’s his job.”
Said their friend Randy Howell, “We work in the oil fields, so we’ve been doing real well.”
Some Trump supporters waved flags representing Q-anon, the online conspiracy theory group. Others carried flags with Trump superimposed over the stars and stripes.
For most spectators, the vaunted Bradley Fighting Vehicles set up for the event were difficult, if not impossible, to see. A chain-link fence separated most of the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial, where space was reserved for VIP tickets handed out by the White House and Republican Party.
Many visitors were content to wait hours in the heat and rain to see Trump and the military aircraft that zoomed overhead. Cell phones and whoops reached to the sky as they roared into sight. “If that’s where my tax dollars go, I’m OK with it,” one man said.
The president has hungered for a display of military hardware, with him as the host, ever since he attended a Bastille Day parade in France in 2017.
Will Jones, 67, said he came out of a sense of historical curiosity, to see Trump “deface the Lincoln Memorial."
“He’s an absolute disgrace to the United States of America,” said Jones, of Hyattsville, Md. “It shouldn’t be a political event, it should be something that honors the country’s birthday.”
Near the Washington Monument, protesters stood up a 16-foot depiction of the president tweeting while sitting on a golden toilet, speaking phrases like “no collusion” and “I’m a very stable genius.” (It was created by Don Lessem, of Delaware County).
A Trump supporter responded by playing “Hail to the Chief” on a trumpet.
Still, one of the Code Pink protest organizers, Paki Wieland, said she was “heartened” by her interactions with Trump supporters, saying it was important to have conversations between people who disagree.
“Civility is missing,” said Wieland, 75. “Everyone I spoke with said they didn’t like the divide.”
Brandon Lindsey, who had traveled from Ohio to Washington to depart for a cruise, said he was “pretty middle” politically and wouldn’t normally attend a Trump rally but wanted to see the unusual event — and the fireworks.
“I’m not big into politics at all, but I’ve never seen a president in person,” said Lindsey, 47. As for the controversy and debate, he said, “I think sometimes things get blown out of proportion. ... It’s just great to come out and celebrate the birth of our nation.”
Billy Fuerst, who is a Republican, attended the event with Nicole Smith, who said she’s “avidly not.”
Both are recent grads of the University of Michigan. Both also said they hoped that people could listen to each other better. Fuerst didn’t have a problem with Trump holding the event, though as a fiscal conservative he disagreed with the use of taxpayer money to pay for it.
“Hearing your president speak, it’s not something every American gets to do everyday,” Fuerst said.