Draft Dodger Donald Trump Gets Hero’s Welcome at Rolling Thunder
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in. To bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
—Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865
So, we love those signs. Make America great again! Very simple. Make America great again! So, in riding over, there are hundreds of thousands of people all along the highways, and they can’t get in! In other words, you’re very good at real estate. You got in! Congratulations! Congratulations.
—Donald Trump, May 29, 2016
The miniature motorcade contained the nation’s foremost oversized ego.
Donald Trump arrived at the Lincoln Memorial in the first of two large, black SUVs that parked themselves at the edge of the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument standing solemnly in the backdrop.
Trump exited the right side of the vehicle, away from the crowd, but that unmistakable red logo hat—the must-have accessory for fans of Spencer’s Gifts in 2015—gave him away.
Mr. Trump had come to Washington on Sunday for Rolling Thunder XXVIII, an annual biker rally held the Sunday before Memorial Day. The event is intended to raise awareness for prisoners of war and those who served our country and remain missing in action.
“Do we love the bikers?” Trump asked, before answering himself. “Yes!” he said, “We love the bikers!”
At noon, thousands of bikers—many of them veterans—left the Pentagon parking lot in Arlington and rode along Washington Boulevard and across the Memorial Bridge, going East on Constitution Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue, making a right on 3rd Street and then West onto Independence Avenue before parking in West Potomac Park.
They wore your stereotypical biker garb: leather vests over T-shirts or no shirts at all, bandanas, enough patches to make a Girl Scout cry with envy, leather boots and blue jeans. The sight was, despite the roadblocks and traffic wrought, more liberating than it was confining.
“All over the place, no matter where I go, there’s bikers!” Trump said. “My people would say, ‘They’re here to protect you, Mr. Trump.’ It’s an amazing thing!”
On the surface, this should not have been Trump’s crowd.
He is, of course, a draft-dodger.
When Trump’s draft number 365 was drawn on Dec. 1, 1968 and he was given a chance to fight in Vietnam like the veterans he addressed Sunday afternoon, he instead got multiple student deferments as well as a medical deferment. Trump spent much of the duration of the war wearing white suits and partying at New York City discos like Le Club.
And he has, of course, not a shred of respect for POWs.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said of Senator John McCain in July. McCain was captured in North Vietnam in 1967 after he was shot down by a missile. He was kept in solitary confinement for two years, beaten and tortured. He wasn’t freed until 1973.
“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said. “I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.”
And he did, of course, lie to veterans already.
Back in January, Trump claimed to have raised $6 million for veterans as a fundraiser in Des Moines—$1 million of which he said he contributed personally. By May 20, however, Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski admitted that wasn’t true. He did not, he said, “know the exact number.”
And he does not, of course, take war or the personal sacrifice it demands very seriously.
In a 1997 interview with Howard Stern, Trump joked that the threat of getting sexually transmitted diseases was like Vietnam. “It is my personal Vietnam,” he said. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
It definitely wasn’t his scene, that much was obvious.
He was the only person not affiliated with his campaign wearing a suit, for starters. Trump fits in among bikers about as well as Hillary Clinton fits in among strippers. And that’s before the added awkwardness of Abraham Lincoln staring down at him, the least Lincoln-like candidate since Pat Buchanan, through the white pillars of the memorial.
But despite all of that, there seemed to be more Trump fans than critics riding along Washington’s streets. In fact, several looked past his suit and Made In China Trump tie, and said he was one of them.
“He’s an asshole, and that’s what we need,” Rick Lytton, 67, said. Lytton, a broad and towering figure surrounded by his fellow bikers, said he was a two-tour Vietnam vet. “We need to retake America,” he said, “because we’ve lost it.”
Another vet, Robert Gardner, also 67, parked his bike in the grass before telling me that Trump is “the only one that’s talking about the vets, and I think he’s the only one with a set of balls to do what we need done.” Gardner said Trump’s past rhetoric on vets and POWs doesn’t bother him much.
“I got a mouth like that, too,” he said. “Shit comes out that shouldn’t come out.”
Trump hardly deviated from his standard campaign rally script. He spent a little more time, perhaps, on the VA—which he said, once in office, he would fix by allowing veterans to patronize private doctors. But other than that, he stayed on brand.
A feature of any Trump campaign event is a dubious claim that many, many people—huge crowds—are unable to attend because there isn’t enough space to accommodate all of his fans.
This doesn’t quite work, however, outdoors and on public land.
Trump said, during Sunday’s speech, that “they say” there were “600,000 people trying to get in.”
He didn’t explain who “they” were that said that, or where these 600,000 were being kept out of, exactly—there’s no border wall surrounding Washington, after all.
The crowd was certainly smaller than he must’ve been prepared for. The stage fit the cover band nicely as they performed “Rockin’ In the Free World,” but Trump—without a lectern, pacing the stage and holding his own microphone—seemed somewhat directionless.
It was only when he was met with cheers that he looked at home.
As he was leaving, he stopped in front of the reflecting pool, next to his SUV, to wave.
He put one leg into the car and grabbed hold of the door, lifting himself up to raise his thumb at those assembled in the grass and on the steps of the monument.
As he drove away, he continued to wave through the window in the backseat.