Just inside the metal detectors at Friday’s March for Life rally, two students from Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, stood holding a gigantic American flag. Like hundreds of other demonstrators at the annual anti-abortion gathering, one of them, Tom, 21, was wearing a Donald Trump hat. The president was scheduled to come to the National Mall to speak at the event in about an hour, and Tom was stoked.
“It’s a really important statement for him to make, to be here … especially with all the impeachment stuff going on with the Democrats,” Tom said. “It’s showing his strength.
He’s the most pro-life president in history.”
That message—that no other president has opposed abortion more than Trump—was the driving narrative of Friday’s event. Indeed, no other sitting president has ever attended a March for Life. The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion nonprofit whose affiliated PAC recently committed $52 million to re-electing Trump and Senate Republicans this year, filled the crowd with signs featuring an image of Trump’s face and the words “Most Pro-Life President. Ever.” Of the dozen-or-so attendees I talked to, almost every one agreed that Trump was the best president their movement had ever seen.
“I don’t think it’s about an election. He believes it. And I think that bleeds through in everything that he does,” one man, who’d driven down from New Jersey, told me. “It’s not, ‘hey, I’m gonna stick my finger up in the air and figure out what the majority people are thinking.’” His friend told me that Trump—who has joked about wanting to abort his child and called himself pro-choice up until he planned his presidential run—was even more pro-life than Ronald Reagan. “When Reagan was governor of California, he let some abortion legislation get through that he later regretted,” the man said. “But Trump never had that. He’s been pro-life since the beginning, and just been very consistent.”
After the president took the stage during a rapturous sing-along to “God Bless the U.S.A.,” he told the audience as much. “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” he said, touting his expansion of the Mexico City policy. He also shouted out the 187 judges he’s gotten onto federal courts.
It was hard to tell whether Trump or his fans got more out of his appearance on Friday. For many attendees, the president’s unprecedented speech was a much-appreciated gesture of respect for anti-abortion activists. “It’s a historical moment,” said Josh, an 18-year-old student at Ohio’s Franciscan University of Steubenville, which bussed “every single student” to D.C. for the march. “It shows what a great president he is, that he’s willing to come out and speak on this subject.”
For Trump, the demonstration functioned as a built-in rally—a captive audience of some of his most fervent, unconditional supporters just a few blocks from his house. It’s not hard to imagine why, in the middle of his impeachment trial, he’d want to spend a morning looking out on a beaming crowd of people in MAGA hats clutching posters with his face on them.
“I want to welcome tens of thousands—this is a tremendous turnout,” Trump said, a minute into his speech. “Tens of thousands of high school and college students who took long bus rides to be here in our nation’s capital. And to make you feel even better, there are tens of thousands of people outside that we passed on the way in. If anybody would like to give up their spot, we can work that out. We have a tremendous group of people outside. Thousands and thousands wanting to get in. This is some great success.” (At the time of publication, there were no specific estimates on attendance available; we’ll update if those come in.)
Onstage, the president waxed poetic in an uncharacteristically florid appreciation of babies. “When we see the image of a baby in the womb, we glimpse the majesty of God’s creation,” he said. “When we watch a child grow, we see the splendor that radiates from each human soul.” He also accused Democrats of supporting nonexistent abortion procedures, including “executing a baby after birth,” to boos from the crowd.
As usual, the rally was heavily populated by groups from religious schools, a tradition that became national news last year when a viral video showed a MAGA hat–wearing Covington Catholic student Nicholas Sandmann smirking in the face of a Native American man after the 2019 march. This year, an online pamphlet advised “marchers and especially young people” that “You should be aware that because of your courageous stance for life, you are held to higher standards. Your behavior is scrutinized, and you are targeted.”
This spirit of persecution extended throughout the rally. Darren Mulligan, the lead singer of Christian rock band We Are Messengers, predicted during the band’s set that he’d get “thousands of emails” tonight from people angry that he’d expressed anti-abortion views. (The band has 9,760 Twitter followers.) In his speech, Trump warned demonstrators that their religious liberty is being “very strongly attacked” by Democrats. “Sadly, the far left is actively working to erase our God-given rights, shut down faith-based charities, ban religious believers from the public square, and silence Americans who believe in the sanctity of life,” the president said. “They are coming after me because I am fighting for you, and we are fighting for those who have no voice.”
All the basic elements of a Trump rally were plainly visible. Just inside the security barricades, several groups of clipboard-toting campaign workers beseeched attendees to sign up for Trump’s mailing list. The Trump campaign also distributed signs to marchers that read “TEXT “LIFE” TO 88022”; when I texted the number, the automated reply made no mention of abortion or “life,” but asked me to “stand with President Trump against the FAKE NEWS!” Before Trump’s arrival, an emcee assured the cameras and the audience that “the crowd goes all the way back,” while more than two-thirds of the gated rally area was still empty. During his band’s set, Mulligan chastised those Americans who are “obsessed with plastic straws and what bathroom people can use.”
Also: There were Pepe the Frog signs and at least one group of senior citizens in QAnon buttons. There were a couple of counter-protesters, and those counter-protesters were drowned out by Catholic school students chanting “Four more years!” On buttons, posters, and T-shirts, there were multiple tongue-in-cheek riffs on Black Lives Matter. (“Unborn Lives Matter.” “Babies’ Lives Matter.” “Black Babies Matter.”) There were men in clerical collars wearing “Make America Pro-Life Again” hats, and men in Young Americans for Freedom hats making jokes about sending Barack Obama “back to Kenya.”
In other words, it would be hard to imagine a friendlier venue for the president’s address, or a place that the president, currently feeling victimized by House Democrats as his impeachment trial wears on in the Senate, would rather be. After his speech was over, March for Life president Jeanne Mancini made much of her admiration. “Wow, that just happened,” she said. “I don’t think anything will surpass those wonderful remarks that we just heard.” With several other speakers left on the schedule, including multiple members of Congress, hundreds of people made a beeline for the exits. Out on Constitution Avenue, in the middle of a throng of demonstrators beginning the march to the Supreme Court, a young man held a banner on a stick above the heads around him. On the front was a woven tapestry of the Virgin Mary. On the back, a Trump 2020 flag.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.