Big flags on big trucks: What these displays say about the upcoming election

Trump-supporting caravans are traversing cities across America

A caravan of Donald Trump supporters traveled down Utah’s I-15 from Tremonton to St. George Saturday, in a line of cars that stretched nearly six miles long. Large flags supporting the reelection of the president billowed behind SUVs, minivans, sedans, and most prominently, trucks.

So-called “Trump trains” have been organized by concerned citizens in states across the country, including Ohio, Texas, Arizona and Oregon. It’s a trend that picked up steam ahead of Tuesday’s Nov. 3 election.

Vexillologists, or people who study flags, have taken note of the increased use of flags in support of presidential candidates this year. Scot Guenter, professor emeritus at San Jose State University and board member for the Flag Heritage Foundation and the Flag Research Center, said flags are typically associated with nations, peoples and militaries. More than any other way of expressing who you’re voting for, like a yard sign or a button, a flag might be seen as a reflection of a person’s identity.

For John Hartvigsen, Salt Lake City resident and the immediate past president of the North American Vexillological Association, this year’s unprecedented display of political flags is a sign of how divisive the election has become.

“The emotional impact of flags is extremely great,” Hartvigsen said. “The stars and stripes are big in the United States because they are a symbol that represents our unity, which is the opposite of what these caravan flags represent. They definitely represent what divides us.”

But Brian Owens, 52, an account manager from Brigham City, didn’t organize the I-15 Trump train with the intention of dividing people. Rather, he wanted to bring like-minded people together to exercise their First Amendment rights.

He led the charge Saturday in a silver Denali with an American flag on top, and Trump flag below. He said the turnout exceeded his expectations. There were people waiting on on-ramps and cheering from overpasses. More than 200 people participated as drivers or passengers in the train, according Owens.

“I was taken aback,” Owens said. “I feel like it’s a ground-swelling of average people who don’t feel they have had a way to express themselves, and these trains give them a chance to get out and be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Flags on cars

It’s unclear where the tradition of caravanning with flags in support of President Trump started. One early example emerged from a retirement community in Central Florida in June. Individuals paraded around the Villages community in golf carts with signs and flags lauding Trump. The event captured national media attention when the president thanked the “great people of The Villages,” and retweeted a clip of a man driving by and yelling, “white power.” The president later deleted the tweet.

In August, a 600-car pro-Trump caravan in Portland, Oregon, was followed by an altercation in which a supporter of the right-wing group, Patriot Prayer, was shot and killed.

There have even been flotillas, or boat parades, in support of Trump. In September, at least four boats sank during a boat parade in Lake Travis in Texas because of massive waves caused by the group of boats.

But many other pro-Trump parades and rallies have taken place without incident over the past year.

Prior to 2020, many celebrations and traditions have involved flags displayed on cars. Carolyn Gallaher, a professor at American University, noted that people in the south and other regions have long displayed confederate flags on trucks. On Cinco De Mayo in San Jose, Mexican Americans are known to drive around with the Mexican flag as a symbol of their heritage, Guenter said. It’s also common for sports fans to put flags on their cars in support of their favorite team, and there’s also a strong tradition of using flags in parades, he added.

Hartvigsen said he doesn’t remember ever seeing flags used this much in past presidential campaigns however. And it’s not just Trump flags, but Biden flags too, he said.

Paul Swenson, owner and CEO of Colonial Flag, based in Sandy, said the 40-year-old store has seen more interest in candidate flags this year than ever before. The store is politically neutral, but while it’s sold about 250 Trump flags, it’s only sold 12 for Biden.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this year. We are seeing strong emotional feelings on both sides,” said Hartvigsen. “Flags reflect the feelings that are already there. That’s what they do. It gives people the opportunity to show their feelings in a very public way.”

Brian Owens poses next to his SUV, on which he flies a Trump flag and an American flag, outside his home in Brigham City on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Sending a message

On Saturday, in the parking lot of a Shell gas station in Pleasant Grove, a man was selling Trump paraphernalia including hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers and flags. Shawn Jenson, 22, pulled up to the makeshift store, housed under a white tent, to pick up a flag for the I-15 Trump train. A construction worker who lives in Eagle Mountain, Jenson says caravanning is a conservative way of protesting.

“We all have jobs. We can’t go out and loot and protest. So this is our way,” Jenson said.

Jenson planned to buy a flag that said “Trump 2020 No more bull****.” Many of the flags available for sale at the tent featured strong language.

“Liberals are always in your face. They want to push their opinion on you, but you can’t say anything to them, or you’re automatically a racist. And that’s not true,” said Jenson. “I have freedom of speech. I can say what I feel too.”

Another flag for sale showed Trump’s face superimposed on the American flag with the words, “A Hero Will Rise.” Another said, “Liberty or death 2nd Amendment 1789” and showed two guns crossed behind the image of a skull. There were also several flags featuring the coiled snake and “Don’t Tread On Me” message from the Gadsden flag, which was used during the American Revolution and adopted by the tea party in 2009.

Curt Crosby, 62, lives in Cedar Hills in Utah County, and sells honey for a living. Temporarily, he is also selling flags and other Trump campaign items in the same Shell parking lot, although he avoids those with crude language. From a trailer attached to his grey Chevy 4x4, Crosby said he has sold several hundred Trump flags, as well as yard signs and hats.

“People are glad to see it,” said Crosby. “You can’t find this stuff at Macey’s, Walmart or Target.”

Crosby believes the mainstream media downplays support for Trump. It’s one of the reasons he says people feel the need to gather together and show their approval.

Owens agrees media coverage of the election isn’t always 50-50.

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“That’s part of my frustration,” Owens said. “If they’re not going to show it, I’m going to make sure that people across I-15, through the state of Utah know, there’s a large group of us that feel the way that we do.”

“It’s my privilege to live in this country to be able to do so.”

Next, it will be Owens’ privilege to vote, which he prefers to do in the booth on Election Day. In the future, he says he may plan more patriotic projects.

“I will wait until after the election to decide.”

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