“There’s not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred—Christian nationalist skepticism of the government,” said one extremism expert.
While former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign insists it is purely coincidental that his planned Saturday rally in Waco, Texas falls during the 30th anniversary of a deadly 51-day siege targeting a religious cult, some Texans and extremism experts aren’t buying it.
Since law enforcement—including Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents—carried out the botched operation at a Branch Davidian compound near Waco from February 28 to April 19 in 1993, the event has been a source of anti-government sentiment for the likes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and U.S. militia movement members.
“When Donald Trump flies into Waco on Saturday evening for the first major campaign event of his 2024 reelection quest, dog ears won’t be the only ones twitching,” the Houston Chronicle editorial board argued Thursday. “Trump doesn’t do subtle; dog-whistle messages are not his style. The more apt metaphor is the blaring air horn of a Mack 18-wheeler barreling down I-10.”
“‘Waco’ has become an Alamo of sorts, a shrine for the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and other anti-government extremists and conspiracists.”
“The GOP-friendly city of Waco—Trump won McLennan County by more than 20 percentage points in 2020—has every right, of course, to host a former president, the leading contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but ‘Waco,’ the symbol… means something else entirely,” the board stressed. “‘Waco’ has become an Alamo of sorts, a shrine for the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and other anti-government extremists and conspiracists.”
The twice-impeached former president faces potential legal trouble in multiple states and at the federal level for everything from a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to trying to overturn his 2020 electoral loss and inciting the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump, a documented serial liar, took to his Truth Social platform last weekend to say that he would be arrested Tuesday—as part of a New York grand jury investigation into the hush money—and call for protests. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said Thursday that Trump “created a false expectation that he would be arrested.”
In a Truth Social post on Friday, Trump warned of “death and destruction” if he is indicted—which led the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) to charge that “he’s not being subtle, he’s threatening prosecutors with violence.”
The Chronicle board tied Trump’s legal problems to his Waco trip:
Thirty years later, the anti-government paramilitary groups feeding off lies about the “deep state” and a stolen election periodically visit the modest, little chapel on the site of the sprawling, ramshackle building that burned to the ground. Although the Branch Davidians had nothing to do with anti-government conspiracists, chapel construction was funded by loud-mouthed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Militia members and conspiracists know exactly what Trump’s Waco visit symbolizes. They have heard him castigate the FBI and the “deep state,” particularly after agents searched for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. How they’ll respond to his remarks, particularly if he shows up as the first former president in American history to face criminal charges, has law enforcement in Waco and beyond taking every precaution. What he says will likely set the tone for the presidential campaign to come. Every American should be concerned.
Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung wrote Friday in an email to The New York Times that Waco was chosen “because it is centrally located and close to all four of Texas’ biggest metropolitan areas—Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—while providing the necessary infrastructure to hold a rally of this magnitude.”
The Chronicle board noted other local options, writing that “the Waco Regional Airport and an expected crowd of 10,000 or so fit the bill. Of course, Temple or Belton or Killeen (home to Fort Hood) would have fit the bill, as well—without the weight of symbolism.”
The Texas newspaper was far from alone in sounding the alarm about Trump’s upcoming trip to Waco.
.@DeanObeidallah on Trump planning to hold his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco, TX: “I interviewed extremist experts. They said this is not a dog whistle. This is a train whistle to anti-government actors. These are the type of people Donald Trump’s cultivating.” #TheReidOut pic.twitter.com/UJV5Q2WTv8
— The ReidOut (@thereidout) March 24, 2023
“Waco is hugely symbolic on the far right,” Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, toldUSA TODAY. “There’s not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred—Christian nationalist skepticism of the government—and I find it hard to believe that Trump doesn’t know that Waco represents all of these things.”
“Waco has a sense of grievance among people that I know he’s got to be trying to tap into,” Beirich added. “He’s being unjustly accused, like the Branch Davidians were unjustly accused—and the deep state is out to get them all.”
The newspaper pointed out that “though Trump has held more than 100 campaign rallies and similar events, and mounted a near-daily schedule of them during his campaigns, this week’s appears to be the first one ever held in Waco.”
Megan Squire, deputy director for data analytics at the Southern Poverty Law Center, also rejected the Trump campaign’s suggestion that the trip isn’t connected to the 1993 standoff and what means to many members of the far-right.
“Give me a break! There’s no reason to go to Waco, Texas, other than one thing,” Squire told USA TODAY. “I can’t even fathom what that’s about other than just a complete dog whistle—actually forget dog whistle, that is just a train whistle to the folks who still remember that event and are still mad about it.”
“Waco is hugely symbolic on the far right. There’s not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred.”
A good write up on Trump’s Waco rally, and what it signals to extremists. https://t.co/bb4FEgtz2d
— Robert Downen (@RobertDownen_) March 24, 2023
Even some right-wing figures are openly making the connection, as TIMEreported: “Posting on the messaging app Telegram, far-right activist and conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer called the rally in Waco ‘very symbolic!’ A few MAGA influencers on social media noted the choice of location, with one calling it ‘a meaningful shot across the brow of the deep state.'”
Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University associate professor of history and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics and Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, wrote in a Friday opinion piece for CNNthat Trump’s trip is “a provocation of historic significance.”
“When Trump became president in 2016, rather than becoming synonymous with the federal government as previous chief executives had done, he styled himself as both its victim and its adversary, promoting conspiracies about the deep state and encouraging supporters to keep him in power by any means necessary,” Hemmer highlighted. “In choosing Waco as the kickoff site for his campaign rallies, he has signaled that his courtship of extremist groups will continue, and that he sees his role as a pivotal figure in the far-right mythos as central to his efforts to retake the presidency.”
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