As Donald Trump waits to see if a Manhattan grand jury will choose to indict him, a prospect that he is encouraging his supporters to protest, he is also about to hold the first major rally of his presidential campaign in a city that was famously the site of a deadly standoff between an anti-government cult and federal law enforcement.
Thirty years ago next month, 86 people died amid a disastrous siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Trump is holding his campaign’s first major rally on Saturday in Waco, highlighting a city freighted with anti-government history at a moment when the former President is facing multiple criminal investigations and is increasingly making anti-government signals part of his 2024 campaign.
The rally coincides with Trump using increasingly more threatening language on his Truth Social networking site against facing potential criminal charges. He warned on Friday of “potential death & destruction” if he was charged and called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg “a degenerate psychopath” if he moved forward with an indictment. A day earlier, Trump described Bragg as an “animal” and shared an image of himself holding a baseball bat next to a photo of Bragg, a move that many saw as encouraging physical violence.
Trump has reanimated his criticisms of officials across all levels of government in recent weeks. He promised in a video released Tuesday that, if elected President, he would create a “truth and reconciliation commission” to “expose the hoaxes,” and move as many as 100,000 government workers out of Washington, D.C. to “places filled with patriots who love America.”
The former President continues to center his campaign around the 2020 election, which he lost but still refuses to concede. At a conservative conference this month, he told his supporters that if he’s elected again he would be their “retribution” and praised politicians like GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia for supporting those accused of being involved in the deadly riot at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Recently, Trump posted a song called “Trump Won” with a link to donate to his campaign. Earlier this month, he added his voice to a song called “Justice for All” sung by people convicted for participating in the Jan. 6 riot.
Trump’s railing against the forces that helped remove him from power comes at a time of considerable legal jeopardy for him. Bragg has a grand jury hearing testimony about Trump’s alleged hush money payments to adult film actor Stormy Daniels. Over the weekend, Trump said that Bragg is the one who should be investigated. Trump’s also facing investigations by the Justice Department into his role in trying to stop the counting of electoral votes at the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 and his handling of classified documents, and in Georgia’s Fulton County over his alleged efforts to overturn election results in that state.
“As Donald Trump’s legal woes have increased, his rhetoric has increased, and his vituperation has increased against all of those actors, and his supporters—who already don’t like Joe Biden—have been growing more anti-government,” says Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
When Trump travels to Waco on Saturday, he’ll be visiting a Texas county he won over Biden by more than 20 percentage points. It is also the site of a notorious 51-day standoff between the apocalyptic, anti-government Branch Davidians and the FBI and ATF that started with a lethal shootout with the death of 4 ATF agents and 6 people on the compound. Nearly two months later, the standoff ended in calamity, as a fire set by the Branch Davidians killed 76 people living in the compound including children. The deadly episode has since been a rallying cry for anti-government and militia movements in the U.S.
Asked if Trump’s decision to hold the rally in Waco was in any way related to the anniversary of the siege, Trump’s campaign said Waco’s location and the role of Texas in next year’s primary schedule were behind the choice of the city for the campaign’s first rally.
“President Trump is holding his first campaign rally in Waco in the Super Tuesday state of Texas because it is centrally located and close to all four of Texas’ biggest metropolitan areas—Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—while providing the necessary infrastructure to hold a rally of this magnitude,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told TIME in a statement. “This is the ideal location to have as many supporters from across the state and in neighboring states attend this historic rally.”
Yet the scheduling of a prominent rally in Waco as Trump faces serious legal peril and continues to suggest the current leaders of the US government are illegitimate sends a signal to anti-government movements that “they are welcome in his movement,” says Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, analysis and reporting for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks militia movements and hate groups.
“There are definitely young folks who may not remember Waco, but for people who are deep believers in this movement and who are deep activists, it is still very clear and present,” Carroll Rivas says.
For some of Trump’s diehard supporters, the significance of him scheduling a rally at this moment in Waco was impossible to miss. 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”
On the pro-Trump forums that served as the staging grounds for Jan. 6, discussions of the Waco rally largely centered on discussing the merits of nearby Baylor University (“great school”), recommendations for burger and BBQ joints for those thinking of attending, and musings about whether HGTV “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, whose home decorating business is headquartered in the city, would endorse Trump. A few commenters mentioned the 1993 Waco siege. “Yikes, that’s a town with some history right there. Wonder if he’ll bring it up,” one person wrote. “Oh he will,” another responded.
One user wondered if Trump was “trolling [or] foreshadowing a little” by choosing Waco. “Interesting place to begin,” the user added. “The site of the most well known example of the government murdering people.”
The Waco siege has been the subject of elaborate, unfounded conspiracy theories, including that federal agents started the fire that killed more than 70 people, including children, who were living with the group’s leader, David Koresh.
In its aftermath, John Danforth, a former Senator from Missouri and a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, led a broad special counsel investigation into the Waco siege which concluded that the deadly fire on the compound was started by people in the Branch Davidian movement themselves and not federal agents outside the compound. Danforth, in an interview with TIME this week, says the conspiracy theories around Waco reflect the “appetite for the worst possible interpretation of what people do and what government people do.”
Those salacious accounts, Danforth adds, continue to corrode public trust in the federal government. “When the public is led to believe that the government is an evil force, that it’s just politically manipulated always and can kill people, then the consent of the governed is undermined,” he says.
–With reporting by Vera Bergengruen
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