Donald Trump in Waco: It's a signal to the darkest elements of the far right

The Waco siege of 1993 was a grotesque tragedy — but for elements of the far right, it's now a sacred symbol

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 24, 2023 9:43AM (EDT)

The Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel compound outside of Waco, Texas, burns to the ground during the 1993 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). (Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel compound outside of Waco, Texas, burns to the ground during the 1993 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). (Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In August of 1980, Ronald Reagan decided to campaign for president at the Neshoba County fair in rural Mississippi, where he gave a speech announcing his support for "states' rights", the rallying cry of segregationists for decades. The choice of location was hardly a coincidence. It was right outside the town of Philadelphia, site of the horrific murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were abducted and killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. Oh, the Republicans swore they didn't mean anything by this, but everyone understood what they were signaling. It wasn't exactly subtle. This was a dog whistle to rural Southerners, part of the GOP's years-long effort to convert the racists among them to the Republican party. And it worked.

Donald Trump adopted the GOP's cultivation of racists but parted ways with the party on many other issues. Aside from stealing Reagan's slogan "Make America Great," Trump has never said much about him either. He seems to be taking a page from that 1980 playbook, however, with his plans for the first big Trump campaign rally of 2023. On Saturday, he will appear in Waco, Texas, the site of a 51-day standoff between an apocalyptic religious sect called the Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement exactly 30 years ago this month. Considering that Trump is under investigation for inciting an insurrection that resulted in violent clashes between police and extremists, this is too on the nose to be a coincidence.

The Waco siege wasn't as explicitly political as was Jan. 6, although in subsequent years the right wing has characterized it as such. It started with a local newspaper article suggesting that David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians — technically an small offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists — was molesting underage girls in their remote compound near Waco, the Mount Carmel Center. This brought suspicion upon Koresh's secretive movement and when it was revealed that his followers were apparently stockpiling weapons, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms began to investigate, ultimately leading to the confrontation at Mount Carmel that began on Feb. 28, 1993. It's still unclear how that began, but shots were fired on both sides and when the smoke cleared four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians were dead. At that point everyone retreated to their corners and the infamous 51-day standoff commenced.

It was later revealed that the ATF had readied itself for a major show of force but one agent wound up asking Koresh's brother-in-law for directions to the compound. He warned the Branch Davidians that an assault force was on the way. The whole raid was ill thought-out as well as poorly executed. Federal agents clearly overreached in arrogant style, seemingly eager to play soldier, and the whole thing went very wrong. There were many innocent people within that armed compound, including a number of children so the ATF's aggression was dangerously provocative to say the least. But once four law enforcement officers had been killed, there was no going back. The FBI was called in, military advisers were consulted and we had the nearly three-month spectacle of the U.S. government besieging a small, apocalyptic cult movement that was armed to the teeth.

The country watched the siege on television for weeks, and for the most part the public considered the Branch Davidians, and Koresh in particular, to be nuts. Roughly 70% of the public believed the Branch Davidians were entirely to blame for the whole situation, and didn't change their minds, even after the FBI fired tear gas canisters into the compound in preparation for a raid and the whole place went up in a massive conflagration. It was a horrific spectacle, shown live on TV to the whole world

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There is still no consensus on what started the fire, although it was later proven that some of the canisters the FBI fired were flammable. Several of the group's members, including Koresh were shot to death in what may have been a mutual suicide pact. A few years later, after investigations into the ATF and FBI's handling of the situation, the public was more mixed in its assessment.

For one particular group of people, however, this was a watershed event. Far-right anti-government extremists were particularly active in the early '90s, and for them the Waco siege demonstrated that the U.S. government would use its power to disarm its citizens. It was a perfect storm, in a particularly bad sense: The despised ATF, a nonconformist Christian religious sect, saturation coverage by a media which at first swallowed government propaganda and then what many on the far right perceived as the outright murder of citizens who were simply exercising their constitutional rights.

For far-right anti-government extremists, the Waco siege demonstrated that the U.S. government would use its power to disarm its citizens.

It galvanized at least one far-right believer into action. Timothy McVeigh, who orchestrated the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed at least 168 people, saw his terrorist act as a direct response to the Waco siege, which he had personally witnessed. Waco remains a touchstone for right-wing "patriot" groups and anti-government militias to this day. As the New York Times reported years later:

For right-wing militias and so-called Patriot groups, Waco amounts to evidence of a tyrannical, illegitimate government unblinkingly prepared to kill its own people ... the specter of Waco has not faded. Right-wing extremists regularly invoke it as a defining moment, proof of Washington's perfidy. "Waco can happen at any given time," Mike Vanderboegh, a prominent figure in the Patriot movement, told Retro Report. He added ominously: "But the outcome will be different this time. Of that I can assure you."

I think we know that right-wing extremists love Donald Trump, and he has shown that he loves them too. We watched him play footsie with groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers throughout his presidency. Today, he's participating in recordings with the jailed Jan. 6 defendants who have been deemed too dangerous to allow out on bail and has promised to pardon them all if he is elected president again. He considers them his people.

Trump has been portraying himself as a martyr on his Truth Social platform in post after post, decrying his alleged persecution. He posted this on Thursday, referring to his possible impending indictment in New York:

Isn't it terrible that D.A. [Alvin] Bragg refuses to do the right thing and "call it a day?" He would rather indict an innocent man and create years of hatred, chaos, and turmoil, than give him his well deserved "freedom." The whole Country sees what is going on, and they're not going to take it anymore. They've had enough! There was no Error made, No Misdemeanor, No Crime and, above all, NO CASE. They spied on my campaign, Rigged the Election, falsely Impeached, cheated and lied. They are HUMAN SCUM!

We don't know what Trump will say at his huge rally this weekend at the scene of a seminal event in the radicalization of the far right, but I feel sure he won't hold back. But in fact, he doesn't have to say a word about the history of that place. The far-right extremists who support him understand exactly why he chose to Waco for this moment, and for what purpose. The only question is if, or when, they decide to take action on his behalf. They know they have his blessing.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Far-right Political Violence Racism Right-wing Extremism Waco