Trump's Waco escalation: Now he's threatening Armageddon

Trump vows a "final battle" against his "enemies" — the message to his followers could hardly be clearer

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 28, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas. The day in Waco also marked the 30-year anniversary of the week's deadly standoff involving Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas. The day in Waco also marked the 30-year anniversary of the week's deadly standoff involving Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

On Saturday, Donald Trump held his first major political rally of the 2024 presidential campaign in Waco, Texas. He is a master showman, gifted at understanding and fulfilling his followers' dreams, needs and fantasies and their belief in their inherent greatness and destiny. In so many ways, Trump is their preacher, teacher, father figure, confidant, priest and lover all embodied in one person. Considered in that light, his Waco performance did not disappoint.

Trump's plane flew in over the crowd as the song "Danger Zone" from the "Top Gun" films was played over the loudspeakers and a supposedly Christian "speed painter" completed a huge picture of the former president.

The 15,000 Trump cultists erupted in applause; their hero had returned. Their adulation in Waco is about what Donald Trump represents to his followers and the energy he channels. It's not politics or policy or ideology in the normal sense of those words. Still less is it about facts or reality, which the mainstream news media and political class still obsess over, as if such things offered any leverage for understanding the Age of Trump.

Trump's dark charisma is a force that is unequaled in American history.

When Trump finally spoke to the MAGA faithful, he delivered a vintage broadside of threats, lies, racism, conspiracy theory and rage. It was literally worthy of Adolf Hitler declaring war. 

"You will be vindicated and proud," he told his followers. "The thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced."

Of course he insisted that he is innocent of any wrongdoing and attacked the Manhattan district attorney who is leading the investigation into his hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels.

Trump escalated his threats in language that channeled the insurrection on Jan. 6, saying that his "enemies are desperate to stop us" and "our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and to break our will." He continued with his threats of total war and vengeful destruction: "But they failed. They've only made us stronger. And 2024 is the final battle, it's going to be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation once again."

The message was clear: Trump is a legitimate ruler in exile, and his followers — especially the Jan. 6 terrorists — are "patriots" engaged in a righteous struggle to win their country back.

But perhaps the most disturbing part of Trump's performance came when he administered what sounded like a fascist invocation or loyalty oath to his followers. That came with the song "Justice for All," played shortly after he landed at Waco Regional Airport. As the Waco Tribune-Herald described it, "The song features Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, interspersed with a group of people jailed for their roles in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol singing part of the national anthem."

The message was clear: Donald Trump is like a ruler in exile and his followers — especially the Jan. 6 terrorists — are "patriots" engaged in a righteous struggle. In another place or time, that moment would correctly be identified as a threat of civil war or insurgency by a deposed leader, one who already attempted a coup and was allowed to escape unpunished and who is now raising an army to conquer the new government.

Historian Nicole Hemmer, author of "Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s," provided this context via email:

Though Trump did not mention the federal siege in Waco 30 years ago at his rally today, his decision to hold the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign there hung over a speech whose main theme was vengeance. It opened with a song from those imprisoned for their role in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 — people Trump claims were falsely imprisoned. Right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones have insisted these are political prisoners, part of the right's growing martyrdom mythology around Jan. 6 (which has at its center Ashli Babbitt, whom Trump has called a "great patriot"). As the song, which features Trump's voice reciting the pledge, played, images from the attack on the Capitol played in the background. Trump later intoned to the crowd that he was their "warrior," their "justice," their "retribution."

This is dark stuff. It shows how the paranoia and conspiracism that incubates in right-wing media continues to be a cornerstone of Trump's politics. It takes on an even darker tone given the site of the rally. The siege at Waco has become a cornerstone of far-right mythology over the past three decades, fodder for conspiracy theories, militia organizing, and terroristic violence — including the bombing at Oklahoma City two years later that killed 168 people. Right-wing politicians have used these events before — in the 1990s, a handful of members of Congress had close ties with militias, and members like Helen Chenoweth of Idaho made the siege at Ruby Ridge in 1992 part of her political appeals (along with black helicopters and warnings that the United Nations was planning to take over America's national parks). The ties to violent events did not hurt Chenoweth's standing in the Republican Party, and Trump's choice of Waco will not hurt his. But it is still a dangerous move. Trump did not need to invoke the siege to provide more fodder for that far-right lore, and his decision to rally at Waco makes clear that he sees a blend of conspiracy, violence and vengeance as key to his re-election campaign.

As with his previous rhetoric of "American carnage," Donald Trump's theme of a "final battle" against "enemies" that will make America a "free nation again" directly channels how neofascists, white supremacists and other members of the global right see themselves engaged in an existential struggle against multiracial democracy, pluralism and "wokeness." For them, this is a zero-sum, winner-take-all battle for dominance, with no quarter given to their "enemies."

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Alan Jenkins, Harvard Law professor and writer of "1/6: The Graphic Novel," cautioned that while everyone in America "has the right peacefully to assemble and, especially, to protest government actions with which they disagree," it's also true that context matters:

The Waco site and Trump's inflammatory words are part of that context.  The recent history of the violent and seditious Insurrection areas well.  The former president's call to action occurs, moreover, at a time when political violence is on the rise, highlighted by the apparent politically-motivated attack on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband.  The University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats found that "between 15 million and 20 million American adults agree that the 'use of force is justified' to restore Trump to the presidency and that well over 50 million agree that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and is an illegitimate president." 

Whatever Donald Trump's political prospects, it's clear that Trumpism poses a continuing threat to our democracy.  Apocalyptic rhetoric by the former president who triggered a violent insurrection in 2021 cannot be taken as mere political theater in 2023.  None of the conditions that led to the insurrection have gone away, and some — like antisemitism and political violence — have increased.  It's important for everyday Americans to understand the threat to American values that continues to loom large.

Trump's Waco rally appears to have been peaceful, and that's a good thing.  But we ignore its underlying message at our peril.  Fundamental democratic values remain at risk, and it's up to all of us to defend them. 

As I wrote in an earlier essay for Salon, Donald Trump's end-times threats represent a much larger strategy by the larger Republican-fascist party and "conservative" movement:

Ultimately, the Republican-fascists and conservative movement's Armageddon politics are inherently antidemocratic because it is based on constant fear and terror which in turn makes contemplation, reason, communication and consensus building to address common problems and shared concerns based on truth and empirical reality all but impossible. America's democracy crisis can only escalate because the Republicans see destruction and violence and a political (and perhaps even literal) apocalypse as integral to their plan to get and keep power by any means necessary.

What kinds of people continue to support Trump and his neofascist cult movement? What are their values? Who would be drawn into the orbit of such an obviously demented and violent person, a man who has shown himself to likely be a sociopath?

It's a reasonable question. Even after attempting a coup and committing acts of democide through his willfully negligent response to the COVID pandemic, Trump still commands the loyalty of tens of millions of people and controls the Republican Party. If the 2024 presidential election were held today, the outcome between Trump and Joe Biden would be too close to call. What does this say about who we are as a people and our "national character"?

In the end, whatever becomes of Donald Trump himself, his movement and what it represents will continue to metastasize, representing the worst elements of American culture. Until and unless America has a reckoning with its own character, history and most deeply rooted problems, none of this will get better. Waco, like Jan. 6, will look like just a prelude to the much longer story of America's decline. To stop the metaphorical bleeding, Donald Trump must be indicted, convicted and sent to prison. Unfortunately, no part of that outcome is guaranteed, or even likely. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Election Fascism Jan. 6 Terrorism Waco