A Trump Rally, a Right-Wing Cause and the Enduring Legacy of Waco

In the chapel at Mount Carmel, the longtime home of the Branch Davidian sect outside Waco, Tex., the pastor preaches about the coming apocalypse, as the sect’s doomed charismatic leader David Koresh did three decades ago.

But the prophecies offered by the pastor, Charles Pace, are different from Mr. Koresh’s. For one thing, they involve Donald J. Trump.

“Donald Trump is the anointed of God,” Mr. Pace said in an interview. “He is the battering ram that God is using to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.”

Mr. Trump, embattled by multiple investigations and publicly predicting an imminent indictment in one, announced last week that he would hold the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign on Saturday at the regional airport in Waco.

The date falls in the middle of the 30th anniversary of the weekslong standoff involving federal agents and followers of Mr. Koresh that left 82 Branch Davidians and four agents dead at Mount Carmel, the group’s compound east of the city.

Mr. Trump has not linked the rally to the anniversary, and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment on whether the rally — his first ever in the city of 140,000 — was an intentional nod to the most infamous episode in Waco’s history. And there are other reasons for the former president to open his campaign in Texas, a state rich in electoral votes where he trailed Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida by double digits in a state Republican Party poll late last year.

But the historical resonance has not been lost on some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent followers. “Waco was an overreach of the government, and today the New York district attorney is practicing an overreach of the government again,” said Sharon Anderson, a retiree from Etowah, Tenn., who is traveling to Waco for Saturday’s event, her 33rd Trump rally.

Mr. Pace said he believed it was “a statement — that he was sieged by the F.B.I. at Mar-a-Lago and that they were accusing him of different things that aren’t really true, just like David Koresh was accused by the F.B.I. when they sieged him.”

“I’m going to the rally, for sure,” he added.

The attention to Mr. Trump’s choice of locale highlights the long political afterlife of the Waco standoff. A polarizing episode in its own time, the deadly raid was invoked in the 1990s by right-wing extremists including Timothy McVeigh, often to the dismay of the surviving Branch Davidians. It has remained a cause for contemporary far-right groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.

Alex Jones, the conspiracy-theorist broadcaster who helped draw crowds of Trump loyalists to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, rose to prominence promoting wild claims about the Waco standoff. The longtime Trump associate and former campaign adviser Roger Stone dedicated his 2015 book, “The Clintons’ War on Women,” to the Branch Davidians who died at Mount Carmel.

“Waco is a touchstone for the far right,” said Stuart Wright, a professor of sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex., and an authority on the standoff.

Understand the Events on Jan. 6

He said Mr. Trump’s decision to begin his campaign there, if intentional in its nod to the siege, would echo Ronald Reagan’s August 1980 speech affirming his support of “states’ rights” at a county fair near Philadelphia, Miss., a town known for the murder of three civil rights activists 16 years earlier.

“There’s some deep symbolism,” Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Trump has a long history of statements that feed the far right, even as he claims that was not his intent. That list includes his equivocating response to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead; his message to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” in a presidential debate; and his exhortations to supporters in Washington just before many stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn his defeat.

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As state and federal investigations have drawn closer to him in recent months, he has often portrayed himself in embattled or even apocalyptic terms. When F.B.I. agents searched his Mar-a-Lago resort in August looking for classified documents, he issued a statement declaring himself “currently under siege.”

In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Coalition conference this month, he described the 2024 presidential election as “the final battle” and vowed “retribution.” As word of a possible indictment from a New York grand jury investigating Trump’s role in payments made to a porn star during the 2016 presidential campaign circulated this month, he posted a message to supporters in all-caps to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”

Newt Gingrich, a prominent critic of the federal government’s handling of the standoff during his time as House speaker, noted a major theme of Mr. Trump’s campaign: “the degree to which the federal government is corrupt and incompetent.”

Whether or not the historical resonance of his Waco rally was intentional, Mr. Gingrich said, “It would certainly fit as a symbol of federal overreach and a symbol of a Justice Department run amok.”

Parnell McNamara, the sheriff of McLennan County, home to Waco, said he did not believe there were security concerns beyond the ordinary preparations for a presidential campaign rally.

“Him coming here, to me, is just a totally different situation, and really has nothing to do with that,” he said in reference to the 1993 raid, for which he was present as a U.S. marshal. “I have not heard anybody even bring that up.”

On Feb. 28, 1993, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms mounted a raid to serve a search and arrest warrant at the compound belonging to the Branch Davidians, a splinter sect of Seventh-day Adventists then under the leadership of Mr. Koresh. Federal investigators suspected Mr. Koresh of possessing illegal weapons. A gunfight erupted, four A.T.F. agents and six Branch Davidians were killed, and a 51-day standoff began.

It ended on April 19, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation broke off negotiations with Mr. Koresh and advanced with tanks. Mr. Koresh and 75 of his followers, many of them children, were killed as a fire consumed the compound.

The Branch Davidians mostly eschewed politics. But the siege was overseen by the administration of a Democratic president and set off by an investigation of a Christian sect over a weapons charge, at a time when the National Rifle Association had begun stoking fears about the federal government seizing Americans’ guns, factors that help make it a cause on the right.

An independent inquiry completed in 2000, led by the former Republican senator John Danforth, faulted federal agencies for their lack of transparency regarding the standoff, while also seeking to dispel many of the most lurid conspiracy theories.

But by then, the Branch Davidians had already been embraced as martyrs by the far-right extremists of the era, including many members of a rapidly expanding “patriot” or militia movement and Mr. McVeigh, who visited Waco during the siege of Mount Carmel and bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the burning of the compound.

David Thibodeau, a survivor of the siege who came from a “very Democratic liberal family,” found the embrace odd.

“David and the people at Mount Carmel weren’t political at all,” he said. But he said he appreciated the attention of the right-wing groups when the survivors were struggling to make sense of their experience and were treated as pariahs in other political circles.

“Nobody wanted to hear what I had to say except for people on the right,” Mr. Thibodeau said.

Funds for the construction of the chapel at Mount Carmel were raised by Mr. Jones, whose obsession with Waco conspiracy theories led to his firing in 1999 from the Austin radio station KJFK and the start of his own media empire, Infowars.

Invocations of Waco persisted into the next generation of militias and other extremists that emerged in response to Barack Obama’s presidency and supported Mr. Trump’s. In 2009, the founder of the Three Percenters movement warned of “No More Free Wacos” in an open letter to then-attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. The Oath Keepers issued a statement warning that the Bundy family could be “Waco’d” in their standoff with the federal government in 2014.

According to Newsweek, in 2021, Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys and a onetime F.B.I. informant, denounced the agency as the “enemy of the people” in a Parler post, writing: “Remember Waco? Are your eyes opened yet?”

A Texas Proud Boys chapter made a pilgrimage to the Mount Carmel chapel on the anniversary of the raid last year, according to Mr. Pace, whose politicized, QAnon-inflected theology is rejected by some other Branch Davidians. “They come out and pay their respects, and find out what really happened here,” Mr. Pace said.

Mr. Danforth, a Republican, lamented the changes in his party in the Trump years that had brought the conspiracy theories that his report had aimed to dispel into the political mainstream. “It’s the prevailing view of Republicans today that no matter what the facts show, the system is broken, our election system doesn’t work, we shouldn’t have confidence in elections, there’s no finality, it’s all a steal,” he said.

Asked whether his Waco report would be widely accepted as today, he said, “No. It’s just a very different time.”

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