March 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Waco was a pilgrimage, not a rally, for far-fight’s newest martyr

The current Branch Davidians were delighted the man they call “God’s battering ram" came to revive their cause, writes Claire Bond Potter.


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Editor’s note: Claire is a member of the Editorial Board, but the following first appeared in her newsletter, Political Junkie. –JS

Did we need another sign that Donald J. Trump is mobilizing antigovernment white supremacists in his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination? Not really. But we have one.

Over the weekend, and facing criminal indictments in the coming weeks, Trump held his first big campaign rally in Waco, Texas. As Julia Manchester at The Hill characterized it, Waco was “friendly territory” for Trump. This is something that could not be said unequivocally about Austin, Houston or San Antonio, cities with far more liberal voting constituencies.

As (or more) importantly, Waco is a sacred place for the extreme right in the United States, its recent history a dog whistle for white, religious, domestic terrorists. 

These events feature government injustice, martyrdom and mass grievance. They have galvanized the Second Amendment Sanctuary Movement and have made antigovernment violence a cornerstone of the American right over the last 30 years. 

The Branch Davidians
On February 28, 1993, a joint task force of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to surround a compound outside Waco operated by David Koresh, a charismatic cult leader of the Branch Davidian Church.

Why would the federal government attack a religious group? 

US Attorney General Janet Reno knew the Davidians were stockpiling weapons, many illegal for civilians to own. But what is said to have pushed her to confront Koresh and his followers was an informant’s report that children were being sexually abused in the compound.

Although Reno, in the face of the post-siege public relations disaster, said she was mistaken about child sexual abuse, in fact, she was not wrong. 

Girls as young as 11 or 12 were taken and “married” to Koresh. Children also told investigators they were routinely beaten for minor infractions.

In addition, Koresh was setting the group up for a mass death event, not unlike the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. According to a recent book by Texas journalist Jeff Guinn, the heavily-armed Davidians were not just prepared to die. They welcomed death. Until they were dead, Koresh had told them, they could not be resurrected as God’s army. The last time I looked, both murder and suicide were illegal.

In other words, there were plenty of good reasons to break up a criminal organization under the delusion that its leader and membership were religious visionaries. And so, 30 years ago, after mercilessly harassing the Davidians with loud music and bright lights for weeks in an attempt to get them to surrender voluntarily, the FBI delivered an ultimatum. 

Although some cult members had escaped, federal negotiators warned that unless another 20 were released from the compound by 4 pm, they would move armored vehicles into the perimeter in preparation for an assault.

No additional members emerged. 

Thus began a three-week armed siege. It ended with the compound engulfed in flames on April 19. It was the early days of cable, and as news cameras recorded the battle, millions watched it play out. White supremacists from around the country gathered around the perimeter to bear witness and pray for the safety of Koresh and his followers.

During the battle, four ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded. Eighty-two Branch Davidians died, 76 of whom were in the building when it burned. 

It was a horrible screw-up on the part of the Clinton administration, one that followed two decades of dithering about the rise of organized white violence in the United States. As Kathleen Belew points out in her book about the growth of the modern white power movement, the Waco disaster was partly caused by the federal government’s reluctance to confront the emergence of a growing and violent network of anti-government groups.

Those groups still exist. 

They are a core element of Donald Trump’s base.

Of course, Trump did not tell the crowd that assembled to hear him that violent, spectacular death was part of the Branch Davidian plan all along. He did not tell MAGA faithful that Koresh was not only a serial rapist who targeted little girls, but that he also forced male cult members to abstain from sex so that he would have exclusive access to their wives.

I reiterate this point to emphasize that a narrative about actual federal violence can be successfully massaged to feed a populist antigovernment narrative. But it is also crafted to co-exist comfortably with rightwing falsehoods that children are currently endangered by teachers and doctors who “sexualize” and “groom” them with honest talk about sex and gender.

Waco beget Oklahoma City beget January 6
Haunting Trump’s invocation of Waco is another galvanizing event for the Christian nationalist right: the battle with survivalist Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that occurred on August 21-30, 1992.

There are important differences between the two events about which, inarguably, federal agents ought to have made better decisions, even in the face of an armed threat. Unlike the Branch Davidians, the Weavers, who were living off the grid in anticipation of the Apocalypse, intended to survive that event. They did not want to die. They wanted to be left alone and safeguard themselves from what they believed was the chaos to come.

In addition, Randy Weaver did not abuse members of his family unless you consider pulling your kids out of school and making them live without modern conveniences to be a form of abuse. The pretext for Weaver’s arrest was very different, too. He was obtaining what cash the family needed by dealing in illegal, converted long guns. 

Weaver sold one to an undercover agent, failed to show up in court, and the agents who initiated the confrontation were serving a warrant.

Yet both have two important elements in common.

They feature government injustice, martyrdom and mass grievance.

These iconic incidents have galvanized the Second Amendment Sanctuary Movement and have made antigovernment violence a cornerstone of the American right over the last 30 years. 

Among other things, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was committed by two men who marked the two-year anniversary of Waco by murdering government workers and their children. 

Arguably, the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in which organized Trump supporters intended to kidnap and kill elected officials, has its roots in grievance subcultures that formed around Waco and Ruby Ridge.

But more importantly, Trump is fighting back against the government forces closing in on him by taking his place in the scary patriarchal firmament of men who, like Koresh and Weaver, are widely perceived as martyrs on the extreme right. 

It’s really only a baby step at this point. 

“God’s battering ram”
As many have remarked, the Former Guy is already perceived as a sacred figure and a martyr by his most fervent supporters. Worshippers speak of him as the equivalent of a modern Jesus, a man anointed as a Messiah by God.

In other words, Trump went to Waco to say he is one of them and to officially take command of America’s violence-prone, grievance-ridden far-right. 

If we needed any further proof, the Branch Davidians, who still exist, were delighted that the man they call “God’s battering ram” came to Waco to revive their cause.

So you can think of today’s event as a campaign rally if you want. But it isn’t. 

It’s a pilgrimage. 

It’s a tacit embrace of antigovernment violence by a former president. And it is Trump’s call for war against the democratic system.

What remains to be seen is whether the entire GOP is going to follow the increasingly loony, embattled Trump down this rabbit hole.

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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