Former President Donald Trump – launching his bid to return to the White House even as he rallies supporters to protest against an arrest he claims is impending – chose an auspicious location for one of his earliest rallies for the 2024 election: the city of Waco, Texas.
The rally, planned for Saturday, will fall during the 30th anniversary of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Federal agents, aiming to arrest cult leader David Koresh, surrounded his walled compound in an armed standoff that lasted more than a month. It ended in a botched raid that left 76 people, including 25 children, dead.
The rally also comes as Trump reportedly faces criminal charges in New York. He has claimed several times in the last week that he will be arrested imminently, but the former president remained free on Friday afternoon. Trump has portrayed the charges as a witch hunt carried out by sinister forces in the federal government – a theme that has been an increasingly common refrain for Trump as his rhetoric has swung further to the far right since losing the 2020 election.
Waco became synonymous with the worst failings of the federal government and has been used to push anti-government conspiracy theories for years. Though the Waco compound was home to a specific sect of religious extremists, elements of the tragedy resonate in today's times: gun ownership vs. gun regulation, rural independence vs. Washington bureaucracy.
And some experts say that's likely exactly why the city was chosen for a Trump rally.
"Waco is hugely symbolic on the far right," said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. "There's not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred – Christian nationalist skepticism of the government – and I find it hard to believe that Trump doesn't know that Waco represents all of these things."
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The Waco tragedy
Between February 28 and April 19, 1993, federal agents, the U.S. military and Texas law enforcement laid siege to the compound of the Branch Davidians, a Christian sect led by cult figure Koresh, located 13 miles from Waco.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms engaged in a firefight with the sect when they attempted to serve warrants at the compound, where officials believed Koresh and his followers were stockpiling weapons. After a 51-day siege of the property, FBI agents attacked on April 19 using tear gas. During the raid, the building housing the Branch Davidians caught on fire and most of the people trapped inside were killed.
The tragedy was a landmark in the rise of the so-called "militia" movement – a loose collective of far-right armed groups that grew significantly in popularity throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s.
And the Waco "massacre" as it is often called, has endured as a deep source of hatred and distrust of the federal government among far-right extremists. Indeed, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, had driven to the Waco siege two years earlier where he distributed pro-gun and anti-government literature. A few years later, an upstart Austin talk show host in his 20s led a group of volunteers to rebuild the chapel on the site. His name was Alex Jones.
"Waco was a seminal moment for right-wing extremism in this country," said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
A 'dog whistle' or a 'train whistle?'
Though Trump has held more than 100 campaign rallies and similar events, and mounted a near-daily schedule of them during his campaigns, this week's appears to be the first one ever held in Waco.
Several experts on extremism told USA TODAY the choice of Waco, of all the cities in America, clearly looks like a signal to far right and anti-government extremists.
The choice is especially noteworthy given the event arrives just after Trump's claim that criminal charges against him are forthcoming.
When Trump's first claims emerged over the weekend, it seemed possible he could be arrested, charged in New York and then released pending a trial, meaning he would. arrive in Waco with new fuel for his ongoing claims that he's a reformer being targeted by a host of "deep state" enemies.
"Waco has a sense of grievance among people that I know he's (Trump's) got to be trying to tap into," Beirich said. "He's being unjustly accused, like the Branch Davidians were unjustly accused – and the deep state is out to get them all."
Megan Squire, deputy director for data analytics at the Southern Poverty Law Center, scoffed at the idea that Trump would be holding a rally in Waco for anything other than the city's symbolic resonance among the far right.
"Give me a break! There's no reason to go to Waco, Texas, other than one thing – in April," Squire said. "I can't even fathom what that's about other than just a complete dog whistle – actually forget dog whistle, that is just a train whistle to the folks who still remember that event and are still mad about it."
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Wait and see what Trump says in Waco
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, cautioned it may be too early to conclude Trump chose Waco to begin his campaign because of its significance to the far right.
Pitcavage pointed out that Texas is an important state for the Republican primaries, and noted that of the major cities in Texas, almost all lean Democratic – except Waco and Forth Worth. The choice of the central Texas city of 140,000 residents could be simply a safe bet for the Trump campaign to ensure a large, enthusiastic pro-Trump crowd, he said.
The only way to know for sure that Trump chose Waco for its symbolism will be if the former president refers to the events of 1993 in his comments at the rally, Pitcavage said.
"Like, for example, comparing federal government misdeeds or persecution of the Davidians to what's going on in his cases today," Pitcavage said. Without an explicit reference to the Waco siege, he said, "I would not automatically assume that that was a likely reason (for the rally) – not compared to some of the other much more current reasons why it might be the case."
But Pitcavage's colleague, Segal, said regardless of the reasoning behind choosing Waco, a certain proportion of Trump supporters will read an anti-government message into the choice.
"Clearly, in the current context, that is going to be understood by some extremists as a dog whistle," Segal said. "If Trump is promoting this idea of government overreach – of targeting him —– it's kind of the perfect place to send a message, and will be understood that way whether he intends it or not."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump holding rally in Waco, Texas has a hidden meaning, experts say