When Donald Trump announced he was heading to Waco, Texas, on Saturday to kick off his 2024 campaign, many feared that the former president’s presence in the city, made infamous in 1993 for a deadly 51-day standoff between armed cult members and federal agents, would be interpreted as a new call to militia-style violence.
“Given what happened on January 6, he’s playing with fire,” professor Matthew Dallek, a political historian of the right and homeland security issues at George Washington University, told The Independent ahead of the event.
When Trump Force One actually touched down in Waco, to a fired-up crowd that had been waiting in the scorching son all day on an airport tarmac to see him, the former president avoided mentioning the standoff itself, but offered scattered warnings of sinister forces, World War III, and an apocalyptic “final battle” that wouldn’t be out of place in a cult hall.
Trump plane circles Waco Regional Airport
“Either we surrender to the demonic forces abolishing and demolishing – and happily doing so – our country, or we defeat them in a landslide on November 5, 2024,” Mr Trump told the crowd.
“Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state,” he added. “We’re at a very pivotal point in our country.”
Before Mr Trump took the stage, conservative rocker Ted Nugent delivered a guitar solo version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” but not before asking the crowd for January 6-inspired “moment of silence for the political prisoners in the gulags of Washington, DC, because of jackbooted thugs in our own government.”
And if there was any mistaking the militant message in Trump world, consider the soundtrack: the former president began his remarks with a version of the national anthem, sung by people imprisoned for participation in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Between these statements, Mr Trump railed against the prosecutors in Florida, Georgia, and Washington considering unprecedented criminal charges against the former president, calling them “the Department of Injustice and their local henchmen.”
“The new weapon being used by out of control, unhinged Democrats to cheat in elections is to criminally investigate a candidate, bad publicity and all,” Mr Trump said. “I’ve got bad publicity but my poll numbers have gone through the roof.”
Out in the crowd, supporters in Waco described a nation coming apart at the seems, where only drastic action could counter a shadowy enemy and turn things around.
“If people really loved this country, 50,000 people would go take over the White House and say no more of this,” Will Montfort of Bryant, Texas, told The Independent.
Attendee Shelley Harrison, of Dallas, said that officials are targeting Mr Trump because he helped expose “child trafficking issue,” a QAnon conspiracy theory which purports that Democrat and media elites are responsible for child trafficking.
“He knows too much,” she said. “He’s exposing the truth. They don’t want people to believe him.”
Karey Cottrell said she fled the Ventura, California, area two years ago as a “political refugee,” after “antifa and Black Lives Matter infiltrated our city,” claiming the left-wing groups were even putting poisoned meat in the yards of conservatives to kill their dogs, a story she said she heard from a friend in the local sheriff’s office.
“It became violent,” she added. “If you had an American flag, they were going to throw rocks.” “
Daryl Gully, from outside San Antonio, was wearing a t-shirt that read “Traitors and Patriots,” along with a picture of a pile of skulls.
He told The Independent Donald Trump should’ve adorned his rally stage with an empty chair for every person killed at Waco, which became a rallying cry on the far-right and helped galvanise the modern anti-government militia movement. Still, he added, the Trump movement isn’t violent, at least not at the moment.
“The MAGA movement has his back,” Mr Gully said. “They would protest. Some people are just a bit scared to protest or do something like that because of the January 6 patriots.”
Despite the president’s conspiratorial rhetoric, multiple Waco natives said they didn’t see any kind of symbolism with Donald Trump taking his fire and brimstone to the quiet, conservative Texas town known for Baylor University and its numerous quaint churches.
“That was when I was very young, 10 or 11 years old. Once it was over, it was something left in the past,” Prince Love, a local general contractor, said. “That was 30 years ago at this point.”
Randy, who grew up in Waco and asked to only use his first name, said he didn’t see a connection either.
“You can sit there and make up some connection. I don’t,” he said.
The Midland, Texas, oil and gas worker added that the Mr Trump isn’t inciting violence, but rather that every political movement always has a few radical people willing to cross the line.
“Any level-headed person with common sense, they’re going to know right from wrong,” he said. “Listening to him speaking doesn’t make me want to get violent.”
For all the talk of cabals and child-traffickers, this was still a Trump rally, with its carnival atmosphere: part end times but part good times.
Religious activists handed out Trump-branded trillion dollar bills with Bible verses on the back, while the Trump name and MAGA slogan proliferated across the crowd on hats, on trucks, in rhinestones and embroidery. There were numerous showtunes plus Adele on the jukebox.
Chris, who asked to only use his first name, said he doesn’t even think Trump is the best choice for the GOP in 2024, but values Trump rallies for the community.
“In Austin, and some of these areas of the country, it feels isolating [being conservative], people telling you how to think,” he told The Independent. “Thats a big thing for me, the community.”
A variety of issues brought people out to Texas to support Mr Trump kick off his third presidential campaign – inflation, immigration, critical race theory, a backlash to discussions around gender and sexuality – but few conservations were without an allegation of some vicious force coming for normal Americans, that only an enlightened few could see.
America has “been hijacked” Steve Harris, a retired statistics professor from Waco, told The Independent.
Hijacked by whom?
“Either you know or you don’t,” he said.
In Waco, maybe Donald Trump didn’t need to call out this town’s complicated history to invoke the same distrust of government, the same end-times thinking, the same readiness for extreme acts the 1993 standoff would later inspire. For his supporters, the country he hopes to inherent is already a powder keg. Not everyone believes them, but that’s not the point. Either you know, or you don’t.