In the chapel on Mount Carmel, the longtime home of the branch Davidian sect outside of Waco, Texas, the pastor is preaching about the coming apocalypse as the sect’s doomed charismatic leader David Koresh did three decades ago.
But Pastor Charles Pace’s prophecies differ from Mr. Koresh’s. One is about Donald J. Trump.
“Donald Trump is the anointed of God,” said Mr. Pace in an interview. “He is the battering ram God uses to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.”
Mr. Trump, who has been beset by multiple investigations and publicly predicted an impending indictment in one, announced last week that he would hold the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign on Saturday at Waco Regional Airport.
The date comes in the middle of the 30th anniversary of the week-long standoff between federal agents and supporters 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 did not link his Waco visit to the anniversary. When asked if the rally — the former president’s first in the city of 140,000 — was a deliberate nod to the most infamous episode in Waco history, Steven Cheung, the campaign spokesman, replied via email that the The Waco location was chosen “because it is centrally located and close to all four of Texas’ major metropolitan areas — Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio — while providing the necessary infrastructure to hold a rally of this magnitude.”
But the rally comes amid a spate of increasingly aggressive remarks from Mr Trump claiming he is being pursued by prosecutors, and the historic resonance has not been lost on some of his most ardent supporters.
“Waco was an overstatement of government, and today the New York City District Attorney is again practicing overstatement of government,” said Sharon Anderson, a retiree from Etowah, Tennessee, who is traveling to Waco for the event on Saturday, her 33rd Trump Rally.
Mr Pace said he believes it was “statement – that he was under siege by the FBI in Mar-a-Lago and that they are accusing him of various things that are not actually true, just like David Koresh was being accused by the FBI when they accused him besieged.”
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“I will definitely go to the rally,” he added.
The attention paid to Mr. Trump’s choice of venue underscores the long political aftermath of the Waco patch situation. The deadly raid, which was a polarizing episode in its day, was invoked in the 1990s by far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh, often to the dismay of surviving Branch Davidians. It remains a concern for contemporary far-right groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist broadcaster that helped attract crowds of Trump loyalists to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, has come to prominence by making wild claims about the Waco standoff. Longtime Trump aide 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, Texas, and an authority on the standoff.
He said Mr. Trump’s decision to begin his campaign there, if deliberate in allusion to the siege, would mirror Ronald Reagan’s August 1980 speech in which he expressed his support for “states’ rights” at a county fair in the United States Near Philadelphia, Mississippi, a well-known city, corroborated for the murder of three civil rights activists 16 years ago.
“There’s a deep symbolism,” said Mr. Wright.
Mr Trump has a long history of making statements feeding the far right, although he claims that was not his intention. This list includes his ambiguous reaction to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman died; 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 January 6, 2021 to reverse his defeat.
As state and federal investigations have closed in on him in recent months, he has often portrayed himself in embattled or even apocalyptic terms. In August, when FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago resort looking for classified documents, he issued a statement saying he was “currently under siege.”
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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 news broke this month of a possible indictment by a New York grand jury investigating Mr. Trump’s role in payments made to a porn star during the 2016 presidential campaign, he released a message to supporters in capital letters that read, “PROTEST, ACCEPT BACK OUR NATION!”
Early Friday, still awaiting the grand jury’s decision, Mr. Trump wrote that “the potential death and destruction from such a false indictment could be catastrophic for our country.”
Newt Gingrich, a prominent critic of the federal government’s handling of the stalemate during his time as Speaker of the House, noted a key theme of Mr. Trump’s campaign: “the extent to which the federal government is corrupt and incompetent.”
Whether or not the historic resonance of his Waco rally was intentional, Mr. Gingrich said, “It would certainly fit as a symbol of federal hyperbole and as a symbol of a Justice Department killing spree.”
Parnell McNamara, the sheriff of McLennan County, home of Waco, said he didn’t think there were safety concerns beyond the usual preparations for a presidential campaign rally.
“His coming here is just a completely different situation to me and it really has nothing to do with it,” he said, referring to the 1993 raid in which he was present as US Marshal. “I haven’t even heard anyone mention that.”
On February 28, 1993, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the premises of the Branch Davidians, a splinter sect of Seventh-day Adventists then led by Mr. Koresh . Federal investigators suspected Mr. Koresh of possession of illegal weapons. Gunfight broke out, four ATF 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 supporters, many of them children, were killed when a fire consumed the site.
The Branch Davidians largely avoided politics. But the siege was overseen by the administration of a Democratic president and sparked by an investigation by a Christian sect over a gun allegation, at a time when the National Rifle Association had begun to stoke fears that the federal government might confiscate the guns of Americans to help to make it a thing on the right side.
An independent investigation completed in 2000, led by former Republican Senator John Danforth, blamed federal agencies for their lack of transparency regarding the standoff while attempting to dispel many of the most lurid conspiracy theories.
But by this point, the Branch Davidians had already been hailed as martyrs by the far-right of the day, including many members of a rapidly growing “patriot” or militia movement and Mr. McVeigh, who visited Waco during the Mount Carmel siege and bombed it Alfred P. Murrah’s Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the site’s burning.
David Thibodeau, a survivor of the siege who came from a “very democratic liberal family”, found the hug strange.
“David and the people at Mount Carmel were not political at all,” he said. But he said he appreciated the attention of right-wing groups when survivors struggled to understand their experiences and were treated as pariahs in other political circles.
“No one wanted to hear what I had to say, except for people on the right,” Mr Thibodeau said.
The funds to build the chapel on Mount Carmel were raised by Mr. Jones, whose obsession with Waco conspiracy theories led to his firing from Austin radio station KJFK in 1999 and the launch of his own media empire, Infowars.
Calls to Waco lingered in the next generation of militias and other extremists that emerged in response to Barack Obama’s presidency and supported those of Mr. Trump. 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. ‘ in her confrontation with the federal government in 2014.
According to Newsweek, Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys and former FBI whistleblower, denounced the agency as an “enemy of the people” in a 2021 Parler post, writing, “Remember Waco? Are your eyes open yet?”
According to Mr. Pace, whose politicized, QAnon-influenced theology is opposed by some other Branch Davidians, a chapter of the Texas Proud Boys made a pilgrimage to Mount Carmel Chapel on the anniversary of last year’s raid. “They come out, pay their respects, and find out what really happened here,” Mr. Pace said.
Mr. Danforth, a Republican, lamented the changes in his party over the Trump years that had brought into the political mainstream the conspiracy theories his report sought to dispel. “It’s the prevailing view of Republicans today that no matter what the facts show, the system is broken, our electoral system isn’t working, we shouldn’t have faith in elections, there is no finality, everything is a bargain,” he said.
When asked if his Waco report would be widely accepted today, he said, “No. It’s just a completely different time.”