Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
For a presidential campaign, rally locations often serve double duty: putting the candidate in front of supporters while sending a message about the campaign.
When Barack Obama launched his presidential bid in 2007, he chose to speak at the Old State Capitol in Illinois, the place where Abraham Lincoln launched his political career with his famed “House Divided” speech. When Ronald Reagan wanted to bolster his support among White southern voters in 1980, he traveled to Neshoba County, Mississippi – where three civil rights workers had been murdered in the 1960s – and gave a speech on states’ rights. When Pat Buchanan sought to underscore his connection to the Confederacy in 1992, he made a beeline for Stone Mountain, Georgia, site of a monument to Confederate leaders.
Likewise, Donald Trump’s decision to hold the first rally of his 2024 bid for the White House in Waco, Texas, sends a powerful message about his unfolding presidential campaign. The rally coincides with the 30th anniversary of a siege just outside of Waco between religious extremists, a sect known as the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh, and the federal government. The 51-day standoff began in February 1993 and ended in mid-April with a fire that killed 76 people, including 25 children.
Trump is no stranger to place-based controversy. In June 2020, he chose Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the site to restart his in-person rallies, after pausing them for first few months of the pandemic. The combination of the place — the site of one of the deadliest racist pogroms in US history — and the date — Juneteenth, the day that marks when news of emancipation reached enslaved people in Texas — was quickly called out for the provocation it was. Kamala Harris, who had not yet been selected as Joe Biden’s running mate, recoiled at the choice on Twitter, writing, “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party.” (The Trump campaign moved the rally to the next day.)
Trump clearly knows the power of place. In the case of Waco, it is not just a provocation but a signal, likely to be read by those who have used force on Trump’s behalf as an invitation. For the past three decades, this incident has been a key element of far-right mythology: a rallying cry for armed resistance to the federal government and its representatives. For Trump, whose first term ended with an assault on the US Capitol, the choice to rally in Waco sends a clear message that will energize proponents of far-right extremism among his base.
The Waco siege occurred in the midst of a period of growing far-right, anti-government activism in the United States. The modern movement, marked by military-style training, weapons stockpiles and political violence, emerged in the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest during the 1970s and grew as time went on. Groups such as the Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity, sovereign citizens and Aryan Nations developed radical anti-government philosophies often rooted in White supremacy and armed rebellion, a development historian Kathleen Belew charts in her book “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.” These groups helped feed parts of the militia movement that, by the early 1990s, had grown to an unprecedented size, according to Belew and others.
Two events in the early 1990s galvanized the growth of this movement. Waco, in 1993, was the second; the first was Ruby Ridge the year before. At Ruby Ridge, an 11-day siege pitted White separatist Randy Weaver and his family against heavily armed federal agents. Weaver’s wife and teen son were killed, along with a US Marshal.
The government’s use of deadly force against the Weavers became a recruiting tool for radical groups. Waco served as another, where militarized federal agents laid siege to a compound with warrants to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and illegal weapons. The compound housed a heavily armed group of Branch Davidians. On April 19, the FBI attempted a raid, and a deadly fire broke out – the origin of which remains disputed.
Two years later, on the anniversary of the raid, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. He cited Waco — which he had visited during the siege — as a primary motivation for the attack.
Even after Oklahoma City, Waco remained a key part of far-right lore. The low-wattage radio programs of the 1990s blared with messages about the raid, weaving it into conspiracies about the New World Order and warning that it heralded the beginning of the end times. Dubbing Waco the “second American Revolution,” far-right conspiracist William Cooper told his audience, “Folks, we lost. And you’re next.”
One of Cooper’s listeners picked up on that message and used it to build his own media empire. On the seventh anniversary of Waco in 2000, Alex Jones presided over the opening of a new church constructed at the site of the raid. Jones, who launched his conspiracy site InfoWars in 1999, organized the fundraising drive to build the church. On his radio show, he flogged conspiracies about Waco — captured most fully in his documentary “America Wake Up or Waco” — and whipped up anti-government fear in general, insisting to his listeners that the federal government would eventually train its guns on them.
The years-long surge in militia organizing that occurred post-Waco died down somewhat during the George W. Bush years, only to resurge again after Obama’s election. When it did, Waco retained its vital place as a driver of fear and paranoia. “Waco can happen at any given time,” said Mike Vanderboegh, a co-founder of the Three Percenters, a far-right group later involved in the attack on the Capitol, in a 2015 interview (Vanderboegh died in 2016). “But the outcome will be different this time. Of that I can assure you.”
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The persistence of Waco as a call to arms for the far right underscores the potency of Trump’s choice to hold his opening rally there. For three decades, the city’s name has been a touchstone for groups who see the federal government not just as a problem but as the central enemy in a slow-rolling civil war.
When Trump became president in 2016, rather than becoming synonymous with the federal government as previous chief executives had done, he styled himself as both its victim and its adversary, promoting conspiracies about the deep state and encouraging supporters to keep him in power by any means necessary. In choosing Waco as the kickoff site for his campaign rallies, he has signaled that his courtship of extremist groups will continue, and that he sees his role as a pivotal figure in the far-right mythos as central to his efforts to retake the presidency.