Every revolutionary movement needs martyrs. The modern U.S. militant right has long had its own, and the most important among them have been dead for three decades: the 70-plus men, women, and children killed in the spring of 1993 at the conclusion of a 51-day government siege at a compound outside the Central Texas city of Waco. They were members of an armed Christian sect, unfamiliar and isolated, and for many Americans, Waco was another footnote in the country’s long history of violence. In the worldview of right-wing militancy, however, Waco is foundational: a gory testament to the dangers of gun control and the deadly power of federal authorities. Waco fueled the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s and inspired the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; it continues to influence contemporary militant thinking. All of this should be borne in mind when Donald Trump holds the first official rally of his 2024 presidential campaign in Waco on Saturday.
In the run-up to the rally, Trump hasn’t mentioned the events of 1993. Instead, he has grabbed hold of the news cycle by warning of his potential indictment and arrest over an alleged campaign finance violation in 2016 and evoking the specter of violence. He urged his followers to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” He warned that an indictment could lead to “death and destruction” and “create years of hatred, chaos, and turmoil.” He added: “They are not coming after me. They are coming after you. I’m just standing in their way.” These statements channel the same anxieties that Waco has long stirred about the existential danger of a federal government controlled by Democrats.
Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes — who was convicted last fall of seditious conspiracy for his role on January 6, 2021, the last time Trump called on his followers to defend him — told me in an interview before his arrest that he’d seen the “existential slaughter” of Waco as “a huge wake-up call.” Mike Vanderboegh, founder of the Three Percenters, another national militant group whose members were charged over January 6, viewed Waco similarly. It made him and other militia leaders believe they could be the government’s next victims. Before his 2016 death, Vanderboegh told the historian Robert Churchill of Waco: “It scared the crap out of us, and we couldn’t count on anybody but ourselves.” Trump’s message to militants on the right has long been that they can count on him. He speaks their language about the “deep state,” traitorous liberals, and the potential for civil violence. His presidency marked the first time militant groups felt they had an ally in the White House; neither Vanderboegh nor Rhodes had love for either Bush administration. This was why people from a constellation of groups, from Oath Keepers and Three Percenters to small, little-known outfits around the country, joined the crowd at the Capitol on January 6.
Look just beneath the surface, and you can see Trump and his allies playing directly into the particular fears and narratives of right-wing militancy. On November 19, 2020, Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani unleashed his campaign’s master theory of how the election had been stolen. It went something like this: America’s foreign adversaries, including Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China, had teamed up with powerful business interests and politicians to hack Dominion voting machines. It may have sounded strange, but it also fit the outlines of something called the New World Order conspiracy theory. The militant right has been fascinated by this for decades, including in the post-Vietnam era, when the movement was dominated by Ku Klux Klan paramilitaries. The theory can take several forms, the most virulent of which holds that a cabal of elite Jewish businessmen are trying to undermine America and other Western democracies from within to establish a global tyranny; they pay off politicians and sow chaos via animalistic hordes of immigrants and racial and religious minorities. The more palatable version of the story does away with race and religion and keeps the focus on the threat of tyranny at the hands of a globalist elite intent on taking away the rights of patriotic Americans, starting with guns. Rhodes expressed sympathy with the latter version, and Vanderboegh with a less conspiratorial reading of it. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was a believer in the former. He thought that Waco previewed a coming battle against the New World Order. In the lead-up to his rally there, Trump and his allies have echoed the New World Order theory, claiming that George Soros, the Jewish American investor and philanthropist, is behind the pending charges against him. Trump called Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney leading the investigation, who is Black, a “SOROS BACKED ANIMAL.” The Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance accused Bragg of being “bought by George Soros,” pursuing baseless charges against Trump while he “allows violent criminals to walk the streets.”
The investigation, which centers on an alleged hush-money payment by Trump to porn star Stormy Daniels, is arguably the least serious of the litany he faces. This has made it even easier for Trump to bring rank-and-file Republican leaders such as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on board with his persecution narrative. It’s the typical dynamic with Trump: an opposition that seems to inadvertently strengthen his hand while he lines up the backing of deeply irresponsible and cynical Republican allies. Yet Trump has been signaling that this campaign will be different from his last two: more divisive and violent in its rhetoric, more revolutionary in its aims, and more openly intertwined with right-wing militancy and its apocalyptic mindset. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month, he called his 2024 campaign “the final battle.”
“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” he said at the conference. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
“A Coded Message of Revolution”
Trump’s campaign has denied choosing to hold the rally in Waco because of its history. But the event, which will be held at the city’s airport, comes as the violence of 1993 resurfaces in the public consciousness. Last month marked 30 years since the start of the siege, an anniversary that will continue until April 19. Two television series have been launched to coincide with it: a six-part dramatization on Showtime and a three-part documentary on Netflix called “Waco: American Apocalypse.”
Back in 1993, the people living in a compound known as Mount Carmel on the outskirts of Waco were members of the Branch Davidians. Their leader, David Koresh, said he was a prophet and that God had spoken to him, telling him to prepare his followers for an apocalyptic battle. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives suspected the Davidians of having an illegal weapons cache in the compound that included machine guns and grenades. Instead of speaking with Koresh, the ATF sent agents to raid the compound in a military-like operation. Four were killed in the ensuing fight, which ended in a ceasefire, requested by the ATF so it could evacuate its wounded and dead. A joint siege of the compound by the ATF and FBI followed, featuring armored vehicles, heavily armed federal agents, and a crush of TV news teams. Then-President Bill Clinton had come into office a month earlier with promises of stricter gun control; some Americans saw their worst fears about gun confiscation and federal overreach coming true. The siege reached its ugly conclusion on April 19, as federal agents again went on the offensive, sparking another shootout and a massive fire inside the compound. The number of Branch Davidians who died was deemed unsettled in a special counsel’s report because some of the bodies were commingled and burned beyond recognition.
On the far right, the Waco dead became martyrs for gun rights and a scare story about the willingness of a Democratic-controlled federal government to violently crush resistance.
On the far right, the Waco dead became martyrs for gun rights and a scare story about the willingness of a Democratic-controlled federal government to violently crush resistance. Militia groups mobilized. Churchill, the historian who interviewed key militia leaders from this period for his definitive book on the movement, put Waco at the center of their motivations, tied closely to Clinton’s gun control push, the steady militarization of law enforcement agencies, and an earlier federal raid that had killed the wife and child of a white supremacist in Ruby Ridge in Idaho. The movement was rooted, Churchill wrote, “in its members’ perception that their government had turned increasingly violent.” One militia leader told him, “Waco was the second shot heard round the world.”
McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran and white nationalist in his 20s, had visited Waco during the siege and was incensed by its bloody outcome. When he set off a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, he billed it as revenge for Waco. He did it on April 19, 1995, the two-year anniversary of the mass death at Mount Carmel.
Militia leaders of the 1990s condemned McVeigh, but as fears of right-wing militancy spiked and investigative pressure intensified, the movement dwindled. Yet Waco remained central to the militant movement’s belief system when it reemerged in 2009 after Barack Obama’s election. Vanderboegh, who’d first become a leader in the 1990s, told Churchill in an interview the historian shared with me that he believed the government had sent a message: From now on, it would be “operating by Waco rules. It’s this catch-22: ‘We will do anything that you can’t keep us from doing.’ And it told the rest of us out here, you know, we’re kind of paying attention and we’re saying, ‘We’re next year’s Davidians, or the year after that. Somebody has got to do something.’”
This created a mindset across the movement, Vanderboegh added, that “[an] attack on one is an attack on all.”
Vanderboegh went on to found the Three Percenters, one of the two largest militant organizations in the post-2009 wave, alongside Rhodes’s Oath Keepers. Rhodes hadn’t been involved in the movement’s earlier iteration but remembered well watching Waco play out on TV as a young libertarian working at a gun store in Nevada. He often cited a quote attributed to Vanderboegh: “No more free Wacos.” For Rhodes, it wasn’t that the Branch Davidians or Koresh were heroes. In his telling, the story was primarily about the bad guys: the Clinton-led government and mainstream politicians and journalists who, as he saw it, “dehumanized” the hard-line Christian gun owners cordoned off in their compound. This dehumanization, he believed, helped to pave the way for the government violence that followed. He worried about a similar dynamic playing out in the political and media climate of the present day. Rhodes, who has a law degree from Yale and is of Mexican descent, seemed to sympathize with one Waco victim in particular: Douglas Wayne Martin, a Black, Harvard-educated attorney in his 40s. Martin called police when the initial ATF raid began, claiming the government had fired the first shots, and then called a city council member, asking him to contact the media. He died in the compound on April 19, along with three of his children.
In an interview in the summer of 2021, as he braced for his own possible arrest, Rhodes recounted the arsenal government forces brought in for the Waco siege and raid — armored vehicles, helicopters from the National Guard — and the violence that followed. He saw the heavy-handed government tactics at Waco as designed “to prove a point, set an example.” I asked him what point they were making. His response: “Don’t fuck with us.” On trial last fall for seditious conspiracy, Rhodes cited Waco again, saying that when he’d infamously gotten the Oath Keepers involved in the Bundy Ranch standoff with federal authorities in 2014, it was to keep the Bundy family “from being Waco’d.”
The contradiction, of course, is that there is no overreach greater than overturning an election, which is what Trump tried to do — and what Rhodes aimed to help him accomplish. In open letters in the buildup to January 6, Rhodes asked Trump to overturn the vote and deploy the National Guard to administer a new election, then call the Oath Keepers and other armed Americans to help put down any pushback. Trump’s segment of the right, Rhodes included, spent 2020 dehumanizing liberals as traitors and Black Lives Matter protesters as domestic terrorists. The idea that America is already in or approaching a form of autocracy was necessary to justify the idea of launching an anti-democratic power grab of their own.
Tom O’Connor, who was an expert on right-wing militant violence in the FBI before retiring in 2019, recalled how Trump’s infamous request in a 2020 debate for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” had been taken by members of the group as a call to action. He worried that — whatever Trump might have intended with the rally’s location and whatever he might say on Saturday evening — the decision to hold it in Waco will send a powerful signal to those who are listening for it: “It will be perceived as a coded message of revolution to those on the extreme.”
I had called up a different former FBI agent, Michael German, after Powell and Giuliani gave their Dominion press conference in November 2020. German had gone undercover in militia groups in the post-Waco era, and he recalled the times during his embeds when the faxes would begin to whir with rumors of black helicopters and warnings that the globalist invasion by forces of the New World Order was finally happening. These were the most dangerous moments, he told me — when militiamen were so paranoid that violence felt more likely. Only in late 2020, the rumor-mongering was happening on a national scale, and the messages were coming from the president and his legal team. As January 6 approached, Rhodes published an open letter urging his members to D.C., “to stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup.”
At Rhodes’s trial, this letter and other extreme rhetoric were used against him. The prosecution never proved that there’d been a plan among Rhodes and the Oath Keepers to storm the Capitol — a fact that gave pause to some journalists observing the proceedings, including me. Prosecutors focused instead on the general sense that Rhodes had given his members that they needed to do something to stop the transfer of power and halt the conspiracy he believed was playing out before it was too late. Trump, more than anyone else, created this sense, yet the buck has not stopped anywhere close to that high. And now again, Trump is asking his supporters to rally to his defense. It reminds me of something Rhodes told me days before his arrest: that Trump had used the Oath Keepers as “cannon fodder.” After Rhodes’s arrest, Powell reportedly stepped in to fund Rhodes’s legal defense. Trump has since vowed that he will pardon January 6 convicts if he returns to the presidency.
“They’re not anti-government. They’re anti-Democrat.”
I was talking recently about militancy with Eric Robinson, a lawyer who was an official with the Joint Special Operations Command until 2018 and before that worked at the National Counterterrorism Center. His professional focus was overseas, and his study of American militancy is personal in nature. It comes from growing up with an interest in America’s Civil War and then seeing one for himself as a captain with the 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad, where he learned, he says, “what civil war thinks and talks like.” Robinson noted how poorly the typical label of “anti-government” fits the militant groups on the right today. “They’re not anti-government. They’re anti-Democrat,” he said. They see themselves, he added, “as the legitimate authority” in America, awaiting the time when they will come to power.
One trait of a successful insurgency is what military strategists call tactical patience. The Taliban had this mindset. So did insurgents in Iraq: Defeats were temporary, and eventually the war would tilt back in their favor. Members of Al Qaeda in Iraq who were imprisoned during the U.S. occupation could wait it out until their side regained enough power to spring them; one of the first things the Islamic State did when it took the city of Mosul in 2014 was open the jails. This is not to ascribe any similarity between people convicted over January 6 and jailed Islamist militants, except for one: Both are cadres of the committed. I imagine Rhodes and others will be paying close attention to Trump’s inaugural rally and wondering what it means for the once and perhaps future president to be giving his speech at the airport in Waco. They might be thinking that all along, time has been on their side.