Wednesday, April 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the assault and burning of the Branch Davidian –an apocalyptic religious movement founded in 1955 – compound in Waco, Texas. Four federal agents lost their lives that day and 82 Davidians, including 28 children, died during the fire after the 51-day siege turned into a conflagration most likely instigated by the Davidians.
For the far right, Waco was a defining moment. Many came to believe the government had intentionally murdered the Davidians, or that the events were proof of a rising “New World Order,” a conspiratorial belief on the far right that the federal government plans to eradicate citizens’ freedoms and take their guns with the ultimate aim of installing a global government. Attacks on federal law enforcement by the far right, which echo today in Trump’s calls to defund the FBI, exploded after Waco.
Though he denies it, Trump surely was tapping into this sentiment by provocatively holding his first 2024 presidential rally in Waco last month.
The events of that day inspired Timothy McVeigh, who was in Waco during the siege, and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols, to bomb an Oklahoma City federal building two years later, the largest domestic terrorist attack in American history. The bombing left 168 dead, including 19 children. The attack was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco fire and followed the playbook of a similar bombing described in the neo-Nazi novel, The Turner Diaries. At Waco, McVeigh had absorbed hatred of federal officials and in his 1995 attack, he targeted the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building because it housed federal law enforcement agencies.
The 1990s saw a massive rise in the antigovernment movement, as militias proliferated, often using the rallying cry of Waco and an earlier standoff that also ended in tragedy between federal law enforcement and a white supremacist family in 1992 at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, as fodder for their antigovernment beliefs. The themes that grew out of Waco and permeated the far right include fears of an out-of-control government hellbent on taking Americans’ rights away, nowadays reimagined as the “Deep State,” fears of jack-booted thugs, a 1990s term, in the form of FBI or other federal agents believed to be dedicated to harming the citizenry, and an imminent government plan to take away guns, and hence the need to armor up and fight for the second amendment. And always lurking in the background were fears of a coming civil war by the government against citizens.
The far-right fervor around Waco remains to this day. Conspiracy theorist and antigovernment activist extraordinaire Alex Jones has talked often of Waco, calling it “the Waco holocaust,” and how the events of that day showed the evils of the federal government. In 2000, he welcomed visitors to a new church on the site and created a video about the siege. Gavin McInnes, founder of the white supremacist Proud Boys, several of whose members are now on trial for seditious conspiracy related to their roles during the January 6 Capitol insurrection, views the Waco siege as proof of government corruption and its willingness to destroy those it sees as its enemies, including US citizens. The list of prominent far-right figures pointing to Waco as evidence for the legitimacy of their antigovernment views goes on and on.
And Timothy McVeigh, whose ideas were formed from the ashes of Waco, remains a hero for many on the far right. To cite one example, his portrait was displayed in the apartment of Brandon Russell, founder of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen group, who was charged in February for a plot to destroy Baltimore’s power grid.
Since Waco, the power and size of the American far right has metastasized, and it now poses not just a threat in terms of domestic terrorism, but a serious threat to American democracy. The January 6 insurrection was the most obvious example of this threat, where conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, antigovernment militia members, and MAGA Republicans united in their effort to stop a peaceful transfer of power. But antigovernment sentiment creeps up in other threatening ways: election deniers often cloak their arguments in supposed proof of nefarious government actors rigging votes.
And this is what Trump wanted to tap into during his defiant March Waco rally. He opened the rally, hand over heart, with a song, “Justice for All” performed by a choir of people imprisoned for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection. January 6 footage played on the big screens behind him. He railed at the justice system for investigating him, calling them “thugs and criminals” and corrupt. With apocalyptic language, Trump pledged to stop these enemies if reelected.
This is all part and parcel of Trump pushing contemporary versions of what motivates the far right, his MAGA base, such as the idea that there is a tyrannical “Deep State” that is out to get him and that he will protect his supporters from, that the government overreaches and is a threat to gun rights, and his more recent calls to defund federal law enforcement. Trump has mixed these antigovernment tropes with outright racism and bigotry, pushing both hate and antigovernment beliefs deep into the mainstream.
That a former president spews these ideas, and his party largely follows suit or stays mum, shows how much the far right has infiltrated the mainstream in the past 30 years. The ideas birthed out of Waco were just 30 years ago pretty fringe; now they are a huge and present threat to our democracy and motivate domestic terrorism. We should ponder that as we think of the legacy of Waco, and all of those who care about democracy should work to push these extreme ideas back to their rightful place on the fringe before it’s too late.