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Trump's rhetoric is already dangerous. Taking it to Waco is an escalation.

Over the last three decades, extremists have invoked the FBI's raid on the Branch Davidian compound to justify violence against the government.

Donald Trump is scheduled to hold his first major campaign rally Saturday, his first since he announced his 2024 presidential run in November and two days after he warned of potential "death and destruction" if a New York grand jury charges him with a crime. Trump could’ve held this rally anywhere and at any time. But he chose Waco, Texas. And he chose a date that coincides with the 30th anniversary of the federal government’s siege of a compound controlled by the Branch Davidian cult. Anti-government extremists have long cited the government's raid of the compound as an example of what they consider government tyranny.

Experts have appropriately sounded the alarm that by staging a rally in Waco, Trump is courting anti-government extremists.

Experts have appropriately sounded the alarm that by staging a rally in Waco, Trump is courting anti-government extremists. Their concerns are especially valid given that Trump announced his rally on March 17 as media reports were swirling that a grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg could soon vote to indict him on charges related to hush money he paid adult film star Stormy Daniels.

On his social media platform Thursday night, Trump posted, "What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?" Only a "degenerate psychopath" would do such a thing, he wrote.

On Friday, law enforcement sources told NBC News that the FBI and NYPD were investigating a letter including a death threat and white powder that was sent to Bragg's office.

On Feb. 28, 1993, officers what was then known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to enter the premises of the Branch Davidian compound to arrest its leader, David Koresh, based on evidence that the group had amassed a stockpile of illegal weapons. When the ATF approached the grounds, a shootout ensued that left four ATF agents dead and 16 agents wounded.

Thus began a 51-day standoff during which the FBI attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Koresh. Acting on orders from President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, the FBI raided the compound on April 19, 1993. According to the Justice Department, members of the Branch Davidians then set multiple fires within the compound. When it was all over, 75 people were dead, including 25 children.

In the three decades since then, far-right groups and so-called patriot movements have invoked Waco to justify anti-government violence. Eric Ward, an expert on extremism who serves as the executive vice president of Race Forward and is a senior adviser to Western States Center, a social justice organization that advocates for “inclusive democracy,” told me in an email that the Waco siege has inspired “a trail of bombings, shootouts, murders, and a host of illegal activity, the most known being the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK two years later where 168 people, including 19 children, were murdered.”

Timothy McVeigh carried out that attack in 1995, on the second anniversary of the FBI’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound, and in a 2001 interview from prison he said: “Waco started this war. Hopefully, Oklahoma would end it. The only way they’re going to feel something, the only way they’re going to get the message, is, quote, with a body count.”

Far-right groups and so-called “patriot movements” have invoked Waco to justify anti-government violence.

Ward said in his email to me, “The founders of the American Militia Movement constructed their popularity by promoting conspiratorial myths built around the standoff at Waco, Texas.” He then added: “Trump seeks to do the same.”

Ward isn’t the only one expressing such worry. Heidi Beirich, a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told USA Today, “There’s not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred — Christian nationalist skepticism of the government — and I find it hard to believe that Trump doesn’t know that Waco represents all of these things.” 

Oren Segal, the vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told USA Today, “If Trump is promoting this idea of government overreach — of targeting him — it’s kind of the perfect place to send a message, and will be understood that way whether he intends it or not.”

Donald Trump's supporters near his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla., on March 20, 2023.
Donald Trump's supporters near his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Will Trump use his rally to ratchet up his anti-government attacks directed at federal and state officials prosecuting him? Knowing Trump, the answer is yes. For example, after the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago residence in August pursuant to a search warrant seeking classified documents, Trump declared at a rally the next month, “The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters.” 

Thursday, on his social media platform, Trump used all caps to attack Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, as an “animal.” He claimed Bragg was engaged in tactics befitting the “Gestapo” and then scoffed at calls that his supporters should remain peaceful because the country, in his words, is being “destroyed” by Bragg’s threats to prosecute him. These are words you would expect to hear from anti-government extremists, not from a former president who is the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

In “Waco: American Apocalypse,” the new Netflix documentary series, we’re reminded that those following Koresh were blindly loyal to him.

Beyond that, Trump has shown zero remorse for the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol his supporters waged in an attempt to keep him in power after he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden. Trump has also claimed that those who attacked the Capitol were being treated “unfairly,” and he has floated the idea of pardoning those convicted of Jan. 6-related crimes if he’s elected again.

In “Waco: American Apocalypse,” the Netflix three-part documentary series released Wednesday, we’re reminded that those following Koresh were blindly loyal to him. Some considered him a messiah and made their willingness to die for him clear. Koresh, who loved their loyalty, referred to himself as a prophet. Bob Ricks, the lead FBI agent during the siege, says of Koresh in the documentary: “This man has total control over everybody in there. The only will that exists is that of one person.” He adds, “We knew this was not going to turn out well.” 

We could have said the same thing when Trump got elected in 2016, when he refused to concede his loss in 2020 and especially on the morning of Jan. 6 when he told his supporters, “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

What’s Trump going to say in Waco? We don’t know. But given his history, the history of the place where he’ll be speaking and his apparent anger over the multiple investigations into his activities, things’ turning out well isn’t a reasonable expectation.