As he faces possible criminal indictment, former President Donald Trump resumes high-profile political rallies Saturday in a unique place in the political world: Waco, Texas.
While Trump is accused of possibly playing to extremists for scheduling the rally during the 30th anniversary of the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, the ex-president has a variety of reasons for choosing a city and state that are important in many political ways.
Waco is in the heart of Trump country, Texas division; a region of religious and anti-federal government conservatives very receptive to Trumpian politics. It’s also about as centrally located as you can get in Texas, within 200 miles of heavily Republican areas around Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.
“Waco is a reliable Republican area, with Republican representation at nearly every level,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican political strategist. “Feels rural. Culturally very conservative. Very pro gun. Very socially conservative.”
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Waco is home to Baylor University and Dr. Pepper, and near the ranch in Crawford once owned by Republican President George W. Bush. Russia President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the area during the second Bush presidency.
In short, there are a lot of reasons for a Republican politician to visit Waco, although focus has turned to one: The 1993 raid-and-fire that claimed more than 70 lives.
‘They’re still talking about Waco’
It has been three decades since agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Branch Davidian compound and ran into a gun battle from the occupants. That began a 51-day standoff that ended with a tear gas raid and fire that destroyed the compound and left nearly 80 people dead.
Some far-right conservatives regard the 1993 fiasco as a deadly example of federal power. One of them, Timothy McVeigh, retaliated by bombing the Oklahoma City federal bombing exactly two years later, on April 19, 1995.
“I mean, they’re still talking about Waco as kind of this touchstone where they can refer back to as an example of extreme government overreach,” said Stuart Wright, the chair of the Department of Sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
The Trump event could motivate white supremacists and anti-government extremists, as well as right-wing populists, evangelical Christians, and Christian nationalists who love the ex-president’s style, said Wright and other analysts of the phenomenon.
“If you wanted to put in brief what is the lasting effect of the arrival of Donald Trump into American politics it’s bringing the most extreme bits of America into the mainstream,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Center for Right-Wing studies at the University of California Berkeley.
An ‘ideal location’
Trump aides and allies said the Branch Davidian episode has nothing to do with the selection of Waco for Saturday’s rally.
In a written statement, Trump’s campaign said it chose Waco because Texas is a Super Tuesday primary state and the city is as close a central location as you can find within the sprawl of Texas. Waco is within 200 miles or so of four major media markets: Dallas-Fort Worth; Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
The campaign added that the Waco Regional Airport has the right infrastructure to support a Trump rally. Throughout his political career, Trump has often held campaign stops at airports and used his airplane as a backdrop, whether it was Air Force One or the current “Trump Force One.”
“This is the ideal location to have as many supporters from across the state and in neighboring states attend this historic rally,” the campaign said.
There’s also Texas itself: Republican Texas.
A Democrat has not won statewide in Texas since 1994 (and that was a conservative Democrat, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock). A Democratic presidential candidate has not claimed Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The growth of Republican Texas since World War II has many roots, including the rise of the oil industry, resistance to civil rights and other federal legislation, and the rise of suburban voters. Gun rights are big in Texas, as are religious conservatives who oppose abortion.
Texas has also been fertile ground for far-right political movements, from the John Birch society to QAnon.
And while Trump faces possible indictment in New York City over hush-money payments, Texas Republicans have never been known to be fastidious about such things. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton won reelection last year despite being under indictment in a securities fraud case.
Like Trump, Paxton denies the allegation.
Playing to the base
Trump is expected to use the Waco rally to attack the many investigations against him, and to ask supporters to protest them as well. In addition to the New York case, which involves payments to an alleged former mistress, Trump is being investigated in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Trump has long claimed that the investigations are “a witch hunt,” and that messaging continues as the prospect of a criminal indictment lingers. His campaign’s emails this week include mentions of a “deep state,” and a “globalist cabal,” language that echoes the QAnon conspiracy theory.
In a video posted this week, Trump told his followers, “They’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you.” In a Truth Social post, he berated prosecutors for even considering indictments when it is “known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country.”
Trump may well use this rally for “emboldening Far Right forces,” said Edward Miller, a Northeastern University history professor and author of a book called “Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy.”
“Trump is using this to rally anti-government support,” Miller said. “He just has an affinity with that element.”
Trump wouldn’t be the first presidential candidate to make a play for the base like this.
Miller and other analysts pointed to Ronald Reagan, who kicked off his general election campaign in August of 1980 by traveling to a small town in central Mississippi, despite criticism that his rally fell nearly 16 years to the day after the discovery of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers.
Waco also has large pockets of religious conservatives, a big part of Trump’s political base.
The biggest example, Baylor, describes itself as a “Private Christian University and a Nationally Ranked Research Institution.” The school’s nationally ranked football and men’s and women’s basketball programs have also brought publicity to Waco.
Wright said Saturday’s rally may be an opportunity to appeal to religious followers like evangelical Christians who already support him by a wide margin, and some Christian nationalists who “are definitely in his camp.”
“There’s kind of this persecution complex within parts of the Christian community — they’re being persecuted, complaining about taking Christ out of Christmas,” he said. “But these are myths that appeal widely to these groups, and so Trump being a clever politician has always tried to exploit that. So any opportunity he sees, I’m sure he’s going to take advantage of it.”
Riling up Democrats
While Trump is calling for massive protests, many analysts are skeptical the rally would turn violent. And one said the choice of venue could more be about annoying liberals than riling up extremists.
“January 6th will not be reproduced, and there are a couple of reasons for that,” Rosenthal said. “One is the consequences — not during the last two weeks of Donald Trump’s administration but under the Biden Department of Justice — have been really severe, and in the simplest sense a lot of people who would have done violence are now in jail.”
Trump is expected to give shout-outs at the Waco rally to local Republican leaders, though at least one will not be there. Pete Sessions, the local Republican Congressman and longtime Trump supporter, encouraged others to attend but cited a prior commitment in East Texas.
Nicole Hemmer, author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s”, said Trump specializes in “triggering the libs” – which she defines as “picking something you know will provoke outrage and draw media coverage.”
One example was Trump’s decision to hold a rally in Tulsa on June 19, 2020 – Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery, in a city noted for a 1921 massacre of Black people. Trump proceeded with the event after moving it back a day.
“It all fits together in anti-Washington themes,” she said.