Unlike the various members of Congress who gave perfunctory speeches at former president Donald J. Trump’s rally in Waco on Saturday, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick seemed genuinely happy to be there, dancing onstage to his intro music. At Trump’s first official rally of his 2024 campaign, Patrick came out punching. “Let me dispel some fake news right now,” he told the audience, some 10,000 strong. “You see all these stories that the president chose this town because of the anniversary of an event that happened thirty years ago.”
That would be, of course, the bad bit of business that happened in Waco in the spring of 1993, when a 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement agencies and a religious cult ended in a catastrophic fire and 86 deaths. The siege deepened distrust of the feds and spurred the growth of anti-government and white nationalist militias nationwide: Timothy McVeigh was inspired by what happened in Waco to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City two years later. Patrick said the connection to this rally was nonsense. “That is pure bullshit fake news,” he said. “I picked Waco.” Trump’s campaign asked Patrick to suggest a city, the lieutenant governor recounted, and Patrick chose a city that he knew to be God-fearing.
Well, okay. To Patrick’s point, it’s tempting for us in the fake-news media to make too much of the anniversary. The bloodiest day of the siege was its last, April 19: March 25, 1993, by contrast, looks to have been a pretty boring day. But when history pokes its head up like this, even in coincidences, it’s worth taking note. On August 3, 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan kicked off his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he touted his commitment to “states’ rights,” a concept that had a lot of euphemistic power in the Deep South. Philadelphia was famous for only one other thing—the infamous 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, which helped drag the federal government into an earnest commitment to the business of civil rights in the first place.
For Trump to hold his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco is also on the nose, though maybe not in the way he might have intended. The current head of the Branch Davidians—yeah, they’re still around—told the Texas Tribune that “he is making a statement, I believe, by coming to these stomping grounds, where the government and the FBI laid siege on this community, just like they laid siege on Mar-a-Lago.” For Trump, it is unfortunate to be compared to David Koresh—making a last stand, not caring too much about his flock. But the Branch Davidian leader who drew the analogy is not wrong. Consider the words of Trump and the other speakers. Paranoid, conspiratorial, and anti-government rhetoric that belonged to the fringe in the 1990s popped up again and again in their speeches. Trump’s reelection message is simple: “I am your retribution.” If I don’t win, the country burns. And while that may sound fine to many Republicans, there’s a corollary: If I don’t win the nomination, the party burns.
First, the party. Many Republican donors, leaders, and thoughtfluencers would clearly love to be rid of Trump: Florida governor Ron DeSantis will do just fine. Earlier this month, DeSantis came through Texas to raise money for local GOP groups and introduce himself. He got a great reception. He’s pugnacious, and the base likes that. But he’s a long way away from the kind of stardom that would enable him to draw a crowd of 10,000 on an airport tarmac in a midsized city in Texas. As long as Trump has this base—and boy, does he have it—he is going to have a lot of influence over how events unfold.
Along with the fans on that airport tarmac—waiting for Trump Force One’s much-belated flyover and landing in front of a red carpet—was a strong showing of Texas GOP officials, especially for an event this early in the primary. In addition to Patrick, agriculture commissioner Sid Miller spoke. It’s no surprise that they attended: they come to every Trump rally they can. But also in the audience were Mayra Flores, a former congresswoman; Wesley Hunt, who represents a district in Houston—both up-and-coming GOP talents—and Roger Williams, a veteran congressman whose district stretches from Abilene to Fort Worth.
Patrick and Miller enthusiastically endorsed the former president. “When Donald Trump was president there was no DEI or ESG or drag queen shows with children,” said Patrick. “He wouldn’t have put up with that.” (All three things existed before 2020, of course.) Miller cast contemporary political division in stark, dark terms. “When I started in politics a few years back, it was the Republicans versus the Democrats. And then . . . it became conservatives against liberals. Now we’ve gone beyond that. And I’m convinced today, it’s patriots versus the traitors,” he said, quickly clarifying, “And I’m a patriot!”
By starting his campaign so early and putting GOP officials on the record, Trump surely hopes to lock in the support of party notables. The most newsworthy part of Trump’s remarks in Waco was an extensive diatribe about DeSantis, whom he characterized as spineless and said came to power only because he begged for an endorsement in 2018. “We got him the nomination. We then got him the election.” He imitated DeSantis in a pleading, whiny voice: “Sir, if you endorse me, I’ll win. Please, please, sir, endorse me.” DeSantis wanted to “destroy” Social Security and Medicare, Trump said. Florida was “successful for decades,” and its hot economy had nothing to do with Ron.
Candidates typically strike a positive note at the beginning of a campaign and reach down for handfuls of mud when crunch time comes. DeSantis has not even announced his run, and Trump has already insinuated that his likely opponent had improper relationships with high school girls and hinted that DeSantis is gay. There’s a year to go before the nomination is decided. And if DeSantis or someone else wins, will Trump go gentle into that good night, urging all his dispirited fans to back the GOP? Fat chance.
In the meantime, Trump will be stoking some pretty dangerous sentiment. Many American Republicans, from the rank and file to Trump and members of Congress, have come to argue that those arrested for storming and ransacking parts of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 are “political prisoners” who are the victims of federal persecution and need to be freed. Aging rocker Ted Nugent, who started Trump’s preshow with his version of the national anthem, led the crowd in “a moment of silence for the political prisoners in the gulags of Washington, D.C., because of jackbooted thugs in our own government.”
The veneration of a gang that undertook one of history’s dumbest coup attempts bodes ill for all of us. When Trump came on stage, it was to the sound of the J6 Prison Choir’s recently released single—recorded on a jailhouse phone. Men arrested after January 6 chant “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while Trump himself recites the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a remarkable fact about the Trump rallies that after nearly eight years, they continue to get weirder. He used to come onstage to Elton John.
And they’ll get weirder still, surely. One thing most speakers at Saturday’s rally seemed to agree on: the country is in the pisser, and they have nothing to lose. “The whole world sucks and America’s catching up,” said Nugent, by way of benediction. Trump wasn’t much cheerier. “We are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation,” he said. “We are a nation that in many ways has become a joke. And we are a nation that’s hostile to liberty, freedom, and faith.”
How could the country be in such dismal shape two years after the end of the greatest, most productive presidential term in history, as Patrick deemed it? Partisans always think the country has gone to hell the minute the other guy takes over, of course. But Trump has a problem in his second reelection campaign: his lack of durable achievements from the four years he was in office. The two most notable accomplishments he could claim are the speedy development of the COVID vaccine and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But he won’t be running on either. Much of his base hates the vaccine, and he has reportedly acknowledged in private that the death of Roe is bad politics.
The struggle to find achievements to boast about led to some unintentional comedy as Trump’s warm-up speakers tried to explain why he had to come back. Miller’s speech offered his “twenty-point plan” to fix the country: he named pressing issues—so-called “genital mutilation” of transgender Texans, “putting Russia and China in their place,” et cetera—and then gave his solution: “Reelect Donald J. Trump!”
The biggest applause-generating line from Miller was his call to finish the border wall. When it came time for Trump to celebrate his first term, though, he bragged about the wall. “Completed that task,” he said, “totally as promised.”