Did Trump learn nothing from Jan. 6?

Donald Trump in Waco, TX
Donald Trump in Waco, TX Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images
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When former President Donald Trump took the stage in Waco, Texas, on Saturday for his first major campaign rally of the 2024 election cycle, he preceded his remarks by standing solemnly as the PA system blared "Justice For All." That is, his iTunes-topping recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance interspersed with the Star Spangled Banner — recorded with an assist from the "J6 Choir" of accused participants in the Capitol riot currently housed in a Washington D.C. correctional facility.

That Trump would direct such reverence to those particular supporters is hardly new; he has spent much of his post-presidency championing their — and ultimately, his own — cause. But to many observers, Saturday's rally, held in a city infamous for the government's disastrous 1993 raid on a Branch Davidian compound that killed more than 70 members of the apocalyptic religious sect, was more than just Trump's typical post-electoral grievance airing. Rather, by ahistorically invoking the virtue of the Jan. 6 attack at the site of what's since become a shibboleth for right-wing, anti-government sympathizers, some worry Trump has embraced an even more dangerous strain of far-right extremism than ever before.

A 'train whistle'

Calling Waco "hugely symbolic" for the far right, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism cofounder Heidi Beirich pointed out the city's significance for multiple strains of extremisms, including anti-government groups and Christian nationalism, telling USA Today that Trump is "trying to tap into" that sentiment. He's doing so by presenting himself as "being unjustly accused, like the Branch Davidians were unjustly accused and the deep state is out to get them all."

Citing the timing of Trump's rally to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Branch Davidian siege, Southern Poverty Law Center Data Analytics Deputy Director Megan Squire told the publication she couldn't "fathom what that's about other than just a complete dog whistle — actually forget dog whistle, that is just a train whistle to the folks who still remember that event and are still mad about it."

The Waco rally came after days of heightened rhetoric from Trump on his Truth Social platform, journalist Mike Giglio pointed out in The Intercept, after the ex-president warned of "death and destruction" and other increasingly apocalyptic predictions should he be indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg over hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The cumulative effect, Giglio explained, is that "these statements channel the same anxieties that Waco has long stirred about the existential danger of a federal government controlled by Democrats."

"In the case of Waco, it is not just a provocation but a signal, likely to be read by those who have used force on Trump's behalf as an invitation," CNN's Nicole Hemmer wrote ahead of this weekend's rally. "For Trump, whose first term ended with an assault on the U.S. Capitol, the choice to rally in Waco sends a clear message that will energize proponents of far-right extremism among his base."

"His choice of Waco on the anniversary of the Branch Davidian standoff was to embrace the right-wing extremists who gave him the violent protests he craves," anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project asserted. "His followers got the message, loud and clear." The Los Angeles Times also made explicit the connection between Trump's recent pivot even further right with the events of Jan. 6, writing that "some of his recent rhetoric, including at the rally, has echoed language he used before the 2021 Capitol insurrection by a mob of his supporters seeking to stop the transfer of power to Democrat Joe Biden, who won the presidential election." PBS News similarly linked Trump's ongoing attacks on DA Bragg with "a powdery substance [...] found with a threatening letter in a mailroom at Bragg's offices" the day before the rally. The substance was later determined to be nontoxic.

'He should be running from that'

Even some of Trump's onetime reliable allies at Fox News seemed alarmed by the former president's new wholehearted embrace of the Jan. 6 attack, with Fox & Friends cohost Brian Kilmeade calling the rally's use of the J6 Choir "insane."

"He should be running from that, period," Kilmeade suggested. "I don't care his point of view, that is not a good thing for him. I thought that was absolutely awful. Even though he is winning in the polls, that will not help."

Not that Trump may have much of a choice. As conservative commentator David French wrote in The New York Times after the Texas event: "if you think for a moment that there's any Trumpworld regret over the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rally provided a decisive response." But, French noted, that rebuttal may be less a conscious decision than one of sheer momentum. "There may have been a time when Trump truly commanded his movement," French wrote. "That time is past. His movement now commands him. Fed by conspiracies, it is hungry for confrontation, and rallies like Waco demonstrate its dominance."

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