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Christopher ParkerMarch 24, 2023
president donald trump speaks at a podium in front of televised american flagFormer President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in support of the campaign of Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

On Saturday, ending a week of speculation about his possible arrest, former president Donald J. Trump will hold the first major rally of his 2024 presidential bid in Waco, Tex. The choice of location has set off a nationwide conversation over the message Mr. Trump intends to send with the rally.

Thirty years ago, a standoff in Waco between the F.B.I. and the Branch Davidians, an anti-government religious cult, resulted in the deaths of 76 people, including 25 children. Conspiracy theories began to circulate widely that the government intentionally murdered them, prompting a 1999 investigation of the events that led to those deaths.

Former Republican senator of Missouri John Danforth presided over the investigation, authoring what came to be known as the “Danforth report” of his findings. In an interview over the phone with America, he spoke about the experience and the possible implications of Mr. Trump’s decision.

On Saturday, ending a week of speculation about his possible arrest, former president Donald J. Trump will hold the first major rally of his 2024 presidential bid in Waco, Tex.

“At the time that we conducted the investigation, the integrity of government was under attack,” Mr. Danforth said. “The basic concept that in America, government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, all of that was in question.”

Mr. Trump’s team has not publicly admitted to any connection between the Waco tragedy and the venue for the rally, instead claiming that the city simply makes sense for the campaign’s goals.

“[Waco] is centrally located and close to all four of Texas’ biggest metropolitan areas—Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—while providing the necessary infrastructure to hold a rally of this magnitude,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told TIME in a statement.

Experts, however, are not so sure.

“Waco is hugely symbolic on the far right,” Heidi Beirich, the 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.”

“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,” Heidi Beirich said.

Waco was also a singular moment within the F.B.I. Kathleen McChesney, a former head of F.B.I. field offices in Chicago and Portland, said in a phone interview with America that very few situations since then have come close to the number of moving pieces involved in the investigation.

“You have criminal investigation of guns, you have shooting of federal agents, you have the issues regarding potential child abuse,” she said. “Waco was unique.”

Ms. McChesney said that the religious and anti-government overtones of the Waco siege were not originally a factor in the case; when the F.B.I. first sought out the Branch Davidians, it was for illegal modifications of guns. Yet the situation is now remembered in some circles as a stand against government overeach “into a religious area,” she said, which is anachronistic.

“A lot of people used that scenario, to make it fit their ideas,” she said. “That wasn’t how it started.”

Mr. Danforth said he is withholding judgment, but he does not feel confident that Mr. Trump will acknowledge the relevance of the location. He did say, however, that the connections between Mr. Trump’s rally and the furor over the F.B.I. raid run deep.

Mr. Danforth said he has revisited his 1999 report since learning about the Trump rally in Waco and that he noticed similarities between the rhetoric of Mr. Trump and the conspiracy theorists of the 1990s.

One of the most distressing signals of the urgency of the Waco investigation was a 1999 poll by TIME, Mr. Danforth said, which indicated that 61 percent of Americans believed the government was responsible for trapping cult members and burning down the complex. Belief in the false narrative, he said, was widespread and mainstream.

Mr. Trump has frequently made false claims about government-perpetrated conspiracies, including his false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The language and public sentiments in the aftermath of the Waco tragedy sound extremely familiar, Mr. Danforth said.

As of September 2022, 61 percent of Republicans still believed that President Biden had won due to voter fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll.

Mr. Danforth said he has revisited his 1999 report since learning about the Trump rally in Waco and that he noticed similarities between the rhetoric of Mr. Trump and the conspiracy theorists of the 1990s.

“It really is relevant today: how ready so much of the population is to believe conspiracy theories, how willing people are to believe in the dark version of what government is, the whole idea that we’re in a war of us against them,” he said.

“It’s easy for a politician to be divisive. It’s much more rare for a politician to be, as St. Paul would say, an ambassador of reconciliation,” Mr. Danforth said.

“Back in 1999, I guess there was an appetite for it. But I think that playing up to that appetite and the use of it politically is something that is new,” he said.

Mr. Danforth said that he has noticed that politicians have increasingly hijacked divisions, especially religious ones, to cast doubt on the authority and intentions of the government. He gave as an example recent remarks by Senator Josh Hawley and other Republican senators inquiring into anti-Catholic bias in the Department of Justice earlier this year.

An Episcopal priest, Mr. Danforth said that the role of religion in politics has changed drastically since his time in the Senate. He said that he sees a level of polarization that seems antithetical to the tenets of the Christian faith, a faith that many of these politicians share.

“The basic constitutional structure that we have in America is a system that was created for the purpose of holding disparate groups and different ideologies together,” he said. “And the root meaning of ‘religion’ is the same as of ‘ligament’: that which binds things together.”

If politicians continue to use religion as a way to cast doubt on the priorities or legitimacy of the government, Mr. Danforth said, it will point toward “a very grim view of the country.” Old wounds like Waco must be addressed and healed, not reopened, in order to restore trust, he said.

“It’s easy for a politician to be divisive. It’s much more rare for a politician to be, as St. Paul would say, an ambassador of reconciliation,” he said.

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