Donald Trump wants to be the charismatic leader of an apocalyptic cult: Yeah, it’s an overreach

Republicans certainly worked themselves into fits of fake umbrage over the past weekend at the very idea that Donald Trump was celebrating the infamous Branch Davidian standoff of 1983, simply because he held a rally during the 30th anniversary of that event and very close to its Waco, Texas location. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proclaimed “I picked Waco!” and said it was “bullshit fake news” to suggest that Trump was dog-whistling the far right, which long ago bought into conspiracy theories depicting Branch Davidian leader David Koresh as the victim of religious persecution.

(To be clear: There are legitimate criticisms of federal law enforcement decisions made during the siege, but the reality is that Koresh abused children. He also told his followers to commit suicide, as both recorded and autopsy evidence show.)

All this showy GOP outrage was obvious bad faith, even before Trump delivered his long and petulant speech at Saturday’srally. No one really believes that a bunch of political pros just forgot the time and place of an event that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and launched the career of Infowars host Alex Jones. Then there’s the fact that Trump has been trying to rewrite the history of Jan. 6 to turn the villains into heroes, much as conspiracy theorists have tried to do with the Branch Davidians. Trump spent the days before the Waco rally trying to gin up his followers for violence against government officials, posting “predictions” of “death & destruction” if he’s (someday, perhaps) indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and scoffing at those calling for peace. 

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But after Trump’s Waco speech, there should be no room for any lingering doubt as to whether Trump is leaning into his identity as a self-created cult leader in his own right. His rhetoric during his now-typical stemwinder wasn’t just whiny, but downright Koresh-like in its apocalyptic tones. He described America as a “failing nation” whose “economy has collapsed,” where “large packs of sadistic criminals and thieves are able to systemically rob stores and beat up their customers.” He promised to deliver “retribution” for the supposed wrongs inflicted on his overwhelmingly white and Christian supporters. It brought to mind the latest Waco documentary for Netflix, which features footage of Koresh coaching a child follower to say that God would smite their enemies. 

Trump wasn’t just tapping into three decades of risible far-right mythology about Koresh and the Branch Davidians. His rally also featured overt glorification of the Jan. 6 insurrection, including Trump’s now-standard use of treacly music recorded by jailed defendants accused of serious crimes at the Capitol on that day. Around the same time, Trump’s Republican allies in Congress also celebrated the Capitol riot. On Thursday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. visited paid a visit to Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt, who was killed during the insurrection and has become seen as a far-right martyr. The next day, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia led a band of fellow Republicans to meet with imprisoned Jan. 6 defendants in D.C., giving them high fives and calling them “political prisoners.”

Trump’s entire Waco spectacle was a barely-veiled threat, aimed at prosecutors or anyone else who might try to hold Trump accountable for his crimes. Trump is trying to signal that he’s got legions of followers ready to kill and die for him, as did Koresh, whose unwillingness to accept the consequences for stockpiling illegal weapons led directly to dozens of deaths, including the murder of four federal officers.

Honestly, Trump may be more like Charles Manson, the 1960s California cult leader who sent his followers to murder random white people in Los Angeles in a bizarre bid to start a race war. Like Manson, Trump is too much of a coward to put his own hide on the line, and expects his loyalists to commit violence on his orders. As with Manson, Trump’s schemes largely depend on channeling the racist paranoia of white conservatives. Manson thought he could pin his group’s murders on Black people, while Trump thinks he can deflect blame for his own crimes onto Black officials like Bragg or Georgia prosecutor, Fani Willis, who is investigating Trump for his attempts to steal the 2020 election. It is worth remembering that Trump’s most popular ally on Fox News, host Tucker Carlson, has a Manson-like obsession with the concept of “race war.” 

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But Trump is probably overrating his charisma in comparing himself to any infamous cult leaders. He seems visibly frustrated because his supporters are clearly reluctant to sacrifice their freedom, their futures or their lives  themselves over these still-hypothetical future indictments. Yes, an alarming number of people showed up to the Waco rally. But it feels a lot like they turned out as a show of tribal loyalty to the MAGA movement and to thumb their noses at liberals, more than out of some personal fascination with Trump. Once Trump started speaking, the crowd began to thin out quickly. They were there to socialize with each other and mug for the cameras, not to hang on Trump’s every word. 

Yes, Bragg’s office has been getting death threats. That sucks, but it’s not surprising, especially in an era where death threats are exchanged regularly on social media over things like disliking a Marvel movies or believing that brunch is overrated. No one doubts that an unhinged individual, or even a handful of them, may be willing to act on Trump’s relentless and unsubtle pleas for violence. But so far, the story is not about Trump exerting some Koresh-style hold on his followers. 

The Jan. 6 insurrection was quite another matter: The people who rioted that day thought they were acting to overturn a fictional liberal establishment and seizing political power not just for Trump but their retrograde white-right movement. But amid Trump’s indictment panic, many of his supporters seem to view his histrionic behavior the same way the mainstream press does — as the ravings of a terminal narcissist that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Of course it’s frustrating that they think that level of narcissism is acceptable in a political leader. One could write a book — and many people have tried — about why Trump gets so much backing from people who understand full well that he’s a clown. MAGA is a movement that opposes democracy and views violence as a legitimate political tactic. But right now it doesn’t look like a suicide cult built around one man’s personality. 

Read more

on the latest chapter of the Trump drama


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