What Waco Means Now

  • Themes: History, Politics

The outlandish ideas of US conspiracists caught fire in Texas 30 years ago. Their flame still burns.

A ball of fire erupts from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, April 19, 1993.
A ball of fire erupts from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, April 19, 1993. Credit: Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

The thirtieth anniversary of the Waco siege, which came to a bloody end on April 19, 1993, has rarely seemed so resonant. As a much-heralded new Netflix series, Waco: American Apocalypse, charts, the siege began on February 28 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tried to raid the compound of the ‘Branch Davidian’ religious cult north-east of the Texan city. The group stood accused of stockpiling illegal guns, but refused to surrender. In the ensuing battle, six died, along with four ATF officers. So began a 51-day siege, perpetuated by the cult leader David Koresh’s obduracy, exacerbated by divisions within the FBI. Finally, federal agents pumped tear gas into the compound, expecting people to surrender. Instead, the building caught fire, killing 76, including 28 children, and Koresh.

The Netflix series is packed with compelling testimony, but Waco wasn’t an ‘American Apocalypse’ simply because so many died – or even because the cult believed Armageddon was imminent. On 25 March, three days after the series was released, Donald Trump appeared at Waco airport, and tapped into the dangerous symbolism it had omitted.

Faced with multiple legal investigations, Trump’s speech was driven by rage against federal persecution. He declared the 2024 election was ‘the final battle’ with the ‘demonic forces’ of the ‘deep state’. Much as his team deny deliberately choosing this place and time, it sounded echoes they must have expected. To understand the forces at work here, we need to trace what ‘Waco’ came to mean afterwards, and how it brought to life a fundamentally American nightmare.

In the early 1990s, America saw the emergence of a ‘patriot movement’, and with it, the formation of hundreds of ‘militias’. This drew in part on far-right ideas, but tapped into broader antipathy towards a changing world. After twelve years of Republican rule, the socially liberal Democrat Bill Clinton had become president, intent on restricting Americans’ right to bear arms. New treaties opened up a globalised economy, a ‘New World Order’, which pushed American industrial jobs abroad. For men stuck in dead-end work, the movement offered the chance to play a vital part in an epic, righteous struggle. The diktats of distant politicians were transfigured into a tyrannical foe.

In this context, Waco was interpreted by the movement’s ideologues as Exhibit A in their case that America was on the brink of political apocalypse. Linda Thompson, a lawyer from Indianapolis, produced a video called Waco, The Big Lie, which claimed to show that federal forces had deliberately started the fire. Broadcasting on shortwave radio from Waco a week after the siege ended, the conspiracist Milton William Cooper told listeners he had predicted a massacre, and that it would escalate across America, adding: ‘Folks, you’re next.’ A Michigan University janitor called Mark Koernke took to touring the country, preaching the need to prepare to resist an imminent totalitarian takeover.

The scenario that emerged from all this became alarmingly detailed. Gun control was just the first step: it would remove Americans’ defence against dictatorship. The seizure of power would be led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), invoking emergency statutes to impose martial law, and a Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force (MJTF), incorporating state police, national guard and co-opted street gangs. FEMA would emerge as the ‘secret government’; the MJTF would conduct house-to-house searches, seize guns, split families, and enslave civilians in work brigades and concentration camps, including a million-acre facility standing ready in Alaska. Detainees in the western half of the US might be processed in Oklahoma City. Civilian disturbances were to be crushed with military force, under a chapter of the United Nations Charter on dealing with acts of aggression. The US would be cut into ten regions of a new world state, under the heel of UN troops – Russian, Mongolian, German, Venezuelan. Already, 15,000 Gurkhas were supposedly lying in wait in Michigan. Stickers that had started to appear on the backs of road signs would help those troops find their way through hostile American terrain. The mysterious black helicopters that patriots kept sighting were ready to carry the troops to enforce this totalitarian New World Order.

One of those who saw Waco as a harbinger of all this was a young ex-soldier called Timothy McVeigh. He had gone to watch the siege, and was later influenced by Cooper, from whom he bought a copy of Thompson’s Big Lie video. McVeigh wrote to the ATF, calling them ‘fascist tyrants’; on 19 April, 1995, he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 people. After this atrocity, the militia ideologues’ nightmare of a rapidly emerging police state seemed to fade from view. But it has been sustained by, among others, the Texan broadcaster Alex Jones, who made his name campaigning for a memorial to the Davidians who died at Waco.

So when Trump went to Waco to brand next year’s election the ‘final battle’, many Americans will have heard more than just an echo of the tragedy. When he swore to ‘totally obliterate the deep state’, to ‘drive out the globalists’ and ‘to ‘demolish tyranny’, he was activating a narrative that began before the stand-off in 1993, and has never gone away. The rally opened with footage from the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to the tune of the ‘J6 Prison Choir’, whose members were jailed for their role in the assault, singing ‘Justice for All’. Here was another supposed rebellion against the ‘tyranny’ of the ‘deep state’. In his speech, Trump railed at the way ‘American Patriots are being arrested and held in captivity like animals’.

And beneath all this is the deepest possible echo from American history. Astonishingly, the FBI chose to trigger the end of the Waco siege on the anniversary of April 19, 1775: the day the American Revolution began. It was not a resonance the 1990s patriot movement missed. After all, invoking this narrative of rebellion against tyranny is intrinsic to America. It is also playing with fire.


Phil Tinline