The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Waco, Trump stokes anger and valorizes violent actors

At a dubiously timed rally, he pairs calls for resistance with tacit assurances that those who did would be defended

Donald Trump supporters stand for “Justice for All,” a song that incorporates the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem, during a campaign rally Saturday in Waco, Tex. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump walked down the steps from his private jet and onto the stage at his rally in Waco, Tex., on Saturday, the sound system blaring Lee Greenwood’s treacly jingle, “God Bless the U.S.A.” The crowd, some of whom had been waiting hours to see the former president, cheered enthusiastically.

Before Trump began to speak, however, there was one other bit of patriotic business at hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” an announcer told the MAGA-bedecked assembly, “please rise and place your hand over your heart for” — and here’s where you expect the disembodied voice to say “the Pledge of Allegiance,” but that is not what he said — “the number one song on iTunes, Amazon and the Billboard charts: ‘Justice for All,’ featuring President Donald J. Trump and the J6 choir!”

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One Billboard chart, actually, but that’s not the point. The point is first that Trump turned the pledge — which, in “Justice for All,” he intones over voices singing the national anthem — into a salable commodity. Second, and more importantly, this particular presentation of the pledge is about valorizing and celebrating the violent actors who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — an effort focused on overturning the results of the 2020 election and helping Trump retain power. The voices singing the anthem purportedly belong to people jailed for their roles in the riot that day.

As Trump stood on that stage in Waco, hand over his heart, large screens showed the video created to accompany the song. At first, the video is standard D.C. monuments and waving flags, though with a healthy dose of Trump. But then, halfway through, it shifts. Now, the imagery is of the Capitol on that grim day, but not of rioters pushing back law enforcement and beating police. Instead, the imagery is of police using tear gas and pushing back the rioters. It’s a clumsy inversion of the day’s narrative, one befitting an attempt to turn the rioters into the day’s victims.

That effort isn’t new for Trump or his allies such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). From the first days after the riot, there’s been an effort to depict the arrests of those who participated as politically motivated, as an attempt by an overbearing government to mistreat and exact revenge on political opponents.

This is a useful narrative for a number of people on the fringe right. For Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example, the argument helps erode viewer confidence in anyone not named Tucker Carlson. For Trump, the argument is more directly self-serving: If government investigators are in the habit of punishing right-wing actors because they are right wing, then clearly that’s what all of these investigations of Trump are about, too.

Once Trump started speaking, that was his central theme. He spent as much time as he could railing against the possibility he might get indicted by the federal government or local prosecutors like Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. “The Biden regime’s weaponization of law enforcement against their political opponents is something straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show,” he said at one point. “From the beginning it’s been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another.” His campaign printed and distributed signs that read “WITCH HUNT.”

“Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” he said at another point. This isn’t subtle, starting a rally by intertwining sympathy for people who’d tried to violently attack government leaders with patriotic verbiage and then castigating government leaders anew. But relative to the prior few days, it was fairly understated.

Last week, Trump disparaged the possibility of an indictment from Bragg’s office as leading to “potential death & destruction.” He insisted that “OUR COUNTRY IS BEING DESTROYED, AS THEY TELL US TO BE PEACEFUL,” obviously suggesting that the opposite is warranted. On Friday, Bragg’s office received an envelope including white powder — which NBC News reported, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, was accompanied by a message reading, “ALVIN: I AM GOING TO KILL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

We’ve seen this pattern before, and not just on Jan. 6. When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s Florida home, for documents with classification markings last year, Trump pilloried the bureau. A few days later, a Trump supporter showed up at a field office near Cincinnati with a rifle. That man, Ricky Shiffer, was shot to death by law enforcement.

Also on Friday, Greene — who spoke before Trump at the rally — led other legislators in a tour of the D.C. jail where prisoners awaiting trial for alleged Capitol riot crimes are being held. Greene’s framing has long been that the conditions in the jail are dire, and intentionally so; that the Capitol riot defendants are being mistreated because of their alleged crimes. Others (including people who joined her Friday) have responded by noting that Greene is taking a valid complaint — that jails and prisons are often unacceptably grim — and overlaying politics.

But, again, the message: The fringe right will defend you and protect you if you engage in pro-Trump violence. Trump has pledged to pardon those convicted or accused of Jan. 6-related crimes if he retakes office. Why wouldn’t a person who engaged in other threats against Trump’s opponents assume they’d earn the same response? (Should someone think so, they might want to remember that a president can pardon only federal crimes.)

Thirty years before Trump’s rally this weekend, Waco was in the news for another reason. A federal law enforcement effort to arrest a religious leader at a compound near the city had gone bad, leading to multiple deaths and a weeks-long standoff. The raid on the Branch Davidian compound became a symbol of government overreach by the fringe right, inspiring, among other things, the April 19, 1995, bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

This was the nexus on Saturday. Trump hinting unsubtly that an indictment would not be met with a peaceful response. Trump insisting that “demonic forces” were afoot in the nation, telling his amassed supporters that the “deep state” — government agencies and officials — needed to be destroyed. Celebrating people who’d attacked the Capitol on his behalf in song from a location associated with anti-government violence by the fringe right.

As was the case before Jan. 6, Trump is putting all of the elements into place and hoping something sparks.