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An Apocalypse of One: Of Cult Leaders, Messianic Delusion, and Radicalization
Donald Trump's pilgrimage to Waco was about more than a campaign rally
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I was home sick from school on April 19th, 1993. It was a Monday and I’d spent the entire weekend nursing a nauseous stomach and barely able to hold down anything more than a fistful of Saltines and a glug or two of 7-Up. Because I was only eleven and my mother was holding down a variety of jobs in order to keep a roof over our heads, I was taken to my grandparents’ house a little over a mile away and deposited on the couch in the living room.
For weeks I’d been following the siege at Mount Carmel. Coming from an extremist evangelical background, the idea of a self-declared prophet and his followers squaring off with federal authorities was fascinating. My grandma was equally rapt. As I discussed in the opening of THE MIDNIGHT KINGDOM: A HISTORY OF POWER, PARANOIA, AND THE COMING CRISIS, she was perpetually fascinated by conspiracy theories, the occult, and Christian esotericism. David Koresh’s purported End Times prophecies were, to her and a smattering of other Christians I knew, a constant source of speculation.
We had been taught, after all, that the Divine was still very much alive and active in the world and that at any given moment his word and energy might find you and provoke you into ecstasy or divination. We had seen it. In our church. In our community. In our lives. And as much as people wanted to scoff at Koresh and his followers, we knew to take it incredibly seriously whenever someone started talking about receiving messages from God.
A point of discussion had been Koresh’s promise to produce a prophecy of the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation. Supposedly, after its completion, Koresh promised to end the standoff with federal authorities. Grandma and others were determined to read his work and determine for themselves if he was divinely inspired and if a new age of man had begun. What people need to understand, about her, about others like her, about millions of Americans still to this day, is that they are desperate to believe they are living in foretold days of destiny. That someone is coming to lead them into the promise land.
The compound was on fire when it came on the television. Bright flames billowing in the Texas sun. I remember gasping. I remember my stomach immediately feeling sick once more. Grandma immediately praying and turning to her bible. By the time she was done with praying for their souls, she had turned to Revelation. There were signs you had to look for. And they were playing out on the screen that Monday afternoon.
This story was one that was often told. The forces of Christ clashing with the evil forces of a secular world run through with the poison of the Devil. It was everywhere, in our culture, in our government, everywhere you turned. But what we had been promised was that the final battle was already decided. Good would triumph over Evil in the end. If Koresh were to die, and if he were a true prophet, she believed, and would say later, there would be another. There was always another to carry God’s word.
I want to be clear: Donald Trump probably had no idea what he was doing in Waco, Texas this past week.
Trump is not all that involved in much of anything besides basking in the adulation of his cult following. There are plenty of others surrounding him who are tuned into this stuff. They’re the ones who made sure Trump’s accounts were always sharing antisemitic memes. QAnon signals. Little winks and nods designed to solidify his symbiotic relationship with the Far Right.
Waco during the 30th anniversary of the infamous siege at the Branch Davidian compound was not happenstance. Nor was the usage of rhetoric like “final battle” and bizarre spectacles like having his crowd treat his newly-released “Justice For All” song, a disturbing mash-up of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with a choir of January 6th participants “singing” the National Anthem, like it was some kind of sacred hymn. It is a new chapter in an already-disgraceful story that has now spanned so many miserable years.
Trump is, and has always been, an entirely self-obsessed individual who recognized an opportunity to use the United States of America and white populist rage to his advantage. As has been obvious, he doesn’t care about making this country better. A nation is nothing but an entry point for him. It’s always been about raising funds and lining his pockets. Working with Vladimir Putin, squaring deals with foreign authoritarians, and peddling whatever remaining and sad notions of patriotism and national identity remain are all in-bounds for him.
This new iteration of his campaign is something uniquely American however. Like Nxivm and other multi-level marketing operations dressed in the veneer of cults, the Trump 2024 Campaign is a mutant of late-stage capitalism. Here, in a world with little meaning, the illusion of meaning has become sacrosanct. And Trump and the men around him recognize that only through co-opting images, iconography, and even meccas of meaning, regardless to whom they belong to, can they create something that gives off the appearance of having meaning itself.
Waco has become the capital of white supremacist/separatist rage within the United States. The destruction of the compound and death of its inhabitants has launched the career of Alex Jones, spurred the mobilization of militias and extremists, and served as an emblem of government tyranny and the need for a new American revolution for the past thirty years. By placing Trump on the stage in Waco in late-March 2023, by co-opting the language of extreme evangelicalism - calling 2024 the “final battle” - and by filling the event with all the pomp and circumstance of a revival, the message was unmistakable: only Donald Trump can defeat the Evil plaguing America.
It feels like a cult because it is a cult.
The components of Trumpism and the MAGA Movement have always been cultish and required an intentional strategy of playing to white evangelical extremism and narratives, allowing for any personal quibbles or concerns about Trump and his politics or ethical shortfalls to be papered over by his status as a “divine agent” carrying out God’s plans.
For more on the concept of “divine agent,” and how the GOP and Right Wing have weaponized Christian mythology and concepts for their own purposes, order your copy of THE MIDNIGHT KINGDOM: A HISTORY OF POWER, PARANOIA, AND THE COMING CRISIS.
Rhetoric is complicated. To many of us, the appeal that Trump forwards is ludicrous. Laughable, even. To see a conman obviously lie to his supporters over and over and over again while bilking them of every dollar to them is just so absurd that it’s hard to take serious. Surely, we think, these people must see through the scam.
And honestly, many of them do. Trump’s continued support ranges on a whole host of factors and populations, including groups of Republicans who know full and well he is totally and undeniably full of shit. In fact, they enjoy it. It makes for great theater if you are so inclined. Especially as it upsets liberals and the “woke” crowd. But there are many who eat this up and believe it with the same passion as they believe the Old and New Testaments.
Because they are wired to.
David Koresh (or Vernon Howell, before he changed his name to reflect his “spiritual calling”) and other cult leaders have long used this conditioning to their advantage. The people who died at his side at Mount Carmel were inclined to believe he was indeed a prophet. They either grew up with teachings and sermons promising that the return of Jesus Christ and the commencement of the End Times was imminent. Their lives, like my own, were inundated with regular admonishments to look toward the sky and expect signs and miracles. And others in the compound might have simply needed something. Their lives felt devoid of meaning and being promised a role in creating a new Heaven on Earth, of assisting a prophet in doing the Lord’s work, appealed more to them than continuing along in their unhappy states.
Trump and his faux-populist movement hit the same notes. Evangelicals told to look for a savior now see a man coached on how to promise them salvation. Their networks and media have told them the world is under attack by evil forces and Satanic energies. Every election, every issue, hell, every single day is portrayed as an apocalyptic struggle on which literally everything hinges. If that isn’t time for a holy messiah to appear, I don’t know when it would be. And Trump’s unabashed willingness to lie and spew whatever rhetoric is necessary - including claiming the district attorney Alvin Bragg is “doing the work of the devil” - means there will be literally millions of people willing to connect the dots and see him as a prophet or a messiah himself.
To you and me, it’s an easily dismissable absurdity. To others, it is the same signs and wonders they were told to anticipate. Like the fire in the Branch Davidian compound, the death of saints and martyrs, the theater of anguish playing out on the television screen in front of my enraptured grandma, the investigations into Trump’s crimes is seen another warning that Armaggedon is fast approaching. And apocalypses mean a shifting of rules. It is war, after all, and in times of belligerence, murder and cruelty become necessary.
Koresh and Trump were cut from the same heretical cloth. While Koresh promised to end the siege once he finished his Seven Seals, Trump assures us all he wants is to save America from the abyss. In their minds, the fate of the world is indistinguishable with their own fates and their own desires and wants. The End of the World is always present because, to them, everything began with their births and everything will end with their deaths. It is an apocalypse of the individual, but unfortunately, their fires are never self-contained and threaten to consume us all.