In all the commentary on Donald Trump’s incitement of a mob to march on the US Capitol, the following remark seems particularly insightful and instructive: “Trump is a political David Koresh,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, “he sees the end coming and wants to burn it all down and take as many with him as possible.”
Mr Piper’s reference to David Koresh is astute and worth pondering. It points to an event that was both a tragedy and an atrocity, caused largely by the maniacal and delusional actions of one man. It also indicates the long shadow cast by that consequential event because it set off a violent spiral of actions by entrenched right-wing figures opposed to alleged unlawful overreach by the US government. Timothy McVeigh, for instance, carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings partly to respond to the events revolving around Koresh.
So what were those events? Remember David Koresh? He was the 33-year-old born-again Christian who died with his followers after a 51-day standoff against the FBI in Waco, Texas in 1993.
The events that led up to the tragedy at Waco were strange and troubling. Koresh, who had an unhappy childhood, eventually wound up leading the Branch Davidian religious group. He changed his name to commemorate biblical Kings David and Cyrus (Koresh), declared he was the messiah and that his offspring would be sacred. As a consequence, he engaged in multiple “marriages” with women in the group, some of whom were underage, and fathered at least 13 children.
The US federal government (more specifically, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) grew interested in the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco and tried to raid it to execute a search warrant for a potentially illegal arms cache. A bitter gun battle ensued. The FBI took charge, tried to negotiate with Koresh, but the leader stubbornly kept his flock locked in with him. When the federal agents finally went into the compound, a fire broke out – its source is disputed – and 76 of the 85 Branch Davidians, including Koresh and several children, were killed.
In a well-judged piece on the 25th anniversary of the Waco siege, Vox quoted a 1993 Texas Monthly story that described Koresh as a “notorious liar and con man [who] was permitted to broadcast his incoherent message to the world”.
For parallels to the events leading up to the US Capitol siege on January 6, consider The New York Times editorial of January 8: “The storming of the people’s house by extremists — some of them armed, all of them spurred on by the wild ravings of a defeated man who cannot face reality — stunned the world. For a few hours, it seemed as though the whole country might go mad. Reports were rolling in of pro-Trump protesters descending on government buildings in Washington, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota, Colorado and beyond.”
Indeed, Mr Piper’s description of Mr Trump as “a political David Koresh” may be one of the most perspicacious ever.