Twenty-five years before my first book about Donald Trump was published, I wrote a paperback entitled The Right to Bear Arms: The Rise of America's New Militias. My first book, written in the wake of Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, tracks the emerging anti-government movement that inspired McVeigh to make war on federal law enforcement agencies that he, and many other far-right activists, believed posed a threat both to America and to themselves.
On the cover of the book is a photograph of a building engulfed in flames-the Branch Davidians' Waco, Texas, compound called Mount Carmel. Federal law enforcement learned the group was stockpiling weapons and explosives and, after a disastrous fifty-one-day siege in early 1993, attempted to storm the compound. With agents closing in, several Branch Davidians set fire to the building, apparently preferring to die rather than be captured by authorities. The body of the cult's leader, David Koresh, was found with a gunshot to the head. Investigators concluded he was killed by one of his deputies.
The episode was widely considered a colossal failure by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), which coordinated the assault. To some, though, the debacle represented something far more sinister than a federal raid gone horribly wrong-they saw it as a deliberate plot by the FBI and the ATF to trap and murder the Branch Davidians.
The Right to Bear Arms tracks how the Waco siege became a rallying cry for a national movement of mostly right-wing activists who believed Washington, DC, was dangerously corrupt and out to get them. Forming what they called "citizens' militias," they stockpiled arms and ammunition as well as food and survival gear. Some of them played weekend war games, practicing makeshift military maneuvers in vacant parking lots, on farmland, or in remote woodlands. I interviewed members of these groups. I read their writings, listened to their talk shows on shortwave radio, and attended some of their meetings.
"The ranks of the militias are made up of factory workers, veterans, computer programmers, farmers, housewives, small-business owners," I wrote in the book's introduction. "The most shocking thing about these 'paramilitary extremists' is how normal they are. They are your neighbors. But in another sense, many members of America's new militias live in a parallel universe, where civil war is already being waged by tyrants within the federal government."
On the furthest fringes of this movement were individuals who wanted to take revenge on the federal agencies responsible for not only the siege in Waco but a host of other transgressions-both real and imagined. McVeigh, for example, cited the government's "increasingly militaristic and violent" actions as his rationale in a letter to Fox News correspondent Rita Cosby weeks before he was executed under the federal death penalty. In the letter, he argued that his bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City-at the time the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in American history-was "morally and strategically equivalent" to the US military striking government buildings in countries around the world.1
But McVeigh was an exception that proved the rule. For the most part, the members of these citizens' militias I encountered condemned the Oklahoma City bombing. They weren't terrorists; they were ordinary Americans who had grown increasingly paranoid. "Their mantra is self-defense," I wrote in 1995. "They have formed not to wage a campaign of terror but to defend themselves from a terror campaign they believe is already being waged by their own federal government."2
In the run-up to my book's publication, I planned a small party for friends and family at the Heartland Brewery in Manhattan and decided to spruce up the party invitation with some over-the-top words of praise from my friends and colleagues. A couple of my fellow reporters at the New York Post offered up some choice words, and on a whim, I decided to call a famous New Yorker who was both a reliable source and known for making hyperbolic statements to see if he would give me a quote as well. He readily agreed to provide a glowing endorsement of the book-provided I wrote it up myself. So I did:
"What a book! Karl is one of the best in the business-tough, fair and brutally honest."
-Donald J. Trump
Trump signed off on the quote. To this day, I don't know whether he actually read the advance copy of The Right to Bear Arms I sent him-but more than a quarter of a century later, he announced that the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign would be held in a familiar location: Waco, Texas.
Largely irrelevant in both the Republican primary and the general election, Texas was an odd choice for the campaign kickoff. A Trump spokesman would later deny the venue selection was at all related to the massacre that took place there almost exactly thirty years earlier-he claimed Waco was chosen solely because it was "centrally located" and "close" to big cities like Dallas and Houston3-but plenty of rally attendees drew the connection between the setting and Trump's central campaign message.
"[Trump's] making a statement, I believe, by coming to these stomping grounds where the government, the FBI, laid siege on this community just like they laid siege on Mar-a-Lago and went in and took his stuff," Charles Pace, a Branch Davidian pastor who knew Koresh but left the Mount Carmel compound several years before the deadly fire, told The Texas Tribune's Robert Downen. "He's not coming right out and saying, 'Well, I'm doing it because I want you to know what happened there was wrong.' But he implies it."4
Shortly after the rally was announced, I asked Steve Bannon, who had served as the CEO of Trump's 2016 campaign and had once again emerged as one of Trump's most important advisors, why the former president would go to Waco for his big campaign reboot. He wasn't particularly coy.
"We're the Trump Davidians," he told me with a laugh.
Even less subtle than the rally's venue was how Trump kicked it off, standing silently onstage with his hand on his heart while he waited for the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But this wasn't a traditional version of the national anthem. Trump's campaign had queued up "Justice for All," a rendition of the song recorded over a jailhouse phone by a group of about twenty inmates serving time in a Washington, DC, jail for taking part in the assault on the US Capitol. In the song, the so-called J6 Prison Choir makes its way through Francis Scott Key's lyrics while Trump's voice interjects with stray lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, which he recorded at Mar-a-Lago.
As the recording blared over the loudspeakers, video footage from the January 6 riot played on the massive screens flanking the stage. It was a bizarre display, but also pitch-perfect in setting the tone for what was to come over the next ninety minutes: a defiant Trump at his most inflammatory, telling his followers to prepare for one final standoff with the shadowy enemies out to get him-and them. "For seven years, you and I have been taking on the corrupt, rotten, and sinister forces trying to destroy America," he said. "They've been trying to destroy it. They're not going to do it, but they do get closer and closer with rigged elections."
"2024," Trump declared, "is the final battle."
This wasn't a campaign speech in any traditional sense. Trump echoed the themes of paranoia and foreboding embraced by David Koresh and the anti-government movement that grew out of the Waco massacre. "As far as the eye can see, the abuses of power that we're currently witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt, and depraved chapters in all of American history," he said.
The substance of Trump's grievances paled in comparison to the resentments harbored by the people I wrote about in The Right to Bear Arms. Twenty-five years ago, members of those citizens' militias had some legitimate reasons to distrust the federal government. Their behavior was extreme, but they were responding to tangible government actions that had resulted in death and destruction. More than eighty Branch Davidians died in the Waco siege. Three other people had been killed in the Ruby Ridge standoff one year earlier, when federal law enforcement officials tried to arrest a survivalist and self-described white separatist named Randy Weaver-who lived in a plywood cabin with no electricity or running water in northern Idaho-on weapons violations. Weaver was eventually acquitted of the original firearms charges, but his life was never the same: His wife, son, and dog were killed during the standoff-his wife shot by an FBI sniper while she was holding their ten-month-old daughter. The episode left an indelible stain on the FBI's reputation, with several agents censured and suspended after a lengthy investigation. "Don't call Randy Weaver paranoid," I wrote in the book. "His worst fears about the government have already come true."
As Bannon made clear in my conversation with him, Trump's presence in Waco that day was designed to evoke similar feelings of injustice and persecution among the former president's followers. "They're not coming after me," he told the crowd. "They're coming after you-and I'm just standing in their way, and I'm going to be standing in their way for a long time."
Trump had used variations of the line before. "It was not just my home that was raided last month," he said at a September 2022 rally in Pennsylvania, referencing the search warrant the FBI had executed at Mar-a-Lago. "It was the hopes and dreams of every citizen who I've been fighting for since the moment I came down the golden escalator in 2015."
The message certainly seemed to resonate with his supporters, but its brazenness was staggering. Whatever you think about the investigations Trump was facing at the time, he certainly invited the scrutiny. Special Counsel Jack Smith was probing Trump's role in the January 6 attack and his failure to turn over classified material the FBI found at Mar-a-Lago. Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis was investigating his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. And Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg was nearing an indictment on charges related to hush-money payments Trump made weeks before the 2016 election to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, with whom he'd allegedly had an affair.
The folks cheering Trump at his rallies had not taken boxes stuffed with classified documents out of the White House-and it's safe to assume none of them spent tens of thousands of dollars to cover up an affair with an adult-film star. Several hundred Trump supporters were being prosecuted for assaulting police officers and storming the Capitol on January 6, but Trump-the man responsible for whipping those rioters into a frenzy-couldn't do anything to stand in the way of those prosecutions. As president, he could have issued pre-emptive pardons for all of them. He didn't. Now he was just cheering on the defendants and lashing out at the prosecutors on social media. "The DOJ and FBI are destroying the lives of so many Great American Patriots, right before our very eyes," he posted on Truth Social the day after four members of the far-right Proud Boys militia were convicted of seditious conspiracy. "GET SMART AMERICA, THEY ARE COMING AFTER YOU!!!"5
But in reality, "they" weren't coming after Trump's law-abiding supporters-they were coming after Trump. Decades earlier, presidential candidate Bill Clinton told voters he felt their pain. Trump was now doing the reverse, trying to convince his supporters to feel his pain as if it were their own. "Our enemies are desperate to stop us because they know that we are the only ones who can stop them," Trump told the crowd in Waco. "Our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and to break our will, but they failed. They've only made us stronger."
Trump's Waco speech was too grim for even some of his closest allies in the media. "[Trump] opened up with January 6 video, which is insane," Brian Kilmeade said on Fox & Friends days later. "He should be running from that, period. I don't care his point of view, that is not a good thing for him. I thought that was absolutely awful."6
The source of the criticism was notable. During Trump's presidency, one of the most surefire ways to get his attention was to appear on Fox & Friends in the morning. The show's hosts-Kilmeade, Steve Doocy, and Ainsley Earhardt-were prominent members of what was often referred to as Trump's "Cable News Cabinet." Advice they provided from the studio couch in midtown Manhattan frequently carried as much weight in Trump's mind as his actual advisors in the White House or at Mar-a-Lago. But not this time.
Trump was in a dark place in early 2023. Still reeling politically from the Republican Party's disappointing midterm performance the previous November, he'd launched his third presidential campaign but barely seemed to be trying. A close confidant of the former president told me he was trying to get Trump to do more to jump-start his effort to win back the White House, encouraging him, for example, to go on the attack against President Biden and the Democrats over the federal bailout of Silicon Valley Bank, which failed in March 2023. This advisor was urging Trump to tie the bank's failure to various Democratic policies, and contrast the effort to protect the bank's wealthy tech-industry depositors with the neglect of working-class people struggling after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
Trump, however, was too distracted. "I've been working non-fucking-stop on this Silicon Valley Bank thing with him, and I've got nothing," the advisor told me in mid-March. "He's just obsessed with this New York thing."
The “New York thing,” of course, was Alvin Bragg’s grand jury investigation into a hush-money payment Trump had made to adult-film star Stormy Daniels seven years earlier. The case was long believed to be dead-two investigators in Bragg’s office had resigned in early 2022 in protest of his decision not to move forward with their inquiry-but on January 30, 2023, the Manhattan DA’s office had impaneled a new grand jury and begun presenting evidence of Trump’s involvement in the catch-and-kill scheme intended to suppress unflattering stories prior to the 2016 presidential election.7 Over the next few weeks, it became clear the first presidential indictment in history was imminent-but nobody knew exactly when Bragg would pull the trigger.
Except, apparently, Donald Trump.
"THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK," he posted, in all caps, on Truth Social at 7:25 a.m. on March 18. "PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!"
Copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Karl. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.