Disgraced former President Donald Trump and his nascent campaign to reclaim the office he lost to President Joe Biden in 2020 made a series of announcements over the past several days that have raised eyebrows for decidedly different, but equally disturbing, reasons.
The announcement drawing the most attention, given Trump’s penchant for inciting violent insurrections, was a social media post in which Trump announced that he believed he would be arrested on Tuesday for allegedly directing hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, an actress primarily known for her work in pornography, in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, and efforts that his network of companies, The Trump Organization, took to conceal the payments while he was serving as president.
It would be a remarkable development in a case currently being heard by a New York grand jury, and it would also make history. No former American president has ever been indicted for a crime, much less an active candidate for a major party nomination.
The second half of Trump’s announcement sent chills throughout a nation still struggling to recover from the deadly insurrection he inspired on January 6th, 2021. Trump called on his supporters to protest his likely indictment and booking for criminal charges.
Legal experts widely viewed the social media missive as an attempt to intimidate Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney leading the investigation at best, and at worst a call to arms for supporters who have already gone to extreme lengths at the behest of lies being told by Trump.
While the combustible situation has triggered law enforcement agencies in New York to prepare for protest, Republican elected officials across the country have joined the former president’s messaging campaign, attempting to frame the prosecution as a political witch hunt rather than a fairly open and shut case with an extensive paper trail.
The timing of Trump’s comments are positively eerie when combined with his campaign’s announcement last week that they’ll be hosting the first rally of the 2024 campaign this coming Saturday – in Waco.
Waco is an interesting choice for a presidential campaign’s first large-scale rally, and given the amount of time and planning that goes into pulling off Trump’s made-for-television pep rallies, it is almost impossible to believe that Trump’s campaign completely missed the bizarre and frightening historical context he’ll be standing in.
In the wake of calling for possibly violent protests, Trump will be speaking in a city still synonymous with the brutal standoff between state and federal law enforcement agencies and the Branch Davidians, a religious cult that was headquartered on a compound in nearby Axtell and led by David Koresh.
The violent standoff started with a shootout between federal agents and members of the Branch Davidians and spanned nearly two months before coming to a wildly tragic end. Historians have debated the final outcome, but it is widely believed that Koresh led the members of his cult into mass suicide, with more than 70 members dying.
Trump’s rally in Waco will be held almost perfectly in the middle of the deadly conflict’s 30th anniversary.
In fairness, it is possible if not entirely likely that Trump’s team simply took a “who cares?” approach to the coincidence and chose to forge ahead. Texas is a traditionally logical launching pad for a Republican presidential candidate’s first big rally. The state is rich with Republican primary voters, boasting of one of the largest delegate prizes in the 2024 primaries. It’s also home to the kinds of deep-pocketed conservative donors that could support Trump’s operation in coats and furs for the long haul.
And Waco is as logical a place as any to host such an event, serving as the largest metropolitan area between Dallas and Austin that remains solidly Republican.
But Texas is a strange choice for Donald Trump specifically for a few reasons.
The first is that, well, the man is not from Texas. Trump spent most of his life in New York City before relocating to Florida, a former swing state that has turned a deeper shade of red under Trump’s main rival for the nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. A different Trump in a different time might take the fight directly to DeSantis by hosting his rally in his adopted home state, but for reasons that haven’t become public, Trump chose against that route.
And then there’s the thorny subject of Trump’s performances at the top of the ticket in Texas. It could be easy to be led to believe that everything is bigger in Texas, including Trump’s popularity. But his last two presidential campaigns threw up a staggering number of warning signs for Texas Republicans.
In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just under 9 points. While that is a wide margin, it was the worst performance for a Republican presidential nominee in Texas since 1996, when native Texan Ross Perot’s second presidential bid ate into the vote totals for President Bill Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole. Perot performed even better in 1992 when incumbent President and fellow Texan George H.W. Bush couldn’t crack 40%.
To contextualize how badly Trump underperformed in 2016, consider Mitt Romney. The now-Senator from Utah was the 2012 Republican nominee against President Barack Obama. While he’s gone on to carve out an awkward moderate lane in the years since joining the Senate, Romney still managed to outperform Trump’s 2016 vote share by nearly 6% in 2012.
Trump’s election inspired a slew of talented Democratic candidates to run for office, with Democrats claiming a dozen seats in the State House while sending Colin Allred, Lizzie Fletcher, Veronica Escobar, and Sylvia Garcia to Congress and electing Lina Hidalgo Harris County Judge.
The plot would only thicken over the following four years, as Trump served up one red meat embarrassment after another and badly botched his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Texans responded by turning out in astronomical numbers, and Trump was only able to muster a 5-point win over now-President Joe Biden in the state.
Is the choice of Waco an effort to buttress himself in the Lone Star State to keep it out of the battleground column? That seems unlikely. And as Trump takes the stage on Saturday he’ll find himself in another unfamiliar place: in the shadow of another candidate.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been circling a 2024 bid for the presidency as an alternative to Trump for months, and he’s expected to formally join the race in the spring.
DeSantis, who has styled himself as a MAGA true believer and built a record of conservative accomplishments that has become the envy of lesser politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, has been traveling the country to make speeches about crime and other hot-button issues for Republican primary voters.
He’s also devoted a whole lot of time to cultivating the donor base that he’ll need to take on Trump in earnest, hosting donor retreats in Florida and joining others in Texas on a recent visit to the state. DeSantis showed considerable star power on the swing, raising millions of dollars for local Republican parties while firing up the base.
Chip Roy, the San Antonio-area congressman who has been a conservative warhorse since joining the House, has seen enough. He’s enthusiastically backing DeSantis and working to get other elected officials to join him.
Will Trump’s return to Texas be a triumph for the disgraced former president, or will the stage lights in Waco reveal a deeply flawed man whose star is quickly fading? We’ll tune in so that you don’t have to.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.