In 1993, during the Branch Davidian standoff at the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas, in between doing live-shots for Fox News and Sky News, I met a curiosity-seeker.
He stood among the members of the press, general public, and even t-shirt vendors—I still have a hat that says “Waco: We Ain’t Coming Out”—who arrived daily to try and get a closer look at the madness inside the compound.
“What makes someone want to join a cult like this?” the man asked me.
That question has stuck with me—years after the ATF raid and two-month FBI siege that culminated in gunfire and flames and scores of dead.
The study of Koresh’s death cult was intense. The Waco Tribune-Herald ran a series of investigative reports on the Branch Davidians and David Koresh called “The Sinful Messiah,” exposing allegations of Koresh abusing children and committing statutory rape, as well as fathering several children from a variety of women and girls, some as young as 13, among the Branch Davidians who lived with him.
“I don’t think he was a madman,” Bob Ricks, the FBI’s main media spokesman throughout the standoff, said of Koresh 25 years later. “I think probably the best description of him is a master manipulator.”
H.L. Mencken, unflinchingly clear-eyed, said that every great religion was susceptible to cults. Mystics, he wrote, drive many cults and the “essence of mysticism is that it breaks down all barriers between the devotee and his god, and thereby makes the act of worship a direct and personal matter.”
David Koresh did that.
Jim Jones did that.
So does Donald Trump.
Trump is, in his own perverse way, one of the greatest mystics of the 21st century. He is a masterful manipulator who told everyone from the beginning of his political career how he could shoot someone in front of witnesses and not lose a voter. He also explained that he calls the news media liars so people won’t believe us and will believe him.
Like every mystic, Trump adheres to magic over science. When pressed about climate change, he said the scientists don’t know. When pressed about the pandemic he said it would magically disappear. He often refuses to wear a mask and may be responsible for as many as 40 people in and around the White House becoming infected by the coronavirus. Like the huckster selling snake oil or the phony shaman dancing around a fire, Trump proclaimed himself feeling “great” in a video he tweeted to his millions of adoring fans. His magic is that of the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, and few who love him would dare pull back the curtain.
He is the political messiah who will right all wrongs, drain the swamp, build a wall, make the economy better, and turn life into heaven on earth. Only he can solve the problems—never mind that he caused most of them. He lies to convince his worshipers, who in turn believe him because he addresses their concerns. Something isn’t right if the common man is getting screwed so much and life is so tough. Trump must be right. He’s a common man to the common man. Millions of his evangelical Christian admirers act as though he is a Christian; they are unwilling or unable to see he clearly is not . In truth, he’s merely a rich, pampered insecure man who only worships himself. It’s hard to see as he gives those who feel so disaffected an enemy to hate. It’s not our fault, he says, it’s the swamp. It’s the deep state. It’s anyone but us.
Like every cult leader, his outsized ego and narcissism fuel the rage he has against those who think or act differently than he. His closest disciples and believers have gone all in—because they see a path to glory and power they would otherwise not have. Stephen Miller, a man perpetually picked last for kickball, would never reach such heights without Trump, the mystic, as his mentor. Trump is a sedulous fly-catcher and he is among the best. He’s never worked for a living, but has convinced hard-working Americans that he alone knows what is best for the working man. He’s never served either in the military or in politics, prior to his run for president, but those who believe in him see a dedicated and selfless public servant who would charge into a tense standoff with guns blazing, like a cinematic Rambo.
He will continue to preach as he does because he knows nothing else. His minions will take up arms on his behalf—triggered by the president whom the marginalized and the dangerous have found a friend. He is indirectly responsible for those who plotted to kidnap a governor. He told the Proud Boys to stand back and stand by. The KKK endorses him. Every violent paramilitary group in the United States flocks to him as Branch Davidians flocked to hear their messiah in Waco.
The language is nearly the same. David Koresh spoke of an apocalypse at the hands of the federal government. So does Trump. Koresh said they were out to get him. So does Trump. Koresh violated the most basic forms of civility to maintain control. So does Trump.
Though he may still be contagious from the coronavirus, he plans once again this week to hit the streets and attend a rally where his supporters will deny science, refuse to wear masks, and blow off social-distancing. Meanwhile, the White House remains a biohazard petri dish with staffers terrified of catching the virus from Typhoid Donny, a president who wants to serve and promote his cult.
In the end, the Branch Davidians, assuring themselves that the apocalypse was upon them, died in a fire inside their own compound. Trump too says without his re-election, apocalypse could be upon us.
Here’s hoping Trump and his cult go a different route than the Branch Davidians should the president lose his bid for re-election.