How the Right Got Waco WrongHistorians in the News
tags: far right, Waco, Branch Davidians, David Koresh, militia movement
Paul Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State.
Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias
by Kevin Cook
David Koresh “may have been a false prophet, but he was onto something,” the current pastor of the Branch Davidians recently remarked at his congregation’s compound near Waco, Texas. “That’s why the Clintons couldn’t let him live. He knew too much about the human trafficking, pedophilia, and gun- and cocaine-running the Clintons and Bushes were guilty of.” In this diatribe, and in the many screeds he has written for his church’s website, Pastor Charles Pace explicitly connected the 1993 Waco siege—which killed 82 Davidians, including Koresh—with our paranoid present.
An engrossing and original new book by Kevin Cook examines this link in heroic detail and depth. For Cook, Koresh’s apocalyptic visions—and the brutal end he and his followers met in 1993—helped lay the groundwork for the distrust, disinformation, and denialism of the past decade. Cook’s account transports readers from the Davidians’ early days to the prolonged standoff that not only killed David Koresh and dozens of his followers but also radicalized countless right-wing extremists like Timothy McVeigh and Alex Jones.
Along the way, Waco Rising poses vital and urgent questions about state power and the role of violence and warmaking in the contemporary United States. How can we oppose the sort of fanaticism and abuse that defined life at Koresh’s Mount Carmel Center without emboldening the security state? How can we resist state violence without empowering conspiracists and demagogues? And if Waco did, in fact, help set the stage for January 6 or November’s massacre at Club Q in Colorado Springs, what then? How can we transform this knowledge into a usable past that might help curb violence in all its forms?
The Waco siege was a tragedy long foretold. Victor Tasho Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant to the United States, founded the Branch Davidians in 1935 after growing disillusioned with his Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Houteff and his followers settled on a plot of land near Waco, where the Davidians would live, worship, raise children, and prepare for the end times. In keeping with the Seventh-day Adventist tradition from which Houteff had emerged, the Davidians focused intently on the violent prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation, and they believed that the Second Coming was imminent.
Claiming to possess the power of prophecy, Houteff built a respectable following on Mount Carmel. When he died in 1955, his widow, Florence Houteff, took over. Insisting that she had inherited “his gift of prophecy,” Florence Houteff set a firm date for the Second Coming: April 22, 1959. Nearly one thousand Davidians—some of whom had sold their homes and businesses—made their way to Waco and Mount Carmel in anticipation of Christ’s return. But April 22 came and went—a twentieth-century Great Disappointment. The debacle severely undermined Davidians’ faith in Florence Houteff, who was soon succeeded by the Roden family—Benjamin, his wife, Lois, and their son George. The Rodens presided over the Branch Davidians until 1987, when Lois’s protégé—a young man named Vernon Howell—staged a violent raid on Mount Carmel and installed himself as the Davidians’ leader the following year. In 1990, he legally changed his name: From that point on, he was David Koresh.
Koresh’s five-year stint as head of the Branch Davidians was productive—and unfathomably tumultuous. Davidian survivors have explained that Koresh knew the Bible (especially its brutal conclusion, Revelation) backward and forward, and he was a highly effective teacher. “For true believers,” Cook writes, Koresh’s sermons and “Bible studies were better than any movie.” As one Davidian put it, “I learned more with him in one night than in a lifetime of going to church.” Koresh’s charisma, charm, and deep understanding of scripture all but guaranteed a devoted flock.
That devotion manifested itself in different, sometimes horrifying ways. Mount Carmel residents endured dismal living conditions. Their compound lacked indoor plumbing, which meant that Davidians urinated and defecated in outhouses and plastic buckets. Meals were spartan, and water scarce, while discipline, punishment, and abuse were never in short supply. Adults regularly paddled children, and Koresh demanded total obedience to his rigid yet arbitrary rules. Koresh also maintained a harem of women and girls, some as young as 12, and sired at least a dozen children.