WACO, Texas — Thousands of Donald Trump’s most devoted fans gathered for a rally at Waco Regional Airport Saturday, hoping to lift the scandal-plagued and increasingly isolated candidate back to the top of the Republican Party and into the presidency.
It’s a favorable location to launch what Trump’s campaign calls the first official rally of the former president’s third White House bid.
Back in the 2020 election, he trounced Democratic rival Joe Biden by more than 23 percentage points in McLennan County, which includes Waco. And the symbolism of appearing in the city, the site of the federal government’s 1993 siege on the gun-hoarding Branch Davidian religious group that left scores of people dead, jibes with Trump’s fierce anti-establishment streak.
And with Trump facing the looming possibility of indictment in New York and prominent Republicans keeping their distance, the Texas event gives Trump a chance to fall back on what he does best: Bringing massive throngs of fans together in a political show of force that few can match.
The former president rode “Trump Force One,” the Trump Organization’s Boeing 757, from the landing strip to the rally’s stage, walking along a red carpet toward the podium as “God Bless the USA” blared from the speakers.
In a freewheeling speech, Trump decried a long list of enemies, ranging from globalists and Marxists to “stupid warmongers” and “open border fanatics crazy people.” He repeatedly boasted that numerous investigations into misconduct allegations would only bring him more attention and fuel his campaign.
“Our opponents have done everything they can to destroy us and break our will, but they’ve failed. They’ve only made us bigger,” Trump said. “You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over, and America will be a free nation once again.”
He added: “They’ve got nothing. You get so much publicity that the case actually gets adjudicated in the press. And people see it’s bullshit.”
Several prominent Texan politicians — including Sens. John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz (R), along with Gov. Greg Abbott (R) — passed on the event.
But it was well attended by some of the best-known and loudest voices of the right pole of the political spectrum, like Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.).
“These are all people who endorsed me,” Trump said. “If they haven’t endorsed me, I say, ‘don’t bother coming.’”
Rightwing rockstar Ted Nugent called for “a moment of silence for the political prisoners in the gulags of Washington, D.C.” ― an apparent reference to those convicted of storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 ― before shredding through “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick railed against critical race theory and pledged to end college tenure for leftwing professors who “hate capitalism.”
Gaetz prodded big-name Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s most formidable primary opponent, and Cruz, who Trump famously mocked as “Lyin’ Ted,” to fall in line and endorse the former president.
“This is Donald Trump’s Party,” Gaetz said.
Trump took repeated swipes at DeSantis, saying the Florida governor came to him as a teary-eyed political underdog begging for an endorsement, only to turn against him after winning the governorship with Trump’s support.
“Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor,” Trump said. “I’m not a big fan.”
But Trump faces a long battle to rekindle the devotion he once enjoyed in Texas, as he stumbles through several high-profile investigations while trying to fight his way through a tough primary.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office is conducting a grand jury probe into hush-money payments to an adult film star that Trump said will soon end in an indictment.
The former president also faces a federal probe into his handling of classified documents at his Florida home, an investigation into his role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol in 2021, a criminal inquiry in Georgia for allegedly interfering with the 2020 presidential election, and a civil lawsuit that could result in the revocation of his right to do business in New York.
And Trump will have to rebound from all those setbacks under pressure from rising stars within his party, like DeSantis. Even though he hasn’t officially declared his candidacy, DeSantis is already Trump’s most formidable primary challenger in the 2024 presidential race.
The few polls of Texan voters conducted in recent months show DeSantis running neck and neck with Trump. Meanwhile, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) has endorsed DeSantis in the primary. And the Florida governor’s signature culture war agenda has served as a model for Republicans in the Texas Capitol.
However, none of that diminished Trump’s stature in the eyes of his most enthusiastic supporters. Waving banners reading “Take America Back” and sporting American-flag striped clothes, fans dismissed the long string of allegations threatening to land Trump in legal trouble.
Texas native Manuel Flores flew home from California to attend the rally with his family.
“It’s an amazing crowd,” Flores told HuffPost. “Aside from all the controversy going on with Donald Trump, I’m glad that we have a really good energy going on here… Hopefully, this rally comes to fruition, and we get a good president again.”
Craig Cantrell drove in with his wife from nearby Rockdale. “If they had some serious charges, it might change my mind,” Cantrell said regarding his support of Trump.
“They’ve been after this poor man for one thing after the other,” Austin resident Colleen Ford said to HuffPost. “Do I think he’s polarizing? Yes. And he is kind of an asshole, the way he talks to people. But if I’m going to hire a supervisor, I’m not going to do it based on their personality… I’m going to pick the best person for the job.”
Several said the looming threat of criminal charges only strengthened their resolve to send Trump back to the White House.
“It makes you want to vote for him more,” Scott Pierce, 50, told HuffPost. “[Democrats] don’t want him to run because they’re scared he’ll win.”