By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
The crowd had assembled since early morning and waited impatiently for their leader to arrive. They gazed at the heavens, hoping to see the airplane that would deliver him to them. At last, he came down from the clouds like a deity, circling the airfield for added dramatic effect. As night fell, he entered the sacred space of the rally, where heroes and martyrs of the movement were honored in song and the bond between the leader and his people was renewed.
These scenes describe former President Donald Trump's recent rally in Waco, Texas, which kicked off his 2024 campaign to return to the White House. They are also among the most famous moments of Adolf Hitler’s Sept. 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, which was the subject of Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will.
Trump's choice to hold this rally in Waco sends a clear message in the context of American history. Waco has been a pilgrimage site for White power and militia movements since the Branch Davidian religious sect's 1993 showdown with federal authorities. He is paying homage to this tradition and doubling down on his profile as leader of an extremist cult (MAGA).
Yet the stagecraft and rituals seen at this rally also continue the Fascist past. In both Italy and Germany, Fascism evolved out of paramilitary environments, with a cult leader who orchestrated violence. Once in power, Fascists used propaganda to change the public's perception of violence, associating it with patriotism and national defense against internal and external enemies. Rallies were crucial to that end.
Trump used his rallies for years to re-educate Americans in this same manner (see my report for the House Select Jan. 6 Committee). It paid off on Jan. 6. The private army he had carefully cultivated answered their cult leader's call to carry out an unprecedented violent assault on the Capitol to save him from an unjust fate.
Now, as he faces multiple criminal and civil investigations, Trump and his MAGA allies are involved in a massive effort to shift the narrative about Jan. 6, making its violence into patriotic self-defense. The Waco rally may be seen in this frame.
The Nuremberg rally, too, came at a pivotal time for its leader. It puffed up Hitler's personality cult in the wake of his violence against longstanding members of his party who had supported his 1923 beer-hall putsch attempt but now seemed too independent. The June 1934 purge of SA stormtroopers, including their leader Ernst Röhm, sent the message that terror would be managed from the top.
The Nuremberg rally calmed the waters around Hitler after this surprise massacre, presenting him as omnipotent but also adored by ordinary Germans. Triumph of the Will constructs this narrative by starting in the clouds and tracking Hitler as he arrives at Nuremberg airport and emerges to be acclaimed by the people.
Hitler’s plane as it prepares to land in Nuremberg, 1934. Ullstein Bild via Getty Images.
The film highlights the rally's climax when the crowd sings the "Horst Wessel Song." It commemorates a young Nazi, murdered by leftists in the years of the movement’s rise to power, who became a symbol of Nazi martyrdom. The Nuremberg rally enshrined victimhood and mourning into regime ritual and justified Nazi violence as national defense.
Hitler honors the Nazi dead at the Nuremberg rally, 1934. On his left is Viktor Lutze, Chief of Staff of the newly-purged S.A. On Hitler’s right is Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS. Getty Images.
Like Hitler's beer-hall putsch, Trump's Jan. 6 coup attempt failed, but Trump did not go to prison. Rather, Jan. 6 was a huge success as a radicalization operation, and the GOP validated the attack in 2022 as "legitimate political discourse." In doing so, the party tacitly approved Trump's attempt to have an internal threat to his authoritarian power silenced: Vice-President Mike Pence, who refused to collude with the coup attempt on Jan. 6.
Trump's audacious assault on the Capitol and his targeting of a party leader for bodily harm electrified extremists, who see violence as transformative, as Fascists do as well. Yet, as Trump runs for president, he is also using ritual, narrative, and spectacle to transmute that violence into something more palatable. Waco placed Jan. 6 violence within a mythologized history of Trump as the savior of the nation.
So, Trump, too, came down from the skies. The choice of Waco Regional airport as the rally venue was likely dictated by the desire to stage this genre of authoritarian spectacle. The crowd, there since early morning, grew excited every time a helicopter or aircraft appeared on the horizon.
Trump arrives at Waco Regional Airport, March 25, 2023. Brandon Bell/Getty Images.
Calling his followers to a holy site for domestic terrorists continues Trump's elevation of violence as a morally righteous activity necessary to "take the country back,” and bolsters his claim that he is the only man who can deliver justice. "I am your retribution," he told the crowd. "Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state," he proclaimed. His campaign distributed signs to Waco attendees that read WITCH HUNT to make sure the media saw the message.
Careful stagecraft frames Trump as a patriot descended from the skies to save Americans. Waco, March 25, 2023. Brandon Bell/Getty Images.
In Nazi Germany, a favorite rally ritual was singing the "Horst Wessel Song," which became the co-national anthem of Nazi Germany. In Waco, crowds sang along with a recording of "Justice for All," performed by the J6 Prison Choir (inmates convicted of violent crimes during the Jan. 6 coup attempt).
Significantly, the song adapts the national anthem ("The Star-Spangled Banner) with a voiceover of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In Waco, Trump stood with his hand on his heart as it played, while footage of the Jan. 6 attack screened behind him. Of course. that footage showed only police assaulting the "patriots," whose own violence was erased. That's necessary to convince people that the convicts are "political prisoners" of a tyrannical democracy that must be overthrown. They are martyrs in the making, just like Horst Wessel.
If you know the history of Fascist movements, this makes sense and is even predictable. In Dec. 2022, I told the New York Times that Trump would "double down on his extremist and cult leader profile...and associate with the most extremist elements of society. There is no other option for him.” The Waco rally channels America's extremist past, but it also heralds America's Fascist future if Trump returns to the White House in 2024.