Trump Begins the ‘Retribution’ Tour

At the first rally of his 2024 campaign, the former president vowed vengeance. His fans loved it.

Trump stands on a stage in Waco, Texas.
Trump rallies his supporters in Waco, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty)

You’d think that, by now, Donald Trump’s fans would be tired of all this. The long lines and the self-indulgent speeches and the relentless blasting of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” as they stand outside exposed to the elements. But they aren’t. Not at all.

After six years, the former president’s rallies still have summer-camp vibes—at least at first. At last night’s event in Waco, Texas—the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign—Trump’s thousands of supporters seemed delighted simply to be together at the Waco airport hangar, wearing their ULTRA MAGA T-shirts and drinking lemonade in the hot sun. Sure, the vendors ran out of water at one point, and there was no shade to speak of, but nobody really complained. They were too busy singing along to the Village People and bonding with new friends over their shared interests (justice, freedom, theories about a ruling Deep State cabal).

But the sunny mood of Trump’s supporters contrasted with his 2024 campaign message, which is different this time around—darker, more vengeful, and, if such a thing is possible, even more self-absorbed. “The abuses of power that we are witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt, and depraved chapters” in history, Trump told the crowd in a clear reference to a potential indictment he’s facing related to hush-money payments to the porn actor Stormy Daniels—and probably also to the three other main legal cases against him. He spent 30 minutes soliloquizing about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the corrupt “thugs” in America’s justice system, and the apparent threat to his attorney-client privilege. Behind Trump, supporters held up WITCH HUNT signs that had been given out by the campaign.

At his rallies in 2016, Trump used to tell his supporters, “I am your voice.” Last night, he offered something more sinister. “I am your warrior. I am your justice,” he told them. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

Choosing Waco for his first campaign rally of the season was a little on the nose even for Trump, a man who has always relished a chance to say the quiet part out loud. In the spring of 1993, federal law-enforcement agents laid siege to the Branch Davidian compound, where a leader had bound his followers to him with apocalyptic warnings. Thirty years later, here was Trump, whipping up his own supporters with claims of similar law-enforcement overreach—which, in Trump’s case, may mean being charged with crimes related to his dealings with a star of Porking With Pride 2.

At times over the past week, Trump has seemed almost giddy at the prospect of an indictment, reportedly musing with aides about how he might behave during a potential perp walk. The past few days have also been anxious ones for Trump, according to the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, but also according to anyone reading Trump’s frantic social-media posts. On Truth Social, in between site ads for mole and skin-tag removal, the former president has been Truthing and Retruthing with the all-caps enthusiasm of a middle schooler hopped up on Pixy Stix. “EVERYBODY KNOWS I’M 100% INNOCENT,” he wrote last week. “OUR COUNTRY IS BEING DESTROYED, AS THEY TELL US TO BE PEACEFUL!” Trump predicted an imminent arrest, and urged Americans to “PROTEST, PROTEST, PROTEST!!!” On Thursday, presumably while pacing the gilded halls of Mar-a-Lago, Trump amped up his rhetoric by warning—or maybe, threatening—about the “death & destruction” that could occur if he is eventually charged.

Trump was not indicted last week, but it could happen this week—as early as tomorrow, when the grand jury is due to reconvene. If Trump is arrested, he might be booked the same as any other suspect. Americans may get to see his mug shot. We may also see the kind of turbulent protests that he’s clearly agitating for. His supporters, predictably, think the whole Stormy Daniels situation is hogwash. “We laugh at it all, because the liberal side is just trying to throw everything at the wall to see if something sticks,” Ron Weldon, a helicopter pilot from Keller, told me at Waco. Texan rally goers I spoke with forecast that, if Trump is indicted, there will be protests, but they will be peaceful, and nothing major. They’d really like to avoid another January 6 situation, which, they reminded me, was caused by FBI plants. An indictment, they said, will only make them love Trump more. “If they do that, they might as well seal their fate: He’s gonna win,” Janet Larson, a retiree from Temple, told me.

Last night, though, no one acted as if their leader was about to be indicted. People sucked on Bomb Pops and danced and got sunburned. They carried around their tiny dogs and booed the press at all the right times. When Trump’s jet landed, an hour later than scheduled, a vendor abandoned her ice-cream truck to take a video. Zany conspiracy theories ran rampant: A woman named Stephanie Tatar wearing a hot-pink pantsuit told me that she’s starting a business that allows people to fax her handwritten letters to Trump; she’ll deliver them personally to Mar-a-Lago, to avoid censorship by the postal service. Priscilla Patterson, a 50-something woman from Waco, said that she wasn’t worried about Trump winning in 2024, because he’d be installed as the rightful president well before then. Her husband, Ricky Patterson, suggested that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is currently Trump’s main presumptive rival in the Republican primary race, was himself a puppet of the elite ruling cabal.

Recent stories about Trump’s supporters have suggested that they’re bored with him, or flirting with the idea of switching candidates. But the fans still showing up at his rallies—at least the estimated 10,000 of them last night in Waco—seem more bullish than ever. Maybe it was a good thing, they said, that Trump had been away for a couple of years—America got to see what it was missing: low gas prices, no wars in Europe. And they are not considering other candidates: DeSantis is too establishment, too fake, not ready for prime time. It’s Trump, all the way, baby. No one else even comes close.

Trump and his supporters have been through a lot together since 2020: the stolen election; the FBI inside job on January 6, 2021; the long list of legal persecutions. These trials have served only to cement their devotion. So, for them, seeing Trump back on the campaign trail was like witnessing the long-awaited return of an exiled leader. That’s why, they told me, this cycle’s campaign will be different. “The other ones were ‘Let’s make America great! Let’s clean it up, let’s do things right!’” a Waco man named Brian, who declined to share his last name, told me. But he prefers to use Trump’s word to describe this next iteration. “To me, this is retribution. We’ve got to get our country back, because it’s been stolen from us.” What would that retribution promised by Trump look like? I asked. “People who have done fraud and illegal stuff, they’ve gotta be perp walked. They need to face justice,” he said. “There’s a two-tier level of justice in this country.”

The legal system is corrupt, the political system is rigged, and Joe Biden was never elected president, Ricky Patterson told me. Trump’s campaign is a crusade for “redemption.” Trump is a “new-age Moses,” April Rickman, from Midland, Texas, told me. “He delivered the people from Egypt.”

The prophet himself—after ranting about Bragg and corruption, and getting off a few good DeSantis barbs—offered a few moments of hope for such deliverance. To round after round of applause, he promised to close the border, unleash ICE, and deport gang members “with tattoos on their faces.” He vowed to “settle” the war in Ukraine in just 24 hours, to keep trans girls out of girls’ sports, and to prevent World War III. The crowd around me screamed its approval.

But the high didn’t last long. Suddenly, a somber string melody was playing through the loudspeakers, and Trump was speaking over it. An American flag rippled on the Jumbotrons behind him. “We are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation,” he said to an audience that, hours before, had been beaming in the sun with Mountain Dew and stuffed pretzels. “We are a nation that in many ways has become a joke. And we are a nation that is hostile to liberty, freedom, and faith.”

Then it was all over, and Trump’s plane pulled out onto the runway to take him back to Florida. The hardcore fans who’d stuck around to watch his departure lined up along the fence to wave goodbye. As the plane sped down the tarmac, April Rickman held her hands up to the sky.