While stranded at home, millions of Americans—myself included—have taken a fresh interest in the story of another group of stranded Americans, known as the Branch Davidians. The struggles of this religious sect are recounted in the mini-series Waco, which has become one of the most-watched shows on Netflix in recent weeks.
The series portrays how, in 1993, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) laid siege to the religious group’s Waco, TX compound where children were allegedly being abused and firearms were being stockpiled. Now, the tragic tale of the Branch Davidians is being reassessed by a new generation of Americans intent on questioning the “official story” at every turn.
Everything in the series, from the contours of the Branch Davidians’ “Mt. Carmel” compound to cult leader David Koresh’s sleek mullet, will ring a bell for viewers old enough to recall the Waco incident. The narrative behind the Branch Davidians’ fiery standoff with the FBI, however, could not be more different from the original tale told by the media in the 1990s.
The central facts of the case have remained the same, but our current ethos couldn’t have changed more from that of the Clinton era.
Waco is a miniseries for a jaded era that rejects official narratives spun by the elites. Call the moment libertarian if you like, but the American psyche has changed quite a bit since the days of Koresh and the Seven Seals.
After my own multi-hour binge-watch of Waco, I took a not-so-scientific survey of Twitter to see what my fellow digital denizens thought of the miniseries. This Twitter user posted “Never forget that the U.S. government slaughtered 25 children at Waco.” A more restrained response came from The Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Markay, who commented, “Netflix’s WACO series is the perfect quarantine binge-watch. Take the dysfunctional bureaucracy it portrays and drop in a global pandemic and you get…exactly this.”
These sentiments are nearly ubiquitous across Twitter but could not be further removed from the prevailing attitudes about the incident when it occurred.
A Cornell University polling analysis finds, “At the time of the events in question, Americans were strongly supportive of the FBI’s handling of the problem. Over seven in ten in a Gallup poll on April 20 said that the FBI’s decision to pump tear gas into the compound was a responsible one. Only 11% in this poll thought the FBI should have waited longer to act; most thought they had waited long enough (24%) or had in fact already waited too long (60%).”
This strongly felt public opinion was no fluke; it reflected the trust-based politics of the day. Back then, the public generally expressed support for governmental institutions even during a national scandal or after a contentious election.
For decades, Gallup has asked respondents, “how much trust and confidence do you have in our federal government in Washington… a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?” Even in the midst of impeachment proceedings against former President Bill Clinton in December 1998, just 37 percent of survey participants trusted the government “not very much” or “none at all.” That figure slipped to 23 percent a month after the inauguration of former President Bush, after one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history.
Over the past ten years (under former President Obama and current President Trump), this distrust figure has practically never dipped below 40 percent and regularly climbed past 50 percent.
Americans are far more likely now to question official narratives than ever before. Even during catastrophes that have traditionally seen spikes in support for public institutions, we seem collectively to be losing faith in our government.
Let’s rewind to The Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Markay’s notion of a “dysfunctional bureaucracy” coupled with a “global pandemic.” That sentiment accurately describes both the pundit class’s narrative of President Trump being slow to respond to the pandemic, but it also mirrors the arguments of watchdog groups and center-right publications that international bureaucracies such as the World Health Organization have failed us.
To commentators across the ideological spectrum, at least in my anecdotal understanding, every institution is now fair game for criticism and questioning from every angle imaginable. These new purveyors of the truth can pick any government claim to pieces in front of large, sympathetic audiences on Twitter and Facebook.
A new breed of political observers is casting doubt on everything from WHO disease data to government claims that a certain individual committed suicide in his prison cell. Official sources of information being tarnished and distrusted so thoroughly may feel icky for people yearning for a neutral arbiter of truth, but this recent tendency to question everything is critical to keeping public institutions in check. What else keeps the powers that be accountable for, say, possibly having started fires that killed innocent women and children?
Let’s focus on asking the right questions now to make sure that tragedies such as the Waco siege remain in the rear-view mirror.