Lincoln Mitchell, US Opinion Correspondent

Lessons from Jonestown for the Cult of Trump

Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Ten busloads of Peoples Temple members attended an anti-eviction rally at the I-Hotel in January 1977.

Forty years ago today, over 800 people, most of whom were poor, African American or both were killed in the Guyanese jungle encampment of the Peoples Temple. The events of that day in Jonestown remain misunderstood. Many describe it as a mass suicide, but cult leader Jim Jones forced his followers to drink the poison, while those who refused were shot by his security team. That is hardly a conventional definition of suicide. Jones’s history is also generally misremembered. He is frequently associated with the excesses of post-Summer of Love San Francisco, the city where during the early and mid-1970s Jones lived and led the Peoples Temple, but Jones, who was originally from Indiana, was a product of the conservative Midwest. His politics were way left of center, but he got his start as an evangelical Christian and was a twisted version of that particular American tradition.

In recent years it has become an article of faith in right wing circles, and occasionally beyond, that Jones committed voter fraud that made it possible for Democrat George Moscone, the progressive candidate for Mayor of San Francisco in 1975, to get elected. Those allegations are based on Jones’s support for Moscone in 1975 and the likelihood that the Reverend probably bused people in to the city from surrounding areas to cast voters for Moscone. However, even in the close runoff, that Moscone won by 4,400 votes, the idea that Jones committed enough fraud to make the difference is not plausible.

The details of the killings themselves have been lost over the years. Many people who have used the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to describe blind allegiance to an idea or a person may not even know that term originated with Jones’s horrific acts in November of 1978, but even that expression gets the history wrong. The cyanide laced drink that members of the Peoples Temple were forced to drink that terrible day was not Kool-Aid, but Flavor-Aid, a cheaper knockoff of the more famous brand.

Forty years after these terrible events, the dialectic between politics and religious cults is relevant again. The similarities between the relationship of Trump and his most loyal supporters, about 30-35% of the American population according to most polls, and that of a cult leader with his, and it is almost always his, followers, are many. The extreme loyalty, belief that the cult leader can do no wrong, that he was sent by G*d, view that truth is defined not by reality but by what the leader says and the conviction that even mild critics of the leader are out to destroy him that Trump’s supporters feel towards him are the same sentiments that followers of Jones, L. Ron Hubbard or others felt towards their cult leader.

There are major differences as well. Trump has benefited a great deal from religion, but has never drawn on scripture or religious ideas to motivate his followers. On the other hand, Trump has political power of a kind about which these other cult leaders could only dream. Trump’s business background is different because religious hucksters like Jones built their wealth through their cult. Trump was born wealthy, but indeed was a hucksterish businessman for decades before his current incarnation as politician and cult figure. Additionally, rather than seek complete control of a relatively small community, as President, Trump is playing out this cult drama on an enormous stage where the stakes are much higher than just the lives and futures of his followers.

The point of this comparison is not simply to identify another way that Donald Trump is a threat to American democracy or to seek an explanation for why so many Americans are so blindly loyal to him, but to raise a different, but critically important, question. How will this end for Trump and his followers? History tells us this will not end well. While mass suicides or killings, fortunately, are not going to happen, when the Trump cult crashes down, thousands, probably millions of Americans will be traumatized as their leader is exposed as a fraud and criminal.

Central to Trump’s relationship with his followers is that they have embraced him despite knowing of his many faults. They have done this by dismissing any criticism as fake news and viewing Trump himself as infallible. Trump’s followers will not revise their opinion of him if they learn more information because there is not much new to learn about Trump. His core supporters developed their initial devotion to him despite, or perhaps because of, all the scandals, dishonesty and moral grotesquerie that has long been part of his public life and has continued throughout his presidency.

If Trump ever loses power and is forced to leave the White House, regardless of why, it will be because Trump’s base, his core cult following, has been isolated as the rest of America confronts the reality of who Trump is. This would be very traumatic for those followers who do not number a few thousand like the members of the Peoples Temple in 1978, but in the tens of millions. Some will be in denial, others will fall into a PTSD linked depression, but some will turn to violence to defend their leader. The last possibility, especially if encouraged by a discredited Donald Trump could threaten the unity of the American state in ways unseen for many decades. This scenario may seem unbelievable, but a central lesson of Americans since Donald Trump rode down that escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 is that what is unbelievable today will seem ordinary in a few months.

Forty years ago the world woke up to the news that Jim Jones was a killer of historic proportions and that the Peoples Temple was one of the strangest, most violent and most disturbing cults in American history, but a few years before that, Jones was a political player in California, casting his lot with left of center Democrats to be sure, but also earning praise from conservative legislators and even police leaders throughout, and beyond, California. Jones embarked on his plan to kill his followers only when that changed, and the walls were closing in around him and the fantasy he had built. This came to a head when Jones ordered the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan as he was wrapping up an investigative visit to Jonestown. When that occurred, Jones had almost no way to keep his vision alive and decided on an extraordinarily bizarre and evil course. Trump will not follow that precise course, but when the walls close in, his instinct for self-protection and self-aggrandizement, and his lack of empathy for anybody else, traits almost all cult leaders share, will kick in. At that point, the good, or even survival, of the country will not be something to which the President will pay much attention.

Lincoln Mitchell is the author of the forthcoming San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third Place Baseball Team (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

Follow me on Twitter at:

Explore more