The Legacy of Jim Jones and the Cult of Donald Trump

“In his prime, Dad dripped charisma…he engaged and charmed and enthralled.” — Stephan Jones, son of Jim Jones

This is not how most of us think of Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple. Rather, we consider him at his worst: the megalomaniacal leader of a doomed cult. Yet this is how his son Stephan describes him, and helps explain why hundreds of people followed him to the Jonestown commune and ultimately their deaths on November 18, 1978.

Forty years after the Jonestown tragedy it remains a devastating reminder of the dark side of devotion. Hundreds of people died by consuming cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, receiving an injection — many against their will — or, as in the case of Jim Jones, gunshot. But the Flavor-Aid wasn’t the only toxic mix on the compound. Jim Jones’s paranoia and narcissism, control over his followers, and their attraction to his ideology set the stage for the tragedy.

The extraordinary loss and unusual circumstances at Jonestown can make it seem anomalous. But the massacre is evidence of the ways people can be manipulated when their vulnerabilities, biases, and fears are exploited.

Jim Jones was persuasive, paranoid, and power-hungry. He thrived on attention, adoration, and adulation. He had a complicated relationship with his father, groomed his children to take over the family business, plotted against his enemies, held grudges, and cheated on his wife. He was equal parts bully and charmer. Sound familiar?

If you are among the majority of Americans displeased with the Trump administration, you might see similarities between Jim Jones and the President. For the “resisters,” Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, reactionary policies, and racist dog-whistles go beyond typical partisan divide. And the unwavering devotion of his base can mirror a cult mentality.

Ideologically speaking, President Trump and Jim Jones have little in common. Jim Jones preached the virtues of socialism, pacifism, and racial egalitarianism. He adopted children from various ethnicities to create a “rainbow family.” He inspired hope amongst his followers for global harmony, benevolence, and peace. Ultimately, however, he used isolation, authoritarianism, and violence to control them.

Almost no one survived the Jonestown massacre, but among them was Jim Jones’s son Stephan, who was away from the commune that day at a basketball game. While he escaped death, he lost everything, and was left to grapple with the legacy of his dad and the Peoples Temple.

“I see so many parallels [between Donald Trump and Jim Jones], it’s ridiculous” Stephan Jones told me. He believes that, like his father, President Trump is a narcissist and relies on similar manipulation tactics. Mr Jones said, “My dad would meet someone, quickly read what you feared most and what you wanted most, and convince you that he was the one to save you from one and give you the other.”

Since there was no social media forty years ago, we can only speculate what Jim Jones might have done with a larger audience and a Twitter account. We do know Trump uses the outlet to belittle, mock, and bully his adversaries. Mr. Jones said this was also a favorite maneuver of his father. “Donald Trump and my dad are excellent bullies. When all else fails, they’re going to shut you up any way they have. If you disagree with them, you’re against them, and if you’re against them, you’re the enemy…and [they believe] anything they have to do to you is justified.”

While most people refer to Peoples Temple as a cult, Jim Jones admitted he was “an agnostic.” The Jonestown community had a shared ideology that was more political than spiritual. Mr. Jones said his father used spirituality as a tool to attract and control members, but “behind the scenes, there was very little of what I would call spiritual.” Likewise, President Trump has a fervent following amongst conservative Christians despite living a life far outside the parameters of their “family values” platform.

Some believe the isolation of the White House agitates President Trump and see him growing increasingly erratic, paranoid, and controlling. He prefers campaign-style rallies with his supporters over the day-to-day work of the executive branch. And many see his base growing increasingly emboldened, inspired by his angry speeches, and willing to act on his violent rhetoric.

Likewise, Stephan Jones claims his father became increasingly erratic, paranoid, and controlling, and his undoing came, in part, due to the isolation of the compound. Living in Jonestown meant there were no new people to recruit. Without the high from wooing new followers, Jim Jones grew more reliant on drugs. But according to Stephan, Jim Jones’s “number one drug was adulation.”

Perhaps Trump is like any other President, with enemies, resistors, and over-the-top supporters. But Stephan Jones believes the similarities between his father and Donald Trump should be enough to convince concerned people to speak up. Mr. Jones said, “I feel like Jonestown and even Hitler’s Germany could not have happened had, early on, people found their voice.”