Like many people in the United States, I voted in the 2020 election, then witnessed the assault on the electoral process that is fundamental to our democracy. It was shocking to watch Donald Trump and his supporters attempt to overturn the election over unfounded claims of election fraud, even after all the lawsuits had all been dismissed. Even when he had less than a month left to serve, he was nothing less than a loose cannon, wielding his power in extreme ways, inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol, anything he could do to overturn his decisive loss to Joe Biden.
We watched analysts and pundits, public servants on every level of government and every-day citizens scratching their heads, witnessing Donald Trump’s behavior as his presidency was coming to a close. We all wondered when he would come to his senses, believing that surely he would rise above his disappointment and desire for ultimate power to assume the public servant position he was elected to fulfill. This of course would mean putting the well-being of the American people first, ensuring a smooth transition of power. Given his behavior of the previous three-and-a-half years, we should have known that wasn’t going to happen. Clearly, while he was in charge, his only goal was to stay in charge, and the rest of it – the American people, American institutions, American democracy itself – be damned.
I could not sleep the night before January 6, 2021. I knew in my bones that something was going to happen, and that it would not be good. How did I know? Donald Trump’s behavior was all too familiar to me. As I observed everything that happened between election day and the eve of the insurrection, I was transported back to my own first-hand experience of witnessing what happened with another man when the world closed in on him, was on a swift slide towards losing his power. He could not be bailed out for his transgressions, nor pay anyone to cover up his behavior, nor escape the carnage of his own socio-pathological behavior. Like Donald Trump, this man was willing to take everyone down with him.
That man was Jim Jones and our group was Peoples Temple. When it was all over for him, he saw to it that it was over for everyone, and more than 900 people died as a result.
Although we in the Temple espoused principles of freedom, human dignity, and social justice – the basic tenets of our nation – the followers displayed a well-meaning façade, even as we saw those ideals succumb to the whims of our leader. We came to believe that what he said and did, signified the means to achieve those ideals. He spewed cynicism and disdain, and denigrated people from those in government to those within our own ranks, and we became accustomed to it all. We were browbeaten and filled with fear and despair rather than a vision of vibrant possibility and hope. Worst of all, we became inured to it all. And in the end, did not Trump’s lies about election fraud become a thing of normalcy rather than an aberration? Shouldn’t we have considered that an intolerable assault on the trust of the people of our nation?
The striking similarities between Jim Jones and Donald Trump stem from a deep and desperate need never to yield center stage. The world of Donald Trump revolves around him, and him alone. The level of Trump’s self-centeredness – as it was with Jones, –is incomprehensible to the average person. People see him as weird, bold, brazen, shameless and laughable, but somehow the magnitude of danger he poses seems to escape his many enablers and supporters. The same was true for us. The danger we faced as members of Peoples Temple escaped our awareness.
When we experience things beyond the scope of our comprehension, we tend to tolerate questionable behavior, because somewhere within us we want to believe that there is some good reason for it, that the leader knows best. Perhaps some think that he will eventually come around to more normalized behavior and predictable actions. For many, the drama of Trump has had purely entertainment value. With sociopaths and malignant narcissists however, we cannot waste time trying to figure out what’s going on in their heads. We tend to see danger only as something huge and terrible happens, and then we are forced to take a deeper look, and salvage what we can.
- Obsession with power over others
To satisfy his own sense of importance, Jim had to connect with and seek approval of those people whom he saw as powerful. His association with them and their endorsement of him stoked his ego and made him feel significant. This was evident in his relationship with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, California Lt. Governor Mervyn Dymally, Angela Davis, Laura Allende, the sister of slain Chilean president Salvador Allende. His connections also spread out to those who had different ethics than ours – for example, with the head of the far-right leaning John Birch Society in Ukiah, California – because having an “in” with them gave him an even wider range of power. In Guyana, he cultivated a friendship with prominent government leaders, including Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, but he also cozied up to Cheddi Jagan, the leader of the opposition.
In similar fashion, Trump entered the White House with his own connections already established, but his ego was further inflated by questionable relations with Vladimir Putin of Russia, one of our long-standing political adversaries. For him, this seductive alliance fundamentally meant that he could feel a level of personal power and grandiosity that could not be satisfied by tending to the duties of his position alone.
- Boldness is misunderstood as charismatic benevolence
A common trait with people like Trump and Jones is audacious and cocksure behavior. We tend to think of audacious behavior and public boldness as passionate commitment to matters of importance. Many even perceive it as benevolent. But we don’t necessarily see that it can mask danger. Peoples Temple, a small organization in comparison to our nation as a whole, had such serious flaws that 900 people died. And such flaws manifested themselves on a larger scale with Trump as well, as hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths occurred as a result of his hate, narcissism, and negligence, even without considering the very real damage and diminishment of the human spirit stemming from his animosity towards women, immigrants, and people of color.
We didn’t really understand Jim’s personal insecurity and deep-seated need to feel important and in control of the world around him. We believed that his bold, passionate, and often outrageous demeanor meant that he cared. What we couldn’t see was that more than anything, he wanted to be seen as powerful in the eyes of everyone, from his followers, to the outside world, and especially to those in positions of political power.
- Sowing division and confusion
Jim was constantly sowing division among us – telling lies, pitting people against each other – in order to create discord in relationships. In his view, weakening others strengthened him. He even turned against individuals in his most loyal and trusted inner circle, if he had any inkling that their allegiance was faltering or waning. As his paranoia increased – as he presented more and more reasons for people to question his leadership, even his worthiness as a leader – we entered a downward spiral into a cesspool of despair and hopelessness, further fueling his paranoia.
For Trump this was evident in the way that Trump pitted his followers against anyone who crossed him, including – especially –those Republicans who wanted to move on and acknowledge the Biden win. Like Jim, if Trump was upset, everyone had to suffer in some way. Trump created fear among his followers, particularly average working-class citizens, who became frightened that the country would go into a tailspin without him in power, and the ensuing division and confusion has only been gratifying to him.
- Lack of tolerance for disagreement or dissent
In Peoples Temple, anyone who did not agree with Jim was either punished or shamed. Those who defected were seen as traitors. Many of us – both apostates and loyal members – were spied on, followed, and harassed.
So too, Trump has blasted anyone in his orbit who is not willing to lie, or uphold his lies and deception. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Majority Leader in the Senate stood by Trump’s side for four years, but when he denounced the actions of the Capitol rioters, Trump referred to him as a “dumb son of a bitch” and now wants to replace him in the Senate leadership. On January 5, when Mike Pence, Trump’s loyal vice president, said he was going to fulfill his constitutional duty and certify Biden as President, Trump told him they could no longer be friends. This has also been evident in the countless firings and forced resignations, from FBI Director Robert Mueller to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and cyber security chief Chris Krebs.
- The leader’s behavior draws upon / justifies the shadow side of followers
Jim loved the shock value of swearing like a sailor, of throwing a Bible across a room, and generally of exhibiting crude and cocky self-aggrandizing behavior. He claimed to be the only heterosexual man among us, who was endowed with such an excessive amount of sexual energy that it was a burden. His followers derived a sense of glee in this disrespectful, reckless, irresponsible and undiplomatic behavior. We interpreted it as fearless. We felt more powerful just by aligning with him and his braggadocio. Jim had no problem bad-mouthing people in his public rants, using foul and hateful language, shaming and criticizing anyone he didn’t like or whom he perceived as a threat.
Trump too, during his presidency, regularly spewed untruths, without a care as to the destructive nature of what he was doing. The more destructive and disparaging, the more power and delight he seemed to glean from it. In turn, his followers use their leader’s outrageous behavior as a shield to protect the malignant aspects of their own personalities, a means by which they can relinquish the responsibility and wisdom of their own thinking.
- The forging and shaping of a cult-like following
Though differing greatly from one another in ideology and personal background, Jim Jones and Donald Trump, attracted a counterpart in the form of a group of people who, because of their own need to feel significant, allowed themselves to be shaped into what their leader needed. The leader is seen as the embodiment of the cause, and the followers shift into becoming dedicated to the leader over any ideology. In both cases, the followers are given permission – even encouraged – to act out, independent from laws and rules in society, especially if those action counter criticisms and threats to the leader.
For us, being revolutionary in our stand for freedom and social justice was delusional, because we were not living in such a way. It was entirely maladaptive. Jim fostered within us a sense of powerful autonomy as a group, but it wasn’t because of his own needs. We adopted the idea of being different such that we did not need to go by the rules of society. It was our own quixotic belief in who we were that justified any wrongdoing, whether by our leader or ourselves, and we entertained romantic notions on the moral rightness of being deceptive and unethical if it was necessary.
Trump loyalists have been the same way: they are not able to see that the only one that Trump cares about is himself. In the way Jim Jones used us, Trump’s followers too have been used to prop up his fragile ego and make him feel important.
- Mindset of persecution and victimization
In Peoples Temple, an overarching theme that permeated our mindset was this notion of persecution and victimization by society and the government. We had an “us vs. them” attitude. Although this idea had a foundation in history with regard to discrimination and racism, it was expanded into largely a beast of our own making. Drummed into our thinking, it supported the idea that we needed Jim and his guidance to be safe. It was common to hear him talk about fighting and dying rather than suffer persecution by “the enemy.” This notion of being victims of persecution and victimization enhanced our dedication so that when the “enemy” landed on our doorstep, we were prepared to take swift and decisive actions. Such were the acts of violence and murder were committed on that last day. That was his version of “stand back and stand by.”
In post-election “stop the steal” rallies, Trump accused the Democratic Party of carrying out election fraud and insisted that he and his followers were victims of corruption. The result of the continuing claims of a rigged election has been severe damage to people’s faith in the democratic process. This assault on the people he was positioned to serve, has incomprehensively fostered a deeper loyalty to him and created a climate of anger, volatility, and violence. The result has been chaos which will damage our nation for years.
I am concerned about what lies ahead in the post-Trump era. I had hoped that the words of his niece Mary Trump, that he would stop at nothing, would have been heeded. And as she adds, he has not gone anywhere and will continue on his pathologically narcissistic trajectory.
My life in Peoples Temple was a lesson in toxic leadership and followership. With 43 years since the deaths of my friends and family in Jonestown, and after four years of Trump, I’ve come to understand the personality and the pathology of these two men and an understanding about what both men required of their followers. Although this article has offered similarities between Jim Jones and Donald Trump, the reflections here barely scratch the surface. There is a lot more we need to consider, not just about our leaders but about ourselves as followers.
One thing is clear. We cannot sit back and try to make sense out of unstable behavior of our leaders, because – unless we are all insightful psychologists, or have experienced the behavior of a dangerous leader in the way that I did – it is difficult to fully understand the danger of allowing such individuals to have power in our lives. To do so is akin to standing on a seashore, marveling at the unexpectedly large expanse of beach during a sudden low tide, unaware of the tsunami that will crash ashore before we can escape it.
Attention to the mental health of our leaders is imperative. Mental stability, diplomacy, compassion, a genuine concern for each citizen, and a willingness to be personally and professionally transparent, are attributes are what we have expected in our leaders. After our experiences – with Jim Jones, with Donald Trump – these are what we should demand. Lacking such attributes will only bring a deadly cost to our nation.
(Jordan Vilchez is a former member of Peoples Temple and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her full collection of articles may be found here. She can be reached at email@example.com.)