Jim Jones and Donald Trump: Is There a Parallel?

“… if all people are more or less alike, why do we burn with such all-consuming passions for some of them?”—Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 1973

During a visit with family and friends in London and the Tuscany area of Italy during the summer of 2016, I wondered how certain Europeans and descendants of Africa were viewing the American presidential campaign? In casual conversations, many non-Americans (and a few strangers) reminded me that we were electing a leader of the democratic world. Such a leader must be wise, aware of cultural nuance, prayerful and thoughtful. They must be aware that Evil is not only in us, but all around and “armed with cruel hate” (Martin Luther, 16th C). If we are electing a leader, not just for Americans, but for non-Americans, too, then I wonder, what kinds of information were they getting? Just as important, or what kinds of information were they not getting? What role was the media playing?

This summer, the Republican and Democratic conventions offered the two parties’ future vision for America and world. They showed both inclusive and exclusive aspects of a totality, all of it an effort to influence our thinking, to help us form our opinions. But what were certain Europeans and Africans thinking, and why?

In the news coverage in London, Donald Trump dominated. There was little or no mention of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The same appeared to hold in casual conversations. In the Tuscany area of Italy, Trump was compared to Silvio Berlusconi, an Italian business tycoon whose most recent tenure as Prime Minister ended in 2011. For many, Trump is considered a liar and manipulator, a joke and a disaster, a man viewed as all about himself, inexperienced as a politician, and as an impulsive person full of ill will. A typical question and concern in both places, “Do you think he will become president?” Immediately following the question was, “How on earth did he make it so far?”

At the same time, individuals had little or nothing positive to say about Hillary. She is a politician, we were told, and you cannot trust politicians; or, she is experienced, but not sensational; or, she is a woman. Deeper probes might ask about her grounding values and how they might play out in her Methodist faith. Nothing compelling was said about the good things Hillary has already done to champion disadvantaged children, to address issues of health care coverage for everyone, or to oppose racism.

The people with whom I spoke appeared to be knowledgeable and had strong opinions – or prejudices – about Trump or Clinton, but of course knew nothing about Jim Jones. And without this knowledge, how could they see what I saw, the parallels between Jim Jones and Donald Trump: their self-centered narcissism on the flip side of charisma; their hierarchical power arrangements; and their self-serving manipulation of information. I thought about a lack of discerning questions and compelling moral vision for a responsible democratic society; their views on the roles of women; their inability to address ontological issues (such as anxiety over violence), and their grandiose sense of mental, physical and spiritual well-being. These are immense and complex issues, endemic to human conditions. They are often confused with unrealistic and simplistic promises of salvation, and the undisputed claims that “it is true.” What is considered “true” is without a show of evidence, critical thinking, or historical and moral awareness.

How do we explain the appeal of Donald Trump today or a Jim Jones 40 years ago? What is “the spell cast…” that fascinates, tickles the ears, entertains, or otherwise draws so much attention to certain personalities, and not enough to others?

What is the meaning and role of redemption in society and who are the redeemers? Where on earth are they socially located or embodied? If Jones and Trump are cast and forever remembered as bad and nasty people, and if Hillary Clinton is dubbed as “crooked,” then can such persons – including our many selves – ever become good again? Can they be redeemed? Can we?

Democracy must find ways to promote ideal concepts and encourage change of undesired parts of the self as these relate to the wider social and external environment. As citizens of a democratic society, we must find ways to redeem and sustain those who sustain others. Herein lies a desired role for the political leader and religious and visionary. Grace and forgiveness interwoven, along with the unity of love (agape), power and justice must be the desideratum.

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Reflections on Jonestown, 37th Anniversary, November 18, 2015. His complete collection of writings is here.)