Lessons from Jonestown 1978 for America 2018

When words fail, as commentators speak of the current political and social upheaval, they’ll offer the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” as shorthand. But shorthand for what? How helpful is it to apply the lessons from Jonestown 1978 to America 2018?

At its most primitive level, “drinking the Kool Aid” refers to brainwashing, an explanation for extreme expressions of religious and political ideology that has thankfully been repudiated by most reputable scholars and journalists. Yet the term speaks to something that was true in Jonestown and that we are now witnessing in America: the willingness to turn a blind eye to obvious misdeeds in order to advance the cause of the organization. The danger of this, is that as the ends increasingly justify the means, and as the means become more morally repugnant, the ideological goals themselves – even if worthy in the beginning – become tainted with the compromises and justifications necessary to achieve them.

Jonestown is a tragic example of this. Is America now going down the same path?

Peoples Temple began with admirable goals of inclusion and social transformation. In the 1960s and early 1970s, people who had been excluded from the American dream were looking for a champion. Of course, there were national figures who gave voice to the longing and outrage over exclusion, but what made Peoples Temple unique was a charismatic leader whose self-proclamation as their champion combined with a capable team of activists, and made a difference in the everyday lives of Temple members. Certainly, there are parallels that can be drawn between Jim Jones and Donald Trump: both are charismatic leaders, both titillate their followers with extreme pronouncements, both exhibit questionable sexual morals, both cause chaos when the spotlight shifts away from them, both demand extreme loyalty, both are thin-skinned and unwilling to take constructive criticism, both motivate their followers by using fear, insults and disrespect for their opponents. Where the comparison falls apart is in their leadership circles. Donald Trump is not nearly as capable as Jim Jones at choosing lieutenants who can get the job done.

The people at Jonestown drank the Kool Aid, in my opinion, because their isolation, exhaustion, and self-righteous unwillingness to admit mistakes drove them to the extreme position that the only way to be both free from the overwhelming demands of their lives in Jonestown and loyal to the ideology of Peoples Temple was to die. In other words, the leadership chose symbolic relevance over the messy, complicated work of admitting fault, correcting the problems, and readjusting ideology. Holding on to what they insisted was true – that Jonestown was a success – in the face of clear facts to the contrary is what drove the murder/suicide decision. This is another potential point of comparison between Jonestown 1978 and America 2018: an unwillingness to take provable facts at face value, but instead to see every “fact” which doesn’t fit the narrative as “fake news” designed to tear down the agenda and disperse the community.

People Temple was a complicated community, comprised of Christians from Indiana with an agenda of racial inclusion, young educated mostly white people from Northern California with a social justice agenda, and African Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles with a utopian community agenda. The community grew and thrived for a season because the people cared about one another and were committed to creating a society within a society that would demonstrate that our differences in race, class, and gender need not divide us. But mutual care and joint commitment aren’t enough to guarantee sufficient food, or to reduce crushing workloads and responsibilities, or to overcome the paranoia and desperation of the community’s leadership.

What gives me hope in today’s political landscape is that America cannot be isolated from itself. This may make me a rare person, but I actually like the rough-and-tumble political turmoil that surrounds Trump’s White House. Why? Because it means that we are not allowing him to isolate his followers in a bubble of his own ideological making. For me, the most dangerous comparison between America 2018 and Jonestown 1978 is the tendency of the White House, as well as of Trump’s most vehement detractors, to see the political/social landscape in such extreme terms and to quickly and permanently relegate people into the binary categories of friend or foe. This insider/outsider ideology must be challenged in any society that seeks to advance an agenda of democratic inclusion. Yes, even “they” – whoever they are – must be included, if we are to avoid drinking the Kool Aid.

(Dr. Mary McCormick Maaga has a doctorate in Religious Studies from Drew University. She taught religious studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and is presently a United Methodist pastor. She is the author of Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Her previous article in the jonestown report is Three Groups in One. She can be reached at mjzmaaga@yahoo.com.)