Jonestown: A long-ago con trick by a cult leader offers insights into Trump campaign events today

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 13, 2020

Houses in Jonestown, Guyana, 1979. Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore – Photo Courtesy of “The Jonestown report”.

It was a coincidence that the BBC World Service spent part of Sunday, December 13 talking about the 1978 Jonestown mass murder-suicide at the instigation of American cult leader and self-professed faith healer Jim Jones. Coincidence because the night before, in Washington, D.C. and several state capitals across America, thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters had marched, to protest, against all evidence, what they contend is a stolen election.

I’ll explain the coincidence – wherefore and how – soon, but first want to sum up the events of Saturday, December 12. Four people were stabbed in D.C. on December 12, after Trump-supporting far-right groups clashed with counter protestors. The Guardian reported that the stabbed people had sustained potentially life-threatening injuries.

The protests by Trump supporters came a day after the US Supreme Court rejected a Texas lawsuit that asked America’s apex court to throw out some 20 million votes in four key states where Joe Biden won fair and square.

It seems as if Mr Trump supports attempts by his supporters to put themselves in harm’s way in pursuit of a senseless, illegal and undemocratic attempt to reverse a free and fair election.

As the BBC’s two-part series on Jonestown went out on air, that long-ago con trick by a cult leader seemed to offer insights into current events.

It showed the extent of peoples’ devotion to Jones, who started the Peoples Temple in Indiana. They followed him to a jungle commune in Guyana when he sought to escape scrutiny in the United States. When there were media accounts of human rights abuses at the commune and California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived to investigate, he was shot dead on the airstrip as tried to leave Guyana. Soon after the airstrip shooting, Jones forced 909 members of the commune to take their own lives by imbibing a cyanide-laced soft drink. Jones, incidentally, prided himself on being a Communist and campaigner against racism. He was said to study Hitler’s techniques on manipulating people and worked to the notion of unifying his group by identifying a shared enemy.

In light of current events, it’s worth pondering the delusional nature of Jones’s aims, the control he exerted over his supporters and the tragic futility of what eventually transpired.

The BBC series is by Erin Martin, who herself grew up in a religious group that exercised strong control over its members’ lives. The BBC says of the series, that Ms Martin heard from survivors of the Jonestown Massacre, including “Stephan Jones, son of the Reverend Jim Jones; Vera Washington, for whom Peoples Temple was ‘a wonderful, warm family’ before it all went wrong; Jordan Vilchez, who at 16 already belonged to Jones’ inner circle; John Cobb, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, Tim Carter and Mike Cartmell, who each lost several family members in Jonestown; and Fielding M McGehee III, Temple archivist and Research Director at the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website.”

Also in light of events around the Trump election defeat, here’s a further nugget from the BBC show notes: “How could one man’s increasing paranoia have driven so many people, who had built a mission community from nothing in four years, into a seemingly pointless sacrifice?”

How indeed?

Click here and have a listen, if you can.