The day after Super Tuesday I ransacked a box of old papers for my senior thesis about Jim Jones and the rise of American-shaped fascism. The Jonestown massacre went down while I was in college and left me reeling. I spent months in the library trying to figure out how and why people participated in their own murders — and the murders of their children. I studied the dangers of blind belief in authoritarian leadership.
While there are obvious differences between Jim Jones and Donald Trump, there are enough similarities between the two grandiose and violent men that we are at a very dangerous juncture.
The art of the scam
Jim Jones was a con man who perpetrated faith-healing hoaxes involving chicken guts and cancer “cures.” Trump promised riches to others via the now-defunct Trump “University.” Initially, Jones’s followers, many poor and marginalized, were seduced by the social services he provided and his guarantees of an even greater Utopian community in the nether regions of Guyana.
Trump, who points (ad nauseum) to the jobs he’s created (neglecting to mention the layoffs and exported employment he’s also responsible for), is promising to make America Great Again. Whatever that means. But desperate people believe. And that’s the problem.
By having his very own church with his very own pulpit, Jones was able to repeat his revelations about the coming race war; hammering home the need to escape to Jonestown. Trump, with wall-to-wall coverage on cable TV (thanks, Joe Scarborough et al.) has been given virtual free reign to claim we are being overrun by “illegals” and terrorists. In his world, picking up kids and shipping them over the border and killing innocent family members of terrorists makes sense. And he says it on TV again and again. Because he can.
Not being able to hang your hat on somebody’s words keeps you off-balance and vulnerable. Jones would play to his mostly black followers, encouraging them to believe he embodied their hopes and ideals for a decent society — meanwhile he mostly deputized whites. Trump, too, is capable of speaking out of both sides of his mouth (which is impressive, given the permanently implanted dog-whistle.) He “loves” women and yet he mocks their appearance. He says he gives millions to disabled Americans but ridicules a journalist with a muscle disorder.
Rage as a control
Challenging Jones flipped a switch. (Sound familiar?) He not only used humiliation to keep people in line, but also the “board of education” and a cattle prod. Protesting at a Trump rally incites violent talk from the podium and brutality from the crowd. “Get him out of here!” Trump instructed his audience when someone from Black Lives Matter demonstrated. And he said he’d like to punch another protester in the face.
The creation of a common enemy and the fanning of paranoia
Jones delineated a them/us split, projecting his own murderous intent onto outsiders. He stoked his followers’ fears of nuclear war, governmental overreach, and American racism — getting them to move to an isolated jungle. And then he destroyed them. Trump has tapped into a vein of economic insecurity among whites, while playing cute with the Klan. What could go wrong there?
We can — and must — prevent our democracy from succumbing to a thin-skinned, ego-maniacal racist.
P.S. Don’t get me started on Ted Cruz.
Erika Raskin writes both fiction and real life. She is the author of “Close,” a story of family and suspense. Her second novel will be published by St. Martin’s Press next year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.