OP-ED: Cult Strongmen and their Kool-Aid
by George Hough, Washington County Democrats Communications Committee Member
On November 18, 1978, in the dense jungles of Guyana, the Reverend Jim Jones and his followers committed mass suicide by drinking a home brew of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (a Kool-Aid like drink). A total of 913 people died in the debacle (1). A colleague and I analyzed an audiotape of this tragic event as it unfolded, which became known as the final White Night Sermon (Twemlow, S. & Hough, G., 2008). In these final hours Jones spoke with rambling and slurred speech, and his thinking was meandering and paranoid. On tape the Reverend Jones can clearly be heard admonishing his followers to come forward and drink the poison, then lay down with their children to die. Jones struggled repeatedly with the parents to “get it over with” so the children would stop crying, and said that the children must be killed in order to be saved. Infanticide was offered as an act of kindness. Throughout the tape only one person objected to mass suicide. Her assertion that she had a right to live was quickly silenced by the crowd. Her body was recovered amongst the others.
That a large group can self-destruct is neither unique nor altogether surprising. The classically heralded mass suicide by Jewish zealots during the Roman siege of Masada in AD 73 is a prime historical example. The first Roman troops to enter the fallen city beheld an astonishing spectacle: every man, woman and child had voluntarily yielded to the sword rather than endure ignominious captivity and exile. Such mass suicide events beg the obvious question: why follow a leader who will lead you to the abyss?
In the right-wing media these days, Donald Trump is increasingly being referred to by some members on the extreme fringe of his MAGA Movement (“Make America Great Again”) in terms of messianic hyperbole as was the case with Jim Jones. Such rhetoric goes beyond the usual political cheerleading for one’s candidate of choice. Rather, it elevates Trump to the status of a religious savior. Trump himself has taken note of this shift in the language about him. He promotes himself to his followers as the only one who can save them from further erosion in American culture, and that only he can restore the country to its former greatness. Many of Trump’s followers believe themselves to be true patriots, the modern-day Minute Men of 1776. More worrisome are MAGA’s fringe followers, who adhere to a more religiously themed version of politics and engage in a rhythmic chorus of call and response akin to an old-fashioned tent revival meeting.
Regarding cult dynamics, there are striking similarities between Donald Trump and his MAGA fringe followers, and the likes of the Reverend Jones and his followers in the jungle of Guyana. I will enumerate three.
First, the Reverend Jones, and now Donald Trump, each respectively promoted themselves as singularly the only men on earth who can fix a broken world. Reverend Jones held himself out to his followers as a messiah who would lead them to a utopian promised land of social communalism. Under his divinely inspired leadership, the very lowest among them would be raised high. Trump is likewise being elevated as a kind of savior among his extremist MAGA adherents. In the MAGA world, under Trump’s leadership, America will reclaim its rightful place as first among nations. In both instances, the personality of the man is elevated among his followers to that of a kind of deity, as the only one who can do what needs to be done for the good of all. Among the Jonestown followers, when Jones spoke of himself as a kind of deity in the flesh, his word became absolute law. Among Trump’s adherents, the more ruthless, profane, and thuggish he becomes, so much the better. With both men, their rule is considered absolute. Thus, what emerges in this process of personality adulation in both cases is what is commonly referred to as a cult of personality–or, more aptly, the cult of the “Strong Man.”
Second, among the followers of both Jones and Trump, one observes a blind obedience to their leader’s authority. Whatever the leader says goes. This observation applies regardless of how irrational and destructive their pronouncement may sound to those of us on the outside looking in. Within the ranks of these respective groups, dissent is not tolerated. Among Reverend Jones’s followers, dissenters were radically purged when they dared to raise inconvenient questions about Jonestown or about the increasingly erratic behaviors of Jones himself. Within the MAGA ranks, especially as seen among Republican elected officials, doubters have learned to stay silent. Eyes are kept forward and all march in lockstep. The bottom-line message is: fall in with the party or fall from grace. Those outside of both the Jones following and the MAGA ranks are perceived as the enemy.
Third, cult adherents either voluntarily or involuntarily avail themselves of a limited, narrow band of information about the wider world. The flow of information provided to the adherents tends to reinforce for them a sense of being special, as being a part of some grand project bigger than themselves, and as being members of the cognoscenti (as a member of those special insiders who “know”). Information which refutes or offers alternative perspectives is rejected as invalid. For the Jonestown adherents, all received information about the world outside of Jonestown was directly filtered and provided by Jim Jones himself, or was carefully vetted through a small group of loyalist administrators. In Jonestown, all contact with the outside world, either by electronic or written means, was forbidden. As seen among the MAGA followers, information received from channels outside Fox News, or other such “alt-right” sources, are discarded as “liberal propaganda” or “deep state conspiracy.” Hence, verifiable facts do not budge opinions. Followers hermetically seal themselves inside an information echo chamber which further reinforces their beliefs about their own sense of being special. The goodness of their leader and their cause is preserved.
Jonestown serves as a tragic cautionary tale of what can happen when cult dynamics engendered by the Strong Man become metastatic. On a lesser scale, MAGA world is now echoing the above-described cult dynamics of Jonestown. This is dangerous terrain. It is a childish wish to crave having a “Strong Man” in charge. Twentieth-century history offers numerous examples of such dictators and authoritarian Strong Men (e.g., Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, or Milosevic, but to name a few) who promised the comforting illusion of certainty and stability in an otherwise dangerous and unpredictable world. These outsized personalities promised that they, and they alone, have the clear-eyed vision to solve the most pressing problems within their society. The Strong Man promises a willingness to “knock heads” and break laws when expedient, and to bend essential administrative mechanisms and institutions to their will. In exchange for their blind and unquestioning obedience, the Strong Man offers his followers the luxury of abnegating the existential responsibility of making their own essential life decisions. Independent thinking is no longer encouraged. Simply follow the pied piper and come along. All is well because the “Strong Man,” the father-figure, the supreme leader, will take care of it all for us.
Roughly speaking, the Strong Man scenario tends to play out in several ways, though there will certainly be shades of grey with any case. In the best-case outcome, if we are lucky, this strong man, like a good parent, will truly place our interests primarily above their own. This good leader will abide by the law and be guided, as well, by internalized and morally enlightened codes of norms and behavior. This leader invigorates their strength with wisdom and compassion. More often, however, we are not so lucky. In the latter case, history has often shown that this presumed Strong Man is a conman, yet another wolf in sheep’s clothing. Their followers are led to rack and ruin. The Strong Man’s presumed strength is a cynical charade which belies their raw hunger for power.
We still have a chance (no, the necessity!) at the polls in November to stop the excesses of MAGA extremism. As Democrats we remind ourselves that we are a nation of laws, not a nation predicated upon the whims and excesses of any one man. This reminder is especially salient when the Strong Man masquerades as a messianic visionary offering mugs of Kool-Aid.
(1). In total, 913 people died in Jonestown with an additional four in the nearby city of Georgetown and five in the party of U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan (including Ryan). Ryan’s group had come to investigate the complaints about the cult and was slain at the Jonestown airport by cult shooters known as Jone’s Red Guard. The majority at Jonestown died from a prepared potassium cyanide poison that was swallowed in a mixture of grape Flavor-Aid (a Kool Aid-like drink) or injected. Three people at Jonestown, including Jones, were shot. One cult member slit the throats of three young children before doing the same to herself. According to the first reporter to view the carnage at Jonestown, “many had their arms around each other, men, and women, black and white and old” (Smith, 1982).
Smith, J.Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago
Twemlow, S. & Hough, G. (2008). The Cult Leader as an Agent of a Psychotic
Fantasy of Masochistic Group Death in the “Revolutionary Suicide” in Jonestown.
Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, Vol. 24, (4), Winter, 222-239.
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