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Jim Jones and the Lessons of Jonestown

Ignoring the warning signs of a dangerous demagogue can be deadly

NON SPECIFIE - NON DATE: Portrait du Pasteur américain Jim Jones à l'origine du massacre de la communauté de Jonestown. (Photo by Michèle VIGNES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Jim Jones was a progressive voice in the civil rights movement before he moved his followers to Guyana, and led them to a mass suicide.

Michèle Vignes/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Tensions at the Peoples Temple camp at Jonestown came to a head with a visit from a concerned congressman. In November 1978, Representative Leo Ryan had flown in with a group of journalists to see just what was going on in the jungle of Guyana, where constituents in Ryan’s home state of California feared their loved ones were trapped in an abusive cult. The morning the delegation was planning to leave, NBC’s Don Harris confronted the leader, Jim Jones, on camera. Someone had passed him a note the night before that said, basically, Get me the hell out of here. What, Harris asked, did Jones make of the note, and was it concerning to him that someone in his group felt that way? Jones’ lips tightened. “He wants to leave his son here,” he said from behind aviator sunglasses. “If Jonestown’s such a bad place why’s he going to leave his son here?” Harris pressed him, and Jones cut him off. “People play games, friend. They lie. If it’s so damn bad, why’s he leaving his son here? Can you give me a good reason for that?”

Later that day, Harris, Ryan, two other journalists and a defector would be shot and killed at Jones’ command on a tarmac as the group tried to leave. Back at the camp, around 900 Peoples Temple members would die in painful convulsions after drinking cyanide mixed with Flavor Aid. Audio recordings of the killings reveal Jones urging his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Some gulped the poison willingly. Parents fed it to their babies. Others resisted and were forcibly injected by Jones’ most loyal devotees. Only a handful of people escaped the scene. Even the farm animals, dogs and a pet chimp were killed. Jones was found dead by a gunshot to the head, surrounded by rows of bodies laid side-by-side, bloating in the sun.

It can be tempting to dismiss Jones as a drug-addled madman and his followers as crazy or foolish, but that would ignore the warning. After all, he convinced well-meaning humanitarians to believe his message of socialist equality, follow him literally into the jungle, build a racially integrated farming community and then, in a worst-case nightmare come true, kill themselves and murder their loved ones. “That’s leadership,” says Jeff Guinn, author of the 2017 book The Road to Jonestown and executive producer of a new SunDance TV docuseries Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle marking the 40th anniversary of the cult tragedy. Despots like Hitler directly inspired Jones, and others since then have followed his strategy of manipulative control. Guinn spoke with RS about avoiding death at the hands of a power-hungry leader.

Was Jones doomed to be a murderous cult leader from the beginning?
I’ve always said if he were hit by a car and killed in the Fifties, we’d remember him as one of the great early leaders of the civil rights movement. When he started Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, he built a congregation by doing amazingly positive things. Jim Jones brought about actual integration. The dark part is that even during that time, he was faking miracle healings and posing as different kinds of Christian believers — or even atheists — depending on what audience he was trying to impress. He was doing good things to gain influence, and the more power he had, the more he gave into the dark side.

In those early days, the community, the media and even politicians embraced Jones as a celebrity. Were there warning signs that people missed?
Jones, from the beginning, did the same things virtually every dangerous demagogue will do. It could have been obvious if we’d known how to look. First, any demagogue will use actual problems or frustrations to build a following. In Jones’s case, in the segregated 1950s and early 1960s, he was a rare white preacher who came out for civil rights. He talked about how only white male Americans got everything they wanted, that there needed to be gender and economic equality. But then, as all demagogues do, he stepped in and said he was the only one who could change it. And that is the big warning sign. Right there the buzzer should go off. It didn’t with Jones, it hasn’t with certain demagogues ever since, but that is the step that sets up everything else.

Was there a specific point or a period of time where he crossed over to the path that would lead to the infamous mass suicides and killings?
If there was a huge turning point, it was when he went out to California because there wasn’t enough attention available [for him] in Indiana. He started to do more outrageous things to get the attention: traveling with his followers in groups of Greyhound buses, going into towns and putting on shows based on fake healings and false ministries. And the pressure on him was so great because demagogues have to keep creating crises and appearing to be the only one who can solve them. The stress is enormous. He turned to drugs, particularly uppers, which reinforced his natural paranoia. From there, there was far less good done and he started teetering on the brink.

How did creating crises help him maintain his power?
Once the demagogue has found a pocket of people to appeal to, then he has to identify enemies for them to hate, for them to want to fight. [The message is:] “Anyone who disagrees is not just wrong, they’re evil. They’re out there trying to destroy us.” From there, Jones or a demagogue like him has to isolate his followers from the outside world. That begins with the media. Anything that’s printed that might contradict what he’s saying could convince his followers they’re following the wrong guy, so he has to encourage them not to believe any outside voices in the press or their own families. You want to make sure the only voice they hear is yours. And then finally, the last thing a demagogue needs to do to retain control is to constantly create new crises. By the end, when Jones had his followers isolated in the jungle, he told them things like, “Back in America, black people are being herded into prison camps,” and the CIA and the FBI were out to get them. Of course it wasn’t happening, but his followers didn’t have access to other information. He’d give a news report every night rather than letting them read newspapers and listen to radio. And by that time they’d been accepting his foolishness for so long that they just went on and accepted this, too.

Is there danger in thinking I could never be taken in by someone like Jones, that I’d never believe him or follow him?
The thing that scared the crap out of me as I [was] researching this book, was sitting with someone who became a member of the Temple: he was in college in the mid 1960s and Jones’ Greyhound bus troupe comes into town. This is a white guy who is very socially conscious; the kid is just outraged by the racial injustice, unfairness to women, all the things he thinks are wrong with society. Just for the hell of it he goes to one of Jones’ programs, and there’s this man up on the pulpit saying everything he believes and saying, “Join us, help us change the world. Don’t just sit there —  if you don’t come with us that proves you really don’t care,” and the kid jumps up and gets on a Greyhound bus. And I found myself thinking, dammit! I might have done that.

Those of us who are outside any demagogue movement always assume the people following somebody like that are real idiots. It’s so obvious they’re accepting bunk, they must be fools. What Peoples Temple can demonstrate is that some of the most intelligent people in the country can be taken in. It doesn’t happen overnight. Jim Jones did not just suddenly appear in California with a following in the hundreds of thousands across the country. He used media exposure, getting on TV, saying controversial things for years before he emerged as someone who wanted pretty much all the power he could get.

Why did the drug abuse and infidelity to his wife and other mounting evidence of lies and instability not cause followers to defect?
That’s the point where a lot of people start to think maybe the leader isn’t everything they thought he was but the movement still is, and what’s necessary now is for the people who really care about this to keep working together. Jones used to preach what he called “pragmatic socialism.” He’d tell people, we need to do what we do to get our message across. If sometimes there are things we’d rather not do, we need to do them anyway. Whatever it takes.

Color copies of Jonestown Promotional Book in 1978Jonestown Promotional Book Copies, New York, USA

Color copy of Jonestown Promotional Book. Photo credit: Ray Stubblebiine/AP/REX Shutterstock

Do you think Jones was smart — like an evil genius — or just crazy? And would it have mattered if anyone could’ve told the difference?
People make the mistake of thinking if you’re a successful demagogue you’re either an evil genius or you’re insane. A lot of what Jim Jones did was instinctive. He didn’t sit around and plan carefully for the future, and most demagogues don’t. That’s another reason catastrophe is inevitable. They come up with their own version of the truth and instantly adapt to it: “If I believe it then that’s what’s true no matter what anybody tells me.” So they’re not geniuses in the sense of being intellectual giants, and they’re not insane in the sense of not being able to reason at all. They’re somewhere in the middle. They have an instinct for warping the truth, for presenting events in a way that may be destructive to everybody else but will help elevate them in terms of power and attention.

Something I find chilling is as the end is closing in on Jonestown with the arrival of the congressman and the news reporters, those visitors assume they’re in control of the situation and that the rule of American law can protect them. What did they fail to understand about Jonestown at that point?
If a demagogue has isolated his followers to the point where they’re not hearing any outside voices, it’s not a normal situation anymore. Reason has left the building. [Rep.] Leo Ryan, his staff and the journalists who came in saw people pretty much going about everyday life and they assumed that reflected normal conditions. It didn’t. Before Ryan left and just before he was to die, he was attacked by one of Jones’ followers with a knife. That shook him. Before that he was going to stay overnight again. He didn’t think there was any immediate danger. You can never assume that the committed followers of a demagogue are going to be open to reason or to normal rules of civility.

So how do we stop someone like Jones from grabbing this kind of power before it’s too late?
The sign is right at the beginning when someone says there’s this terrible injustice taking place and I’m the only one who can change it. That’s the point where we have to better recognize what’s going on and step away from it as a society.

What if we didn’t step away from it? What if we went ahead and elected him to a very high office? Would we be as doomed as the people of Jonestown?
There’s always going to be a concentrated core of people who are going to continue to believe no matter what, and a certain core that’s against [the demagogue]. It’s the middle that will make up the difference. The only reason someone gets into power in the first place is that the people who could’ve voted against him or her stayed home and the core followers went out. If enough people see what’s happening and get out and vote that will change it.

Could a leader order mass suicide today, or if not, what changed?
It hasn’t changed and it could happen. It’s human nature to want to believe. If any demagogue convinces you that what her or she is saying is the entire truth and you believe that with all your heart, [it’s possible]. We see religious suicide to this day. There’s no reason that a politician, particularly one in the most powerful of offices, couldn’t do the same thing. There would be some people who would do it.

In This Article: Cults, Jonestown Massacre

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