Recognizing Toxic Leadership: The Similarities of Jim Jones and Donald Trump

A Jonestown survivor urges us to consider the parallels between the deadly sociopathic narcissism of Jim Jones and the Donald Trump, the most dangerous malignant personality ever to occupy the White House and the leader of the most dangerous domestic terror group–the GOP–since the Confederacy:

  1. Obsession with power over others

To satisfy his own sense of importance, Jim had to connect with and seek approval of those people whom he saw as powerful.  His association with them and their endorsement of him stoked his ego and made him feel significant.  This was evident in his relationship with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, California Lt. Governor Mervyn Dymally, Angela Davis, Laura Allende, the sister of slain Chilean president Salvador Allende. His connections also spread out to those who had different ethics than ours – for example, with the head of the far-right leaning John Birch Society in Ukiah, California – because having an “in” with them gave him an even wider range of power. In Guyana, he cultivated a friendship with prominent government leaders, including Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, but he also cozied up to Cheddi Jagan, the leader of the opposition.

In similar fashion, Trump entered the White House with his own connections already established, but his ego was further inflated by questionable relations with Vladimir Putin of Russia, one of our long-standing political adversaries. For him, this seductive alliance fundamentally meant that he could feel a level of personal power and grandiosity that could not be satisfied by tending to the duties of his position alone.

  1. Boldness is misunderstood as charismatic benevolence

A common trait with people like Trump and Jones is audacious and cocksure behavior.  We tend to think of audacious behavior and public boldness as passionate commitment to matters of importance. Many even perceive it as benevolent. But we don’t necessarily see that it can mask danger.  Peoples Temple, a small organization in comparison to our nation as a whole, had such serious flaws that 900 people died. And such flaws manifested themselves on a larger scale with Trump as well, as hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths occurred as a result of his hate, narcissism, and negligence, even without considering the very real damage and diminishment of the human spirit stemming from his animosity towards women, immigrants, and people of color.

We didn’t really understand Jim’s personal insecurity and deep-seated need to feel important and in control of the world around him. We believed that his bold, passionate, and often outrageous demeanor meant that he cared. What we couldn’t see was that more than anything, he wanted to be seen as powerful in the eyes of everyone, from his followers, to the outside world, and especially to those in positions of political power.

  1. Sowing division and confusion

Jim was constantly sowing division among us – telling lies, pitting people against each other – in order to create discord in relationships. In his view, weakening others strengthened him. He even turned against individuals in his most loyal and trusted inner circle, if he had any inkling that their allegiance was faltering or waning. As his paranoia increased – as he presented more and more reasons for people to question his leadership, even his worthiness as a leader – we entered a downward spiral into a cesspool of despair and hopelessness, further fueling his paranoia.

For Trump this was evident in the way that Trump pitted his followers against anyone who crossed him, including – especially –those Republicans who wanted to move on and acknowledge the Biden win. Like Jim, if Trump was upset, everyone had to suffer in some way. Trump created fear among his followers, particularly average working-class citizens, who became frightened that the country would go into a tailspin without him in power, and the ensuing division and confusion has only been gratifying to him.

  1. Lack of tolerance for disagreement or dissent

In Peoples Temple, anyone who did not agree with Jim was either punished or shamed. Those who defected were seen as traitors. Many of us – both apostates and loyal members – were spied on, followed, and harassed.

So too, Trump has blasted anyone in his orbit who is not willing to lie, or uphold his lies and deception. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Majority Leader in the Senate stood by Trump’s side for four years, but when he denounced the actions of the Capitol rioters, Trump referred to him as a “dumb son of a bitch” and now wants to replace him in the Senate leadership. On January 5, when Mike Pence, Trump’s loyal vice president, said he was going to fulfill his constitutional duty and certify Biden as President, Trump told him they could no longer be friends. This has also been evident in the countless firings and forced resignations, from FBI Director Robert Mueller to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and cyber security chief Chris Krebs.

  1. The leader’s behavior draws upon / justifies the shadow side of followers

Jim loved the shock value of swearing like a sailor, of throwing a Bible across a room, and generally of exhibiting crude and cocky self-aggrandizing behavior. He claimed to be the only heterosexual man among us, who was endowed with such an excessive amount of sexual energy that it was a burden. His followers derived a sense of glee in this disrespectful, reckless, irresponsible and undiplomatic behavior. We interpreted it as fearless. We felt more powerful just by aligning with him and his braggadocio. Jim had no problem bad-mouthing people in his public rants, using foul and hateful language, shaming and criticizing anyone he didn’t like or whom he perceived as a threat.

Trump too, during his presidency, regularly spewed untruths, without a care as to the destructive nature of what he was doing. The more destructive and disparaging, the more power and delight he seemed to glean from it. In turn, his followers use their leader’s outrageous behavior as a shield to protect the malignant aspects of their own personalities, a means by which they can relinquish the responsibility and wisdom of their own thinking.

  1. The forging and shaping of a cult-like following

Though differing greatly from one another in ideology and personal background, Jim Jones and Donald Trump, attracted a counterpart in the form of a group of people who, because of their own need to feel significant, allowed themselves to be shaped into what their leader needed.  The leader is seen as the embodiment of the cause, and the followers shift into becoming dedicated to the leader over any ideology. In both cases, the followers are given permission – even encouraged – to act out, independent from laws and rules in society, especially if those action counter criticisms and threats to the leader.

For us, being revolutionary in our stand for freedom and social justice was delusional, because we were not living in such a way. It was entirely maladaptive. Jim fostered within us a sense of powerful autonomy as a group, but it wasn’t because of his own needs. We adopted the idea of being different such that we did not need to go by the rules of society.  It was our own quixotic belief in who we were that justified any wrongdoing, whether by our leader or ourselves, and we entertained romantic notions on the moral rightness of being deceptive and unethical if it was necessary.

Trump loyalists have been the same way: they are not able to see that the only one that Trump cares about is himself. In the way Jim Jones used us, Trump’s followers too have been used to prop up his fragile ego and make him feel important.

  1. Mindset of persecution and victimization

In Peoples Temple, an overarching theme that permeated our mindset was this notion of persecution and victimization by society and the government. We had an “us vs. them” attitude. Although this idea had a foundation in history with regard to discrimination and racism, it was expanded into largely a beast of our own making. Drummed into our thinking, it supported the idea that we needed Jim and his guidance to be safe. It was common to hear him talk about fighting and dying rather than suffer persecution by “the enemy.”  This notion of being victims of persecution and victimization enhanced our dedication so that when the “enemy” landed on our doorstep, we were prepared to take swift and decisive actions. Such were the acts of violence and murder were committed on that last day. That was his version of “stand back and stand by.”

In post-election “stop the steal” rallies, Trump accused the Democratic Party of carrying out election fraud and insisted that he and his followers were victims of corruption. The result of the continuing claims of a rigged election has been severe damage to people’s faith in the democratic process. This assault on the people he was positioned to serve, has incomprehensively fostered a deeper loyalty to him and created a climate of anger, volatility, and violence. The result has been chaos which will damage our nation for years.

If we are fool enough to elect this guy and his crime syndicate, it will be his number one priority to make sure it is the last election we ever have as a free people. Even the Confederacy did not pose his level of danger he does, because the Confederates simply want to leave our Constitutional order and start their own country. Trump and the MAGA cult want to end it and make him ruler for life.


4 Responses

  1. How to get people who still follow him to see this????? Not necessarily the political answer to the Trump problem, but Pence had barely raised 1 million dollars when he dropped out of the “race” with debts of over $620,000 to pay off, and as CNBC pointed out, he is not independently wealthy so had to give up based on money alone. No one seems to be able to go against Trump and live. Hoping the judicial system can take him out of play.

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