Forty-three years after the Jonestown tragedy in the South American jungle in which some 950 mostly Americans died, Deadline Hollywood reported on Nov. 8 that MGM Studios is backing a biopic on Jim Jones. Leonard DiCaprio will play Jones and produce the movie, based on a Scott Rosenberg script.
There is certain to be great interest in Jones in these times when comparisons have already been made between him and his followers and former President Donald Trump and his MAGA (Make American Great Again) millions. It is unlikely that the MAGA crowd and their close relatives, the QAnon fanatics, will eventually stage a mass extinction event, however much some people may be wishing for it. But the Jonestown disaster showed that people who are divorced from reality can be motivated to do anything, including violence to themselves and/or others.
Jim Jones, haunted by perceived persecution by the authorities and the news media, led his followers in his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana. They built neat little cottages, cultivated vegetable gardens and even made cuddly Marceline soft toys for sale in the outside world, named for Jones’ wife. Their only link to that world was a dirt airstrip seven miles away. In that isolated setting, Jones – “Dad” and “Father” to his flock – also used a variety of tranquilizers, which a Guyanese doctor later discovered, to control them.
The supposedly idyllic life of the commune named for Jones changed after California Congressman Leo Ryan went to Guyana to investigate reports that some people from Ryan’s home district were being held against their will in Jonestown. Ryan was apparently taken in by a grand deception staged by Jones and saw no major problems, except a concern that Jonestown/Peoples Temple did not display any religious symbols as would a church, which Jones claimed it to be. But, as Ryan was about to depart the morning of Nov. 18, 1978, someone slipped a note to him saying a group of Jones’ followers wanted to leave. Jones agreed but one of his followers attacked Ryan with a knife, wounding him.
Obviously aware of the consequences of an attempt on the life of a Member of Congress, Jones evidently concluded that the end had come. Armed followers drove to the airstrip, where they shot and killed Ryan, three journalists and a defector and wounded several other people as they were about to board the smaller of two aircraft; a larger plane took off with most of the defectors.
Back in Jonestown, most of Jones’ followers lined up to drink a cyanide-laced soft drink from a half-drum; mothers squirted the poison into the mouths of infants, an eyewitness later said. A handful died by shooting, along with, mysteriously, Jones himself.
This writer was one of the ﬁrst two journalists whom the Guyana government allowed to visit Jonestown two days following the tragedy, after the lifting of a quarantine imposed because of reports, which proved to be false, that a hit squad was heading for Georgetown, the Guyana capital, to exact revenge. It was evident, seeing the more than 900 bodies of men, women and children lying on the ground around a meeting hall that this was Jones’ ﬁnal act of deﬁance against his presumed enemies. The building, which had doubled as Jones’ church, still prominently displayed the warning of the Spanish-born, American-educated philosopher Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, better known as George Santayana: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The MAGA universe is not located in a jungle but the isolation which Jones’ followers experienced is probably similar to that of the alternative reality created for the MAGA and QAnon folks by hundreds of Christian Fundamentalist churches, thousands of rightwing radio stations and Fox News and, as of late, Newsmax and One America News television outﬁts, reinforced by Trump’s rhetoric against the “enemies.” But it did not start with him. The “replacement” theory used to stoke racial angst among those who want to “take back America” has been peddled for decades by “white nationalists.” But they stopped being a fringe group after Trump became President and inserted many of them into his administration.
Then came the “stolen election,” which, like Jones’ complaint of persecution, gave new meaning to the replacement theory, even though it is based on a lie. “Stop the Steal” became the rallying cry of Trump and his acolytes and sparked the attack on the U.S. Capitol. That rage against perceived enemies has evidently worsened. Even on the day of the insurrection, the Associated Press reported that talk was already taking place about further violence.
More recently, The New York Times reported on Friday: “Ten months after rioters attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and after four years of a president who often spoke in violent terms about his adversaries, right-wing Republicans are talking more openly and frequently about the use of force as justiﬁable in opposition to those who dislodged him from power.” Reuters reported that nearly 800 threatening messages were sent to election ofﬁcials in 12 states. The Capitol Police noted a 107 percent increase in threats against members of Congress, compared with the same period last year. Talk of violence and a “second civil war” cannot, therefore, be dismissed as the harmless rantings of sore losers.
A few of the MAGA and QAnon insurrectionists have expressed remorse in court over their actions. For those who have not yet had buyer’s remorse, there is an ancient fable for them which has made its way to social media as a Turkish proverb: “The forest was shrinking but the trees kept voting for the axe. For the axe was clever and convinced the trees that because his handle was made of wood, he was one of them.”