We All Live In Jonestown Now

When I was living in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, we’d get leaflets stuck under our front door inviting us to attend services at something called the Peoples Temple. It was, they claimed, a new kind of religion, egalitarian, anti-racist, multicultural, politically and socially progressive.

Nobody in my semi-communal household was looking for any kind of religion, new or otherwise, so we’d only glance casually at the leaflets before tossing them. At the same time, we had no reason to think anything negative about the Peoples Temple. It was just one more element in the crazy-quilt tapestry that made San Francisco – at least in our estimation – such a charming and colorful place.

Besides, the Peoples Temple, led by a charismatic speed freak named Jim Jones, had wormed its way deep into San Francisco’s civic and cultural establishment. They were tight with the mayor, with liberal darling Harvey Milk, with California power broker and future mayor Willie Brown. They had a mole in the District Attorney’s office, and the DA himself was sympathetic to their cause. They had allies outside the political mainstream, too: Black Panther leaders Angela Davis and Huey Newton were supporters, not to mention members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (Patty Hearst’s kidnappers).

Once in a while dark secrets would leak out from the Peoples Temple, but local media tended not to cover anything too negative because the potential consequences, both legal and extra-legal, were too severe. Eventually, though, the rumors became too numerous and too serious to ignore, and Jim Jones, along with more than a thousand of his followers, beat it out of town and set up shop in the South American jungle.

His colony became known as Jonestown, and almost everyone has heard at least something of what happened there. The mass suicide he forced on his congregation gave rise to the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” which remains in widespread use today.

In the days leading up to Jonestown’s gory demise, some California politicians were finally recognizing that the Peoples Temple was not the benign, progressive organization it had managed to portray itself as. When US Congressman Leo Ryan flew down to South American to investigate, many of us breathed a sigh of relief. Surely now that the US government was involved, anybody who was being abused or held captive would be safe.

Instead, Jones’s henchmen ambushed the Congressman and his entourage, killing him and several journalists. The mass Kool-Aid carnage unfolded later that day.

For those of us in San Francisco it was a vicious wakeup call, followed only nine days later by the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. For much of the decade, San Francisco had been dwelling in a sort of la-la land, maintaining at least the pretense of being progressive and tolerant. What became painfully obvious in 1978’s orgy of bloodletting was that beneath the woo-woo platitudes and magical thinking that had enveloped San Francisco since the heyday of the hippies, some dark forces had been running amok.

Images that emerged from Jonestown, with hundreds upon hundreds of corpses festering in the sun, left us reeling. How could such a thing happen in a supposedly civilized world? What must it have been like, I wondered, to be trapped in the jungle with a madman, becoming aware that he might be preparing to kill me, and not knowing what, if anything, I could do to stop it?

Today I no longer have to imagine. I live in Donald Trump’s America.

Every reasonably intelligent person knew it would be a bad idea to let Trump become president. He was completely unqualified, and had compiled a lengthy history of brazen criminality and breathtaking dishonesty. Some people – just enough to tilt the election his way – were willing to give him a chance anyway. Perhaps they hated Hillary Clinton – or women in general. Perhaps they relished the nihilistic humor of installing an ignoramus in the White House.

Then there were the radicals – I’m sad to say I have friends and acquaintances among them – who maintained there was “no difference” between Trump and Clinton, or who actively cheered for a disastrous Trump presidency because it would hasten the revolution.

So here we are: in the depths of the worst presidency in American history, with both the economy and the public health collapsing, and the only revolution in sight is that of an armed fascist rabble actively encouraged by the president himself. Even those of us who anticipated the worst have seen our expectations massively exceeded.

Still, likening the president to a mass-murdering megalomaniacal cult leader? Isn’t that a bit over the top? Until recently, maybe. But not any longer.

One thing I’ve never figured out about Jim Jones is why, when he realized the jig was up and suicide his only way out, he felt it necessary to take his entire congregation with him. Did he expect them to join him in some sort of afterlife? Was he motivated by a twisted sort of compassion, thinking that his followers wouldn’t be able to survive without him? Or was he, reluctant as we may be to believe such a thing, just plain evil, compelled by some dark force to do as much harm as he could to as many as people as possible?

Sadly, terrifyingly, we’re now at a point where the same questions have to be asked about Donald Trump.

It’s been obvious since he took office that Trump was a staggeringly corrupt president, primarily concerned with bailing out his own precarious financial empire by looting the national treasury, and protecting his ability to continue doing so by doling out political favors and a share of the spoils to those whose support he needed to stay in power. Assuming – and it’s an optimistic assumption – that the American republic survives his presidency, it will take decades to repair the financial, environmental, and moral destruction he has unleashed.

Nonetheless, by means of unprecedented deficit spending and fiscal sleights of hand, the economy remained on a sufficiently even keel to lull even his most determined opponents into a hopeful complacency. Only one more year until the election: surely we could muddle through until then?

Apparently not. America, throughout its history, has been a remarkably lucky country (not so lucky, of course, for the natives and neighbors who got in the way of its ambitions). Most of our wars have been fought on foreign soil, we had enough land and natural resources to bury or relocate our mistakes, and none of the earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and droughts were substantial enough to do permanent damage.

Now our luck may have run out. This happens eventually to even the best-run empires, but when you combine a natural disaster like an epidemic with the manmade disaster of a failed, barely functioning government, the fall from grace can be far more precipitous than the rise to glory, and, to a population accustomed to things generally working out for the best, far more devastating.

The United States is facing its most existential threat since at least the Civil War (there’s no guarantee we won’t be facing another one of those, either; the Confederate flag, along with the hatred and ignorance it embodies, is a favorite banner of the emerging Trumpist paramilitaries). But this time, there’s no Abraham Lincoln to inspire and guide us.

Instead we have a shabby grifter almost constitutionally incapable of telling the truth, even when it would be in his interests. A man who stripped the country of its capacity to deal with disease or natural disaster because he thought the money required to maintain it would be better placed in his own pockets or those of his cronies. A man who, given a full two months notice of the advancing epidemic, used that time to do insider stock deals and set up self-serving investments in companies that would profit from it, yet did nothing at all to prepare to care for the hundreds of thousands who would become ill.

All this while, he flamboyantly lied to the public, assuring them that there was no danger, that the coronavirus was a Chinese or European problem that wouldn’t dare intrude on American soil. His followers believed him and took no precautions. Tens of thousands have already died as a result of Trump’s lies and profiteering. Tens of thousands more will almost certainly die in the weeks to come, and that’s in a best-case scenario. Last month Trump promised we would soon be “down to zero” cases of the virus. Now he claims it will be a great success if fewer than a hundred thousand die.

Those inclined to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt might suggest he’s simply out of his depth, that he saw the Presidency as a nice little hustle and never dreamed he might have to do some actual governing, let alone face a national crisis. But the trail of death and destruction left in his wake is too great, his lies contradicting the evidence of our own eyes and ears too flagrant. As he prepares to risk the entire nation’s health by ending social distancing and fomenting civil disorder, it’s plain that sheer incompetence is no longer a sufficient explanation.

I don’t have the power to see into Donald Trump’s mind. I have no way of knowing why – if there even is a why – he’s pursuing this course. The most plausible explanation is that he’s terrified of losing power, not merely because it would be a blow to his ego, but because it would leave him, his family, and his co-conspirators open to investigation and prosecution. In that sense, he is very much like Jim Jones: there’s no way he’d be able to fade gracefully from the scene and quietly savor his loot.

But also like Jim Jones, he seems to have decided that if he’s going down, we’re going with him. He’s already made it obvious that he’s willing to unleash enough chaos on the nation to make it difficult or impossible to hold free and fair elections this November. He may well succeed. Four years ago, some of us warned that should Trump be elected, we might never get a chance to un-elect him. Most people sneered, or called us paranoid. Things like that didn’t happen in America, they assured us. Congress and the Supreme Court would never allow a president to acquire dictatorial powers.

Now Trump owns half the Congress and 5/9 of the Supreme Court. If he manages to hold onto his office and replace even one more Supreme Court justice, any remaining checks and balances will vanish. If you think he’s not willing to burn down the entire country in pursuit of that end, or, in the spirit of Jim Jones, just for the hell of it, you haven’t been paying attention.

When I started this article, I was writing on a completely different topic. I was reaching out to my friends, family, loved ones, and acquaintances who I knew had been left feeling angry, frustrated, and depressed by Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the presidential race. I wanted to encourage them not to give up, to recognize that even if, as one young friend put it, “the best presidential candidate of my lifetime” was no longer going to be leading the charge, we couldn’t afford to give into cynicism and defeatism. Enough – not so many, but enough – of us did that in 2016 to make Donald Trump president. It’s a mistake we can’t afford to repeat.

“Easy for you to say,” I can hear some protest. “You never really supported Bernie anyway.”
Not quite true. I had my reservations, but if the nomination were still in question I would have voted for him or Elizabeth Warren. I’m still hoping that Biden, who I was never a big fan of, will choose Warren as his VP.

I’ve lived long enough to experience some serious dream-crushing. Not just at the ballot box, where I saw candidates like Gene McCarthy and George McGovern cast mercilessly aside, but even more cruelly, at the behest of an assassin’s bullet. John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, among many others, imbued us with hope, only to leave us drowning instead in grief and despair.

But we endure. At the risk of cribbing from the Rolling Stones, we do sometimes get what we need, even if it doesn’t look anything at all like what we want. I could list a dozen people I’d prefer over Joe Biden as president, but it would be pointless, because none of them are on the menu this time. Come this November, either Biden or another mainstream Democrat will unseat Donald Trump, or our long national nightmare will just be beginning.

Since I’m not fully enthusiastic about Biden myself (but would vote for him every day and twice on Sunday if it were permitted), I can’t urge you to be, either. But I can express the fervent hope that at the very least, you won’t fall victim to Trumpist propaganda schemes – or worse, enable them – by circulating anti-Biden memes. If you want a more progressive – or even radical – president, your (our) day may come. But not if we don’t take care of job one first: getting the hell out of Trumptown before he kills us all.

“You don’t go to war with the weapons and army that you want,” the old saying goes, “you go to war with the weapons and army that you have.” If you think we can afford to wait another four years for a more inspiring presidential candidate, or that the forces who currently hold power would let us have those four years, you’re as deluded as the Trump cultists who think a MAGA hat renders them invulnerable to the virus.

Our chance of getting though this, let alone going on to build a more just and equitable society, may be less than average, but at least – for now – we still have a chance. Let’s not blow it. It may not come again.

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