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Trump Has ‘Trappings’ of Jim Jones

Trump Has ‘Trappings’ of Jim Jones

Trump Has ‘Trappings’ of Jim Jones

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At a rally in scorching Las Vegas on June 9, Donald Trump pointed out one of his followers in the crowd — a particularly fervent Trump fan nicknamed “Front-Row Joe” who’d attended over 200 such events. “It would be suicide before Biden, right?” Trump asked him.

The remark instantly evoked one of the most shocking and tragic instances of cult mind-control — that of Reverend Jim Jones, a preacher who on Nov. 18, 1978, coerced 909 members of his Peoples Temple compound in Guyana to take fatal doses of cyanide-tainted Flavor Aid, killing them all. It’s now believed many did so against their will and at gunpoint.

Not 24 hours earlier, Jones had dispatched gunmen to an airstrip to assassinate Congressman Leo Ryan, from whose San Francisco district most Temple members had come. Ryan flew there on a mission to investigate reports of coercion and sex abuse at Jonestown. Five people were murdered on the runway that day, including Ryan and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson. Ryan’s 28-year-old aide, Jackie Speier, was very nearly a casualty, having been shot five times. Miraculously, she survived.

Speier went on to become a member of the California Senate and in 2008 won a special election, making her a Democratic congresswoman for the state’s 14th district, serving much of the same territory as Ryan. She left office in January 2023, having served long enough to experience firsthand the terror of the Jan. 6 attack, during which she once again feared for her life — this time in the Capitol.

The Jonestown tragedy has been meticulously recreated in a new National Geographic documentary Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, currently streaming on Hulu. The series provides the most complete and immersive document of the horrific events of November 1978. It’s a gripping, minute-by-minute account weaving together existing news footage with a trove of newly unearthed film taken by former Temple members. It also features new interviews from eye-witnesses, including Speier.

Rep. Speier, now 74, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her terrifying and remarkable journey, her thoughts on cults and Scientology, and the looming possibility — to her, potentially disastrous — of Trump winning another four years in office. But losing, too, could prove costly.

Hello, Congresswoman. I was very profoundly horrified and moved by the documentary. I had never seen that much footage from the Jonestown tragedy. Have you seen it? It must be incredibly hard to watch something like that.

So I have watched two-thirds of it, and I would concur with you. I saw footage in this series that I’ve never seen before, and it placed the viewer right there. It was almost a diary of what happened, and it was just a compelling exhibition of what was truly a bizarre, tragic conflict of ego and mind control and trauma it was.

It never hit me until now just how implicated you were to the point where you thought you were going to die. You were shot many multiple times and bleeding out on a runway.

There’s a resignation that happens when you think you’re going to die, and you just wait. I said the Act of Contrition as I was raised a good Catholic girl and really was waiting for the lights to go out. And then when they didn’t, there’s this sense that, well, then I am going to live. And so I just presumed I was going to live. But the truth of the matter was 22 hours without medical attention, my legs totally blown up, my arms blown up. And when they finally airlifted me onto the medevac plane, one of the reporters later told me that he heard the medic say, “She had another three minutes.” And there were two times I was so unstable where they were going to put the plane down, I think in Puerto Rico then in New Orleans. They didn’t think I was stable enough.

I can’t imagine how an event like that would alter the course of your life. We get a glimpse in the documentary of the good part, where you are sworn into Congress taking over for Leo Ryan’s district. But everything that led to that must have been incredibly psychologically damaging to you.

So actually, it was. There’s survivor’s guilt that you deal with. There’s then this sense that, well, you’ve been given a second chance at life. Most people never get that. So what are you going to do with the time that you’ve been given? In most respects, I looked at it as an incredible gift that I was given a second chance to live life. I shouldn’t have survived. I really shouldn’t have. I mean, my whole leg is blown up except for the femoral artery. And the femoral artery, had it been severed, I would’ve bled it out in 90 seconds.

So I was meant to live. And so I promised myself that if I did that, I would truly dedicate my life to public service. And so I’ve done that. It’s been incredibly fulfilling. I’ve loved the work and I feel blessed. The strange part of all this is that the focus in terms of my life has always been around Jonestown. But 14 years after Jonestown, my husband was killed in an automobile accident when I was pregnant with our second child. And that was such a double-whammy that that’s when I almost lost it. That’s when I thought, “I don’t know that I can go on.” So it speaks to the ability we have internally that we don’t think we have, of being able to persevere and survive and live to talk about it.

Beyond the macabre nature of it and the oddity of it, what do you think we can attribute to the enduring resonance of Jonestown? What is there to learn from the tragedy of the Peoples Temple?

It’s really quite a bit. First of all, cult leaders have a pattern. They’re charismatic, they’re paranoid, they’re megalomaniac. And over a course of time, they have so much control over their membership through physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse that the congregation becomes unable to think independently. Now, while this is all going on, there’s typically all this illegal activity going on, too. If people are able to defect, they normally call it out.

And yet over and over again with the Peoples Temple, nothing was done about it. So Jim Jones ingratiated himself with the electeds in San Francisco — mayor, supervisors, state legislators — and he had a very appealing power, which was he had 2,500 or so members of his congregation that could be put onto the streets to walk precincts for these people. And in fact, they did when Mayor George Moscone was being recalled at one point.

So Jones gains a lot of political currency, and when the alarms go off, people looked the other way. And that’s what the local elected elite of San Francisco did. They looked the other way. Now, Congressman Ryan was in the district right outside of San Francisco and had constituents whose young-adult children had disavowed their families and had turned over their whole lives to the Temple and then had moved to Jonestown with Jim Jones. That’s what we should learn.

Secondly, the State Department failed miserably. They had actually had a defector who sought shelter at the embassy in Georgetown, [Guyana,] and went line by line with what was going on in Jonestown. They assisted her in getting out of the country but did nothing to protect the other American citizens that were living there. I remember watching a slideshow at that time at the embassy where they were showing us the facility, and there’s a picture of Jim Stone with the deputy chief of the embassy arm-in-arm. And I’m thinking to myself, “What potential defector is going to come to the US Embassy for assistance when it appears that they’re in cahoots with Jim Jones?”

Basically, the federal government fails, the local government fails and cults generally use the First Amendment to protect them as religious groups. But no religion is above the law and no religion that engages in criminal conduct is protected. But we have allowed that to happen because we don’t want to trample on First Amendment.

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Which makes me think of Scientology, which calls itself a religion, but other people call it a cult, and seems to be protected by the judicial system, from the local police level to the national level. What are your thoughts on that?

Much like many of our adversaries, they abuse our democracy. And by abuse, I mean not only get away with the potential criminal conduct, but they evade taxes because they aren’t a church, but they’re able to not pay taxes because they’ve pronounced that they’re a church.

The way you describe a cult leader, I can’t help but think about Donald Trump’s own personality and his rhetoric and habits. People do frequently refer to MAGA as a cult.

I said he was a cult leader three years ago. He has all the aspects of a cult leader and as for his followers, I was watching a video this morning where someone at a Trump rally said, “He could kill someone at the White House, and I would still support him.” That’s the kind of absolute control that a cult leader somehow mesmerizes followers to follow. He has all of the trappings. He’s charismatic. Some would argue he’s megalomaniac. He’s paranoid. And all of that makes for a toxic soup that we may be forced to deal with once again.

With the election coming up, you have a very unique insight into the worst case scenarios of this kind of situation. I’m wondering what you’re feeling.

I am completely disturbed by the potential of another four years of Donald Trump. I served in Congress during his tenure and thank God we had control of the House during most of that time. I was in the House gallery when January 6th took place. I’m lying on the floor in the gallery and there’s a gunshot that rings out in the Speaker’s lobby. And I thought, “Oh my God, I survived the jungles of Guyana and I’m going to die in this tabernacle of democracy.” I mean, that’s how close I thought we were. And it could have been much worse in terms of bloodshed had more guns been brought into the Capitol.

I hope you have a nice, relaxing summer.

I have a friend who came up with a word: LISDIN. “Life is short. Do it now.” So that’s my recommendation to you.

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