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Peddling poison: Donald Trump follows long line of demagogues

The author argues that former President Donald Trump, shown here in a 2016 file photo, is one of a long line of dangerous demagogues. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

The recent Connecticut court damages verdict of almost $1 billion in the Alex Jones case involved Jones’ apparent efforts to monetize the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators in 2017.

Jones’ claim that the shooting was a hoax is a reminder of the gullibility of a significant segment of the world’s people. Jones and his media company InfoWars were found guilty of asserting that the deaths did not happen and were faked. According to the Associated Press, after the verdict, Jones termed the trial “all made up” and continued to encourage his followers to donate dollars to InfoWars and buy products he sells.

Jones reportedly received about $50 million annually in revenues during his legal battles arising from his claims that the Sandy Hook deaths were faked. Obviously, Alex Jones found many enthusiastic followers who like his alternative fact version of reality that he sells and are willing to reward him with their contributions.

Another Jones also found gullible people to follow him. Jim Jones led about 900 of his followers from the U.S. to a jungle stronghold in Guyana where he ultimately persuaded them to partake from a vat of cyanide poisoned Flavor Aid in Nov. 1978. Jones pre-conditioned his followers to drink the poison by holding rehearsals that he called “white nights.” About 300 children and over 600 adults participated in what Jones described in part of a 45-minute audio tape (Jonestown.sdsu.edu) as something “not to be feared. It’s a friend.”

On this tape, Jim Jones told his followers “Without me life has no meaning.” Jones also advised them, “I’m the best friend you’ll ever have.” He claimed, “I’m a prophet.” Of the children who are heard crying and screaming on the tape, Jones advised “All they are doing is taking a drink . . . and going to sleep.” Jones asked the adults “to quit exciting your children when all they’re doing is going to a quiet rest.” One of the few survivors commented about Jones, “He made us feel special, like something bigger than ourselves.”

Yet another narcissistic egomaniac, David Koresh f/k/a Vernon Wayne Howell, similarly led most of his gullible Branch Davidian disciples to their deaths in gunfire exchanges with federal law enforcement and a subsequent fire at their compound near Waco, Texas in April 1993. Koresh and 78 more Branch Davidians, including 21 children under 16, died. Koresh, like Jim Jones, described himself as a prophet. He fathered more than 16 children by allowing himself “spiritual marriages” with female followers. He changed his given name to “David” contending that he was now head of the House of David. “Koresh” was chosen by him as a Hebrew transliteration of the Persian king “Cyrus” who freed the Jewish captives in Babylon. Koresh’s disciples also believed that they were part of something bigger than themselves.

The ability of narcissistic egomaniacs to command the loyalty of many adherents is also evident in newsreel clips of adoring crowds welcoming Hitler into Vienna after the union of Germany and Austria in 1938 and similar newsreel photos of the Nazi ceremonies in Nuremburg in 1936 and Mussolini addressing a huge audience in Rome that same year. Enthusiastic zeal grips the crowds obviously adoring Hitler and Mussolini in video and photos taken during their brief time in power before the catastrophic ends they authored. Like the Jones and Koresh followers, most of those in the Hitler and Mussolini entourages showed them unwavering loyalty to their end. They all were part of something bigger than themselves.

More recently, some contemporary American politicians have discovered that they also can command the unquestioning allegiance of those who seek something bigger than themselves. Donald J. Trump appears foremost among this current brand of American politician. Like Jim Jones, Trump pre-conditioned his devotees by contending before the 2020 election that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” After losing, he then claimed the election was “stolen.”

Trump’s rallies and speeches bear marked resemblance to those of past demagogues. Trump attracts a host of fervent evangelical and QAnon adherents who contend that God chose a philandering self-proclaimed billionaire real estate developer who never held prior political office and avoided military service to “Make America Great Again.” What was “great” to make happen “again” remains unexplained. These Trumpers excuse traits in Trump that they would consider intolerable in friends or families. But these Trump followers can claim righteously that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Anthropologist Dr. Barbara King has written of this deep human desire she terms “belongingness.” In her research, she identified a human need to belong to something larger or greater and lasting longer than our lives. Narcissistic demagogues have seized this human longing for their own selfish purposes. Whether the poison they peddle is drunk in a vat or words from their mouths, they seek to manipulate others to follow them to the claimed greatness they promote for themselves.

Trump’s business career is defined by his marketing acumen. If Trump’s primary accomplishments ended with him only next to P. T. Barnum among history’s pages, the world would have been entertained but not seriously harmed. Unfortunately, Trump has greater ambitions and significant societal poison left in his arsenal. Until his followers find another cause, Trump is likely to persist offering that poison to them. Many among them unthinkingly drink deeply.

Loy Waldrop practiced law for almost 50 years and is a contributor to the Tennessee Lookout, which first published this essay.

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Peddling poison: Donald Trump follows long line of demagogues