One need not go back very far in American history to understand the danger of cults. Consider the following three examples.
On November 18, 1978, 909 men, women and children ingested lethal doses of a poison-spiked powered drink at the direction of Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple which morbidly resulted in the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” (HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Several accounts of the mass suicide suggest Kool-Aid did not deserve this bad rap. The lethal mixture actually contained the doppelganger Flavor-Aid.)
In 1993, followers of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh chose to make an Alamo-like defense of the order’s Mount Carmel Center in Axtell, Texas. The siege, precipitated when Koresh refused to honor warrants obtained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to search the premises and arrest Koresh on charges of stockpiling illegal weapons, lasted for 51 days. It ended in a fierce gun battle during which the Center caught fire resulting in the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians including women, children as well as Koresh. (NOTE: In testimony before the Danforth Commission tasked with investigating the incident, surviving members of the siege reported that Koresh ordered the perimeter of the Center be set on fire to deter an anticipated attack by ATF armored vehicles.)
Four years later, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate religious order, led by a disgraced former Presbyterian minister Marshall Applewhite, were discovered dead in the sect’s rented mansion which they named, “The Monastery.” Left behind was a tape of Applewhite assuring his followers they would be whisked to heaven by an alien spacecraft which was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
What is most hard to fathom is not the existence of crazy individuals who profess prophesies and conspiracies absent of any factual evidence. It is that their followers accept their nonsense as gospel. If cult leaders kept their “wisdom” to themselves, they would be a minor footnote in history. Instead of headlines that document suicide/murder of dozens of their followers, reports that an individual who believed in extraterrestrial deliverers had taken his own life would have been on the inside pages of major newspapers, if covered at all.
Which brings us to February 28, 2020 and the realization that Donald Trump has taken on the characteristics of both an autocrat and a cult leader. What is the difference? An autocrat imposes his world view on others. Followers of a cult leader willingly accept and spread his representation of any situation. This could not have been more clear than when I opened today’s edition of our local paper to the editorial page and found an opinion piece by area financial advisor Steve Nicklas titled, “The fear of coronavius.” Based on the following three excerpts there is no doubt a modern day Darth Vader would observe, “The Kool-Aid is strong with this one.”
Most health officials will not exaggerate the potential impacts of a malady, but in contrast, Dr. Nancy Messonnier’s performance sounded like a exaggeration on steroids. She is head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases and is FBI agent Rod Rosenstein’s sister. (Dr. ESP: Rosenstein was not an FBI agent, but deputy attorney general under Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr. One would think Nicklas could keep his deep state actors straight.)
Trump cited the 15 cases of coronavirus in the U.S., with those inflicted recovering quickly, except for one. (Dr. ESP: I think he meant afflicted unless COVID-19 microbes physically assault their victims before invading their bodies.) In comparison the generic flu causes as many as 60,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. So you should put things in perspective. The mortality rate of the coronavirus is in the 2 percent range by the way.
With precautions that have been taken already, such as restrictions on travel into our country from inflicted regions, and the premier U.S. health care professionals tracking the virus’ every move, we are in good hands.
Let’s take this assessment point by point. According to Nicklas, and the major proponent of this conspiracy theory Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Messonnier’s 25 years at the Center of Disease Control are cancelled out by the fact she is related to a former deputy attorney general. Nicklas is not the least bit bothered that his fearless leader now requires all messaging about the virus to come through Mike Pence. Business Insider, hardly a bastion of liberal propaganda, reported this morning that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has served every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, has been barred from speaking publicly about the virus without approval. So much for public debate about the dangers and responses to what seems more like a global pandemic with each passing day.
Like his idol, Nicklas also chooses to cherry pick data. Yes, during the 2017-18 flu season there were 61,099 deaths out of 44.8 million cases or a mortality rate of 0.14 percent compared to Nicklas’ own reporting of a current death rate of 2.0 percent for the coronavirus. But if you take data for the most recent flu season for which statistical information is available (2018-19), there were only 34.157 deaths out of 35,520,883 cases or 0.096 percent. In other words you are 2,000 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than from the general flu. One must admit, if there is one thing Trump and his cult followers are good at, it is false equivalency.
I do not know when Nicklas drafted his essay, but he draws heavily on Trump’s Wednesday press conference. So what has happened since we were assured everything was “in good hands?”
- Individuals from infected regions of the world were allowed back into the United States contrary to health officials’ warnings there should be further quarantines.
- The medical teams that attended to those returning Americans did not have the proper equipment to protect themselves from contracting the virus.
- The first reported case of unknown origin has been documented in California.
- There are inadequate supplies of testing kits to determine whether a patient has the coronavirus.
- The CDC has been prohibited since February 10 from reporting the number of “Patients Under Investigation” as possible coronavirus carriers.
- Secretary of Health and Human Services Alexander Azar, whom Nicklas refers to as “more measured” claimed he was “still chairman of the task force,” even after Trump announced Pence’s selection at the press conference.
- CDC’s own website continues to assess the situation as “the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the United States.”
- And the global equity markets have been anything but calmed by Trump’s assurances with the largest and quickest declines in history.
I suspect followers of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite continued to believe these cult leaders could do no wrong as they partook of toxic cocktails or set fires to forestall their pursuers. It is that blind deference which gives a leader the determination and belief that he is right even when every thread of evidence suggests otherwise.
It was not poison or flames that killed the inhabitants of Jonestown, the Mount Carmel Center or The Monastery. It was allegiance to their respective leaders. Likewise, microbes will not be the major cause of death in the event of a truly horrific pandemic, but lack of transparency and failure to confront power which is more interested in their approval ratings and stock portfolios than the health and safety of the American people. For no other reason, now more than ever, America needs a president not a cult ringleader.
For what it’s worth.