When former pimp, failed musician, and murderous cult leader Charles Manson died Sunday at 83, he left behind a massive stamp on American pop culture. After all, besides launching an acid-fueled cult of teenage runaways who savagely killed nine people and fueled national panic over an allegedly gruesome counterculture, he also helped inspire Marilyn Manson and, before the killings that made him notorious, even laid the groundwork for a Beach Boys track.
But his enduring status as an outsider icon tends to overlook the fact that Manson was a virulent racist—and the murders he orchestrated were fueled by the delusion that African Americans were plotting race war in hopes of enslaving all white people. That delusion is not completely absent from politics today. Manson's insistence that social unrest in the black community was a threat to his followers' safety has echoes in contemporary American life, where race-baiting can help get you elected president and the White House openly stokes white nationalism.
“If Charles Manson were alive and literate, he would be writing for Breitbart,” said Jeff Guinn, author of one of the more definitive biographies of the killer, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. “Like all good demagogues, he knew how to prey on fear, to take something that’s a genuine concern and exaggerate the threat to create a panic.”
Rather than some kind of cultural innovator, then, the cult leader's strategy is best understood as building on an already-rich national tradition of convincing people that those who look, talk, or pray differently were a violent threat.
“This kind of racial paranoia is an effective tool for controlling and containing people,” said Katrina Bell McDonald, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “We saw this with Asians during World War Two, with African Americans during Jim Crow, and we’re seeing that with Hispanics and immigration today.”
In the late 1960s, there were no shortage of powerful men using this tactic to arouse fear and outrage toward the black community. Riots and the emergence of armed black radicals dominated the evening news, fueling the “law and order” and “segregation forever” campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace, respectively. The Manson Family amounted to a strange microcosm of this racial tension in America, guided by the primal fear and hatred of African Americans instilled in their abused and angry leader.
“Manson had an ingrained, redneck hatred of black people,” Guinn told me. “He is first around black people in prison, where he is instantly intimidated by the Islamic brotherhood. When he gets out of prison, he goes to Berkeley, California, where the Black Panthers scare the crap out of him. So when he gets his young followers—these gawky little white kids strung out on drugs—he starts telling them about the coming race war, black against whites, the blacks are gonna rise up and massacre the whites. And when the war starts Charlie is going to take his followers out into the desert to hide them.”
In addition to fueling racial paranoia, Manson used isolation, cultural appropriation, religious fever, and generous amounts of LSD to mold his followers. As is well known, he convinced them that the Beatles' White Album was written as a message containing the prophecy of race war. He explained how they would all hide until the whole thing blew over—and then emerge and rule the world.
As Guinn writes in Manson:
The women in particular were reminded that if they remained loyal, while they were down in the pit living in a wonderful underground city, they could change into any creature they wished. Several wanted to become winged elves, and Charlie promised that, when the moment was especially near, they’d begin to feel budding wings growing on their backs.
As batshit crazy as this may sound, Manson provided meticulous details outlining the connection between himself, the White Album, and the Book of Revelation, helping refute claims of gaping holes in his obscene logic.
“Charles Manson wasn’t crazy—he was calculating, and that’s the scariest thing about him,” Guinn said.
The murders of Sharon Tate—who was eight-months pregnant—and several others on August 9 and 10, 1969, represented an attempt by Manson to frame black militants, spark retaliation among whites, and thereby bring about the race war he’d dubbed “Helter Skelter.” His followers drew paw prints and the words “death to the pigs” on the wall in blood, apparently hoping the media would make the connection to groups like the Black Panthers.
Spoiler alert: Manson’s vision of a race war and the promise of an underground utopia of winged elves one day returning to rule the world never quite panned out. He and several of his followers who actually carried out the gruesome killings were arrested and convicted on various counts of murder. Yet many of his adherents continued to support and obey him during and after his trial—long after his old prophecies had lapsed and new ones were promised. One of the youngest of the Manson Family, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, even attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 in her pursuit of Manson’s approval.
Meanwhile, the conservative movement has recently descended into a cesspool of sometimes violent white nationalism that includes armed militia offshoots who wait fervently for some kind of post-apocalyptic wonderland.
“There’s always the promise of a reward at the end of all of this,” said McDonald, adding, "You get people to fixate on some end-point when they’re going to win something, that white people are going to win a better life. And it works, even if the promise never materializes. With Manson it never materialized, but people were holding out for some end of the rainbow.”
Guinn has made a career of studying dangerous cult leaders, and while he does not mourn the death of Charles Manson, he does hope renewed interest in the man’s manipulative tactics could lead to a greater understanding of how demagogues operate—and how to combat them.
“The things I learned writing this book... scare the hell out of me in today’s America,” he told me. “Any time you hear people say ‘we need to protect our traditional way of life,’ or, 'They’re taking things that belong to you and giving them to people who don’t deserve it, but I am here to protect you, I am the only one who can solve this problem,’ that ought to run up a red flag."
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