Charles Manson, the cult leader who convinced his followers to murder nine people in 1969, died this week in prison. The shocking brutality of the Manson Family murders seemed to signal an end of an era, destroying the illusion of 1960s counter cultural idealism and highlighting its darker side.
The murders have been a subject of morbid fascination ever since, because they proved so difficult to comprehend.
And yet, in 2017, Manson’s motive and even methods are all too familiar. Think about it: members of Charles Manson’s Family went on their murder spree as a result of Manson’s belief that a race war was imminent. Manson called this war “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song. He believed that black people would win the race war against whites, and in the aftermath of Helter Skelter, society would fall into chaos because of black men’s stupidity. Manson and his Family, as the only members of the white master-race to survive, would then reign supreme. The murders were meant to jump-start the race war, since Manson believed that African Americans would naturally be blamed for them.
In other words, Manson took advantage of counter-cultural trends, fake news, and a meme (“Helter Skelter” was written in blood on the walls of the murdered families’ homes) to normalize white supremacy, virulent racism and far-right extremism.
It should. These are the same tactics, minus the mass murder, that are currently deployed by the “alt right.” Indeed, Charles Manson was something of an ideological forefather of today’s “alt right”, which has manipulated counter-cultural currents on the internet, fake news, and racist memes to normalize Nazism, white nationalism and white supremacy.
Like the heroes of today’s “alt right”, Manson’s white supremacist views were steeped in tradition. A prison photograph of Manson from 2013 shows him wearing the Iron Cross of the SS, emblazoned with a swastika. So even though he used 1960s counter-culture to prey on young runaways to form his cult, his politics were not based in the radical leftism typical of the 60s, but in extreme right-wing nationalism.
So while Manson was a murderous cult leader, he was also a white nationalist who manipulated the counter-culture to further his racist goals. And in this way, he was a progenitor of the “alt right” – a group of white nationalists who have made use of counter-cultural corners of the internet to normalize racism.
You can see evidence of this in the fact that since Manson’s death this week, neo-Nazis have been explicitly admiring him, celebrating him as a “warrior of truth”.
But he is more properly the ideological forefather of today’s white nationalists. “Alt right” ringleaders push prejudice and paranoia as edgy and pioneering, just as Manson once did to his Family.
The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi, “alt right” website, is the self-proclaimed “world’s most genocidal Republican website”. It is full of anti-Semitic and anti-Black rhetoric, and uses memes to further its neo-Nazi agenda. For example, the Daily Stormer promoted the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman, Heather Heyer, was ultimately killed. The site explicitly called for violence, and cheered Heyer’s death. “We want a war,” read one post.
The Unite the Right rally could not have recruited its young disciples without the “alt right”, whose extremism has gone viral through “ironic” humor on sites like 4chan and Reddit, where racists and anti-Semites proliferate. Reddit hosts a forum for human biodiversity — the eugenics of the internet age; membership is by invitation only, and the site has flagged the forum as racist.
In those forums, conspiracy theories as weird as Manson’s “Helter Skelter” have similarly manifested. Take the “Pizzagate” theory, originated by “alt right” figure Mike Cernovich, that imagines a child abuse ring controlled by liberal politicians being coordinated from a chain of restaurants. And though no one has died as a result of Pizzagate, a North Carolina man did fire an assault rifle at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria while “investigating Pizzagate”.
I find the 1971 courtroom photographs of Manson to be a compelling insight into the man’s true nature. His shaggy beard and hair shaved off, he is literally transformed into a skinhead. All that remains is an emotionless thug with a steely glare and a swastika engraved into his forehead.
Manson died in prison this week, the swastika embedded into his forehead by his wrinkles. He was last photographed in an orange prison uniform, a shrunken, terminally ill figure, exemplifying that beneath their propaganda and personality cults, all those like him are the same: sad and bitter creatures.
But they also pose a serious risk to society. Who knows if the next Charles Manson is currently embedded in the midst of the “alt right”, embedded in a counter-culture creating harmless memes until they’re not so harmless anymore?
Jacob Richardson is a freelance writer based in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @jjarichardson.