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.”