The first time you see him, you barely notice him. He’s posing for a group photo, poking his head over the shoulders of two people you recognize. You have to see his face a few times before you begin to recognize him too, but soon enough you do. He’s showing up everywhere now, at a party with Sky Ferreira, in front of a media wall at a film festival with James Franco, on the beach with Justin Bieber. He’s slight and messy, but his face tattoo and rattail are distinctive enough to brand him somewhere between Jersey Shore and inzane_johnny. When you see him in one of Kanye’s selfies, you scroll through the comments looking for his name. A few of the commenters mention a Chad. You Google “kanye+chad” until you find a verified Instagram account with 100,000 followers. The bio reads “LOVExHATE // LIFExDEATH // ALLxONE,” and the handle is @ChadMansonOfficial.
You start following Chad on all social-media platforms. He often likes and occasionally reposts articles about himself; Vice develops a beat. Along with the rest of the world, you slowly get to know Chad and his singular lifestyle brand, part edgelord, part corporate woke. The elitist one percent has destroyed the planet and defrauded the people, and the only way to cope is to lean into whatever means to liberation remain. He’s nonmonogamous, advocates for entheogens and their potential to treat PTSD, and vehemently distrusts both political parties. Your friends tend to shrug off the rumors about his entourage of younger women and their creepy orgies. You’re not sure if you buy his message, but media personalities of various stripes have found something to like about him, from Tucker Carlson to Cum Town. Then the Fader runs the headline “Chad Manson at work on debut mixtape produced by Kanye West.” You wonder when the first single will drop, but it never does.
Instead, one morning, you wake up to a stream of push notifications. At a party at Franco’s house in Hollywood, along with at least six other industry personalities, actress Margot Robbie—no, Kate Bosworth—no, wait, Hilary Duff—has been hideously murdered by still unidentified perpetrators. Not quickly enough, police apprehend Chad Manson. Early reports suggest that Manson has been plotting against the cultural elite for years, coaxing stars like Ed Sheeran, Lil Xan, and the FuckJerry guy into his orbit. After a long investigation, detectives determine that Manson orchestrated the murders after hearing Kanye’s album Yeezus, reading its lyrics as coded messages from a powerful representative of the Black community about the coming armed battle against the white race.
August 9, 2019, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders, better known as the Manson Family Murders, which took place in the early hours of the morning on August 9, 1969. In honor of the occasion, at least four new movies (Mary Harron’s feminist revision Charlie Says, Quentin Tarantino’s pop-historical epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the more straightforward biopic Tate, and the pure exploitation The Haunting of Sharon Tate) and a new season of the Netflix series Mindhunter will dramatize the events in some way this year. Whether these projects are motivated by revisionism or nostalgia is unclear.
The most famous piece of writing about the Manson Family—besides, maybe, Helter Skelter, the true-crime account by Manson’s prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi—is Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” now considered a classic of cultural journalism. In the essay, Didion writes, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.” This declaration can be interpreted any number of ways, but in the decades since its writing it has been reduced to a single, simple notion: The Manson Murders were somehow specific to, revealed something about, and effectively concluded “the Sixties,” whatever that was. They broke a tension and fulfilled a paranoia we associate with a historical moment defined, loosely, by “countercultural” behavior and activity. This has become the dominant narrative of the murders.
After Manson died in November of 2017, a flurry of thinkpieces appeared, most of which hardened this impression. “At the time,” the Atlantic reported, “Manson was seen as emblematic of the counterculture, living on a hippie commune with his followers, writing music, and dropping acid.” An op-ed in the Guardian alluded to “the widespread belief within the late 60s counterculture that he was innocent, a martyr who had been picked on by police as part of The Man’s war against the long-hairs.” On the right, the likes of Ben Shapiro and Kevin D. Williamson saw an opportunity, exaggerating and fabricating sympathies between Manson and leftist radicals and, in more than one case, Barack Obama. Articles in Vice and the New York Times compared Manson (more accurately) to the alt-right, but the prevailing interpretation is not exactly a collective misremembering. Reviewing Helter Skelter in 1975, the New Republic wrote, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Counterculture of the 1960s—which offered us beautiful music, new ways to live our lives, and the will to end the war—gave birth as well to Charles Manson.”
Hard nothing. Hardly anyone seems to want to try. But it’s not the growing leftist movement that’s rehabilitating Manson. That credit goes to the alt-right, Netflix, and Quentin Tarantino. If the ’60s counterculture was a failed attempt to take down the U.S. government, the Manson Murders were a failed attempt to accelerate its racist program. The boomers and Generation X were content, even happy, to remember the ’60s univocally as a freewheeling adventure against the Man, including Manson, but the evidence is thin.
The most enduring connections between Manson and radical leftists were drawn by Bugliosi, a prosecutor, who had no ear for hippie irony and no understanding of the culture’s contradictions. In a chapter of Helter Skelter listing assessments of Manson from the left, he offers, “The underground paper Tuesday’s Child, which called itself the voice of the Yippies, blasted its competitor the Los Angeles Free Press for giving too much publicity to Manson—then spread his picture across the entire front page with a banner naming him MAN OF THE YEAR.” The endorsement is more likely a reference to the publicity Bugliosi credits the paper with admonishing. After an anecdote about Yippie party founder Jerry Rubin visiting Manson in prison, Bugliosi admits, “Yet Charles Manson—revolutionary martyr—was a difficult image to maintain. Rubin admitted to being angered by Manson’s ‘incredible male chauvinism.’ A reporter for the Free Press was startled to find Manson both anti-Jewish and anti-Black. And when one interviewer tried to suggest that Manson was as much a political prisoner as Huey Newton, Charlie, perplexed, asked, ‘Who’s he?’”
Bugliosi’s most unfortunate contribution to this argument is this quote from Bernardine Dohrn, delivered at an SDS summit not long after the murders: “Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room, far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson.” This is the quote that no right-wing publication can seem to leave alone. But Bill Ayers, placing the quote back in the context of the speech for which he was present, refutes any ideas of its sincere support for Manson. The occasion and the subject of the speech was the recent death of Black Panther Fred Hampton, which the Weathermen assumed, not unreasonably, to be part of a racist government conspiracy curiously Mansonian in design. The comparison to Manson was meant to lament the media’s focus on the sexier story of the Tate-LaBianca murders rather than what to the Weathermen was the much greater and more politically significant crime. “This is what screams for our attention and our response,” Ayers remembers Dohrn continuing. “And what do we find in our newspapers? A sick fascination with a story that has it all: a racist psycho, a killer cult, and a chorus line of Hollywood bodies. Dig it!” It was simple sarcasm.
Dohrn’s juxtaposition of Manson and Hampton echoes in Didion’s juxtaposition in “The White Album” of Manson and the story of Black Panthers leader Huey Newton’s arrest for the murder of Oakland police officer John Frey. Both cases came about because of a deliberate police effort to target the Black Panthers. The New Republic review explains that “Helter-skelter was Charles Manson’s design for Armageddon: by committing crimes like the Tate-LaBianca murders and leaving clues to throw the blame on black power groups, Manson hoped to force a police crackdown on the blacks who would retaliate with war against the whites.” If “a police crackdown on the blacks” was the first phase of Manson’s plan for race war, then the FBI was already years ahead of him.
Any examination of the Manson murders is incomplete if it ignores the U.S. government’s concurrent efforts to attack and undermine Black-power groups via espionage and violence, efforts made public in 1971 after the FBI’s papers documenting its counterintelligence programs were stolen and leaked to the press. After hearing The White Album, Manson directed his followers to murder Sharon Tate and her friends to try to frame the Black Panthers and incite a race war. At the time, we now know, police were seeking out the Panthers as part of a coordinated COINTELPRO effort, part of its aim being to demonize the Panthers as dangerous subversives with a threatening anti-white agenda. The main difference between Manson’s murderous efforts to provoke the Panthers and the FBI’s was scope. They were engaged in the same strategy and similar tactics.
Across five COINTELPRO programs, the FBI’s goals were broad but consistent: to suppress action by radical groups. The FBI wanted to neutralize any challenge to the prevailing order, of which white supremacy was (and remains) an inextricable part. One of the five COINTELPRO programs targeted white hate groups, but its documentation suggests that these groups only posed a threat to the FBI because their vigilantism threatened to subvert the government’s authority. Coordination between the different COINTELPRO programs to incite internecine struggle was also common enough in practice that the FBI might have infiltrated groups like the KKK to incorporate them into their operations against groups like the Panthers. The FBI workshopped so many plots against the Panthers that some of them probably sounded a lot like Manson’s.
The fantasy of white genocide that animated Manson permeates the highest levels of state power in this country. Manson may have been deluded enough to believe the Beatles knew who he was and cared enough about him to write him songs, but his racism wasn’t born of unique paranoia. Growing up in America in the middle of the 20th century, he could have picked it up pretty much anywhere. As is true of all white terrorists, what set Manson apart from other agents of white supremacy was not his hatred but his belief in his own personal importance.
Mason’s contributions to both productions are very hard to follow, both because they are extremely disturbing and because they make very little sense. Mason seems to refer to a years-long relationship between his Universal Order and the Manson Family, lasting at least into the ’80s, during which time the two groups discussed plans for race-based warfare on an ongoing basis. The book and the film both reproduce an image of the Universal Order’s official logo, a set of scales with a swastika imposed over the center. The logo was designed by Manson. A few years after the release of both documents, Mason’s collected writings were published, edited by Michael Moynihan, coauthor of popular Feral House title Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, recently adapted as a major motion picture that erases its white-supremacist origins. Mason’s writings have since been rediscovered and adopted by Atomwaffen Division, the neo-Nazi terrorist group whose targeted guerilla efforts to assault and supplant the existing social order continue as of this writing.
These are Charles Manson’s friends and fans: murderous fanatics, deranged occultists, addled hipster racists, and conspiracy theorists of the QAnon variety. In a word, Nazis. They read his words and follow his lead and hide in plain sight with the government’s blessing as long as they don’t get in the way. Sure, Manson hung out with Dennis Wilson and Neil Young, but only to manipulate them. He definitely never hung out with Bernardine Dohrn. He’s not your dad’s distant friend who took too much acid and went off the deep end; he’s at once less and more familiar than that. He’s the estranged cofounder of the giant media outlet that laid you off. He runs a YouTube music-review channel you’ve been watching for years. Actually, he has a solo show opening next week at a gallery in LA. Check your calendar. You’re invited.