Alan Zendell, January 17, 2021
The summer I was seventeen, I worked for the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund at a summer camp. The Fund took hundreds of kids out of the New York City slums, and gave them a couple of weeks in the mountains, away from the poverty and crime, and in many cases, abuse they’d known all their lives. That summer taught me some valuable lessons that are as relevant today as they were in 1960.
The first lesson was about the power of charismatic leaders, and their ability to indoctrinate their followers. The victims of this brainwashing aren’t evil or stupid – they’re pretty much like the rest of us. In most cases, they’re not even aware of what’s been done to them.
Case in point: an eighteen-year-old young man named Tom from rural Alabama, a really nice kid, full of wide-eyed excitement over coming to New York. He’d lived his entire life in a community dominated by a fire-and-brimstone Baptist minister who railed about Communists, Satan worshippers, and Jews. I met Tom during orientation, at lunch with him and two others from the New York area. We listened as Tom confided that he was nervous about having left home for the land of Satan. I thought it was a pretty brave thing he had done.
He’d come to help improve the lives of poor Negro children (his words.) For him it was a dream – he’d never seen an urban ghetto. Then he confided his greatest fear. He’d been warned that he would meet Jews there. Did we know what they were like? He actually asked if Jews had horns, like his rabble-rousing minister said. By then we’d spent an hour with Tom, as sweet and innocent a young man as you’re likely to meet. The counselor who was there to orient us said, “Tom, everyone at this table except you is a Jew.” Tom’s pale complexion turned stark white. To his credit, he didn’t faint.
We all got to be good friends that summer. Tom was fortunate that all it took was working side by side with Jews, blacks, and Puerto Ricans to detoxify the hate he’d been raised with. Lesson number one: charismatic bigots are dangerous.
That was reinforced during day two, when we were taught how to deal with the kids coming from Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. They’d been raised around gangs, and our counselors knew that the first thing some of those kids would do was compete for dominance. It was amazing how quickly the gang mentality could take hold. Our first task was to identify the potential leaders and neutralize their ability to make trouble.
Unfortunately, we failed with the first group. Within three days, a very nasty twelve-year-old, unusually big and strong for his age, invisibly to us organized a gang. He had formed a lynch mob whose target was a mentally challenged six-year-old. They were going to roast him over a campfire when we intervened. It was terrifying to see how the other kids had been whipped into a frenzy so easily.
We’d stopped them in time, but now we had more than twenty kids who had been about to murder a helpless child on our hands. Jimmy, my mentor, said not to worry. They’d seen things like this before. Once the leader was neutralized, the newly formed gang always fell apart. He likened it to a snake with its head cut off.
That’s the way law enforcement is approaching the threats of violence aimed at Joe Biden’s inauguration. They’re going after the leaders of the groups that descended on Washington on January 6th. They know that members of these groups are basically drones who require strong direction from their charismatic leaders. Once the leaders are taken down, police and the FBI hope those groups will lose their motivation and stay home.
We face the same problem as a nation. The fact that Donald Trump received 74 million votes is a credit to his undeniable charismatic ability, combined with a shameless ability to lie constantly and an unscrupulous willingness to do anything required to remain in power. Trump has brought the United States to its worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War. The combination of the election and a second impeachment have beheaded the serpent that was willing to destroy the country he led, but the people who supported him are still out there.
We can hope that the headless beast has been throttled, at least until Biden is safely sworn in, but there are millions of angry people among us who have been lied to and misled. Many of them are like Tom. We must defang their leaders and find a way to reach them.
Biden says he’ll counter the lies with which they were indoctrinated with love and understanding, and I believe him. But he can’t do it alone. It’s up to all of us.
I’ve argued with a few Trump supporters, but it’s a tough job. Often, they are logic resistant and wallow in conspiracy theory. It brings to mind what Mark Train said: “Never argue with an idiot. They will bring you down to their level and beat you with their experience.” Perhaps I am being harsh, but with Trump supporters, it is all too often accurate.